Return to Peleliu: Local men visit WWII battle site

Just days after the 70th anniversary of U.S. forces landing on the Pacific Ocean island of Peleliu, two local residents marked the occasion by visiting the island.

The U.S. Marines, including Pfc. Robert Noel Marsden, landed on Peleliu during World War II. Sept. 15, 2014 marked the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Peleliu, where Japanese and U.S. troops fought a bloody battle for about two months.

Marsden’s son, John Marsden of Rancho Penasquitos, along with his friend, Jonathan Rudin of Carmel Valley, traveled to the island late September to commemorate the battle, which had among the highest casualty rates in the Pacific war.

“Going there 70 years after the battle was kind of a cathartic experience for me,” said Marsden, whose father died at age 69 in 1991.

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. About 10,000 Japanese, including reinforcements, died in the battle, while about 1,600 U.S. troops were killed.

Marsden’s father served in K Company of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. His father never talked about the war.

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 to trace his father’s footsteps.

As his research unveiled a part of his father he never knew, Marsden wanted to experience Peleliu firsthand and considered doing so 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 wanted to be supportive,” Rudin said. “I care about John a lot and knew this would be an emotional time for him.”

The two have known each other for more than three years. While preparing for the trip, they learned they have much in common: Both are health and safety instructors who served in the military.

Born in Michigan, Marsden, 49, 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 celebrated his 60th birthday on Oct. 6 during the trip.

Although the pair originally planned to stay at the Dolphin Bay Resort, after booking the wrong resort, they decided to camp on the island instead. Marsden and Rudin left for their trip in late September. They spent the first few days in Koror, the main commercial center of the Republic of Palau.

After a few days of scuba diving and sightseeing, Marsden and Rudin took a three-hour-plus ferry ride to Peleliu, one of the 16 states of Palau.

And finally, Marsden landed where his father had 70 years ago.

“We were sitting there talking, and then I looked to the north, down the beach, and I saw a rainbow,” Marsden recalled. “I just started crying. Right now, it still chokes me up. I just thought it was a message.”

During the pair’s seven days and six nights on Peleliu, they rented bicycles and toured the 5-square-mile island. They also toured natural and artificial caves, which Japanese troops had used as bases.

“We really wanted an extended period of time on the island of Peleliu to just immerse ourselves in it, find out what we would see,” Marsden said.

On one of their last days on Peleliu, the pair paid their respects to their fathers and to those who served in WWII.

From a postcard of his dad’s hometown, to small gifts from friends and family, Marsden brought a number of mementos on the trip, several of which he buried on the beach in his father’s honor.

After camping on Peleliu, they kayaked the Rock Islands of Palau and visited Jellyfish Lake.

“I couldn’t have picked a better guy to go with me,” said Marsden, as he smiled at Rudin. “He forced me to slow down. I went from fifth gear to first gear and was in first gear most of the time.”

Although Marsden set out on his journey to get to know his father better, he learned even more by immersing himself in the local culture.

“It was great to just connect with people,” he said. “Talking to people, connecting with them and spending time with them — that was the beauty of it.”

During their trip, the pair met Gowwin, a native of Peleliu and a hotel owner. He gave Marsden and Rudin a tour of the caves. They recalled seeing rusted helmets, grenades and rifles strewn across the island.

“Gowwin grew up on the island, so he played in those caves and knew the island like the back of his hand,” Marsden said. “He talked about playing with swords when he was a kid, and rifles and hand grenades — ”

“— and having their own fireworks show based on the explosives that they extracted from leftover ammunition,” Rudin added.

It was Gowwin, caretaker Lorraine and tour guide Ken who made Marsden and Rudin want to talk about their trip and the people they met.

The Battle of Peleliu became controversial because of the island’s questionable strategic value and the high casualty rate. It is relatively unknown, compared with other WWII Pacific operations, such as Iwo Jima and Okinawa, Rudin said. Yet just like those battles, the aftermath affected generations — on and off the island.

“People hear about Iwo Jima; they hear about Okinawa. They know them to be horrific battles,” Rudin said. “This was a horrific battle. I want people to know there are other battles that rank up there with Iwo Jima and Okinawa.”

“And to really tell the story of what happened there, you have to tell the story of the people afterwards,” Marsden said. “We know what happened to the Japanese soldiers; most of them died. We kind of know what happened to the American soldiers; some of them died. But we don’t know what happened to the people who were on that island. That story’s not told.”