By Kristina Houck
The United States Marines, including Pfc. Robert Noel Marsden, landed on the island of Peleliu during World War II almost seven decades ago. Sept. 15, 2014 will mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Peleliu.
Marsden’s son, John Marsden of Rancho Penasquitos, along with his friend, Jonathan Rudin of Carmel Valley, will travel to the island in September to commemorate the battle, which had among the highest casualty rates in the Pacific war.
“I would love to have just an hour to talk to him about it and ask questions, but I’m never going to be able to do that,” said Marsden, whose father died at the age of 69 in 1991. “We’re going to be there 70 years after the battle. It’s kind of a cathartic experience for me.”
Codenamed Operation Stalemate II, the Battle of Peleliu was fought between the U.S. and Japan from Sept. 15 to Nov. 27, 1944 on the island of Peleliu in present day Palau. Although it is considered an American victory, military records indicate that 1,252 Marines were killed and 5,274 wounded, and that 542 Army soldiers were killed and 2,736 wounded. Japanese deaths totaled more than 10,600.
So they could learn more about his service, Marsden’s older brother requested their father’s military records after their father died. Using the records, Marsden began to learn more about the Battle of Peleliu and trace his father’s footsteps.
“My dad never talked about the war,” said Marsden, whose father served in K Company of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. “I knew he was in the war, but that was about all I knew. I only knew bits and pieces.”
As his research unveiled a part of his father he never knew, Marsden said he has grown closer to his dad.
“I didn’t have a real close relationship with my father. He was older when he had me and he already had four kids before me,” said Marsden, the fifth of six children. “I didn’t spend a lot of time with him, so I spent a lot of time with my mother. She defined who he was. It’s been a redefinition of who he is. In that, I’ve been able to redefine who I am.”
Marsden has considered visiting Peleliu for the past two years. After sharing his idea at a local ManKind Project support group, Rudin volunteered to join him on his journey.
“I’m not too impulsive, but I just said, ‘I’ll go,’” Rudin said. “I want to accompany John and be supportive of his process.”
Marsden and Rudin will leave for their 16-day trip on Sept. 22. They plan to camp on the beach for a couple of days, and go kayaking and scuba diving. Other than that, they are not drawing up an itinerary.
“What I’ve been working on doing is not putting too much expectation into it,” said Marsden, who noted he plans to do something special to honor his father. “It’s more about the experience. What happens will happen.”
The two have known each other for almost three years. While preparing for the trip, they’ve learned they have a lot in common. Both are currently health and safety instructors who have served in the military.
Born in Michigan, Marsden, 48, spent six years in the U.S. Navy as a nuclear mechanic on submarines. A Virginia native, Rudin served in the Israeli Army for a year and a half. He will celebrate his 60th birthday during the trip to Peleliu.
Having both served in the military, the pair looks forward to paying their respects to those who served in WWII.
“Here are people, before their brains are fully developed, who rose up to the call of duty,” said Rudin as he gestured toward a framed photo of K Company. “They went and they served their country under horrific circumstances for reasons that defy logic, because this was not a real strategic goal. It was more of an ego-driven goal to take this island.”
The Battle of Peleliu was a controversial battle because of the island’s questionable strategic value and the high casualty rate.
“This battle was as fierce as Iwo Jima, but nearly never talked about,” Marsden added. “Right after they invaded, [Gen. Douglas] MacArthur invaded the Philippines, so MacArthur took all the headlines.”
Eight Marines received the Medal of Honor for their service during the Battle of Peleliu — five were decorated posthumously.
“War is hell. It’s connected with real people,” Rudin said. “Here, 70 years after that happened, there’s still healing. There’s still processing. That’s a long time, and there’s still unfinished chapters and ramifications to this day.”
Marsden recently discovered that his grandfather, who died before he was born, served in World War I. After he returns from his trip to Peleliu, he plans to research his grandfather’s military history.
“What happened in those trenches in France that affected my dad, and what happened on this island that affected me?” Marsden asked. “That war didn’t end in 1945. That war still goes on today. It’s fought in the battles of kids and grandkids and great-grandkids. These battles never end.”
“Maybe the shooting ends — ” Rudin added.
“ — but the healing keeps going on forever,” said Marsden, who wears his father’s military tags around his neck.