COLUMBIA, S.C. – After a certain point in the Second World War, the Japanese changed tactics. No more would they try to stop the Marines on the beach, with one reckless banzai charge after another. They moved inland and dug in, and made the Americans pay in blood for every inch of ground.
That’s when the U.S. Army’s 81st Infantry Division got into the fight, and had to come up with new ways to fight a suicidally intractable enemy.
On Friday, Feb. 22, at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, Allen Skinner – the command historian of the 81st from Fort Jackson – will deliver a free noon lecture about the division’s role in World War II, as part of the Columbia museum’s Lunch and Learn series. The program is open to the public.
Skinner says too few people know much about the Army’s role in the Pacific during the war. “When you hear a lot of people tell it, you’d think the Marines did it all by themselves,” he says – and that was far from the case. The experience of the 81st is a good example.
The division was formed at Camp Jackson – now Fort Jackson – in 1917 as a National Army division. It was made up of enlisted draftees from the Carolinas led by Reserve officers. It went off from South Carolina to fight in France, and was then deactivated after the war. It became a skeletonized reserve division based in Knoxville.
Then came the next war, and in 1942, the division reactivated at Camp Rucker in Alabama before being deployed to the Pacific.
The unit experienced its first combat on Angaur in the Palau Islands in September 1944. They took it from the Japanese, but experienced significant casualties doing so. By the end of October, they had moved to nearby Peleliu first to reinforce, then to take over from the Marines.
The 1st Marine Division had landed there first, and “gotten the stuffing beat out of them,” says Skinner. The leathernecks had not been prepared for the Japanese troops’ new way of fighting. No more would the enemy fight in the open. This is where the Marines first encountered what they would later famously find at Iwo Jima and Okinawa – an unseen enemy hunkered down in bunkers and caves, firing from excellent cover.
The soldiers of the 81st were better prepared for methodically taking prepared fortifications. Still, they had to improvise a lot. For instance, the coral island afforded little cover to attackers; they couldn’t even dig foxholes. So they came up with a system of filling sandbags on the beach and transporting them forward to build ramparts – then moving these improvised walls forward as they advanced.
Skinner will tell about all that and more in his lecture on Feb. 22 – including the controversy after the battle among senior U.S. commanders regarding whether Peleliu had even been worth the cost.
Skinner is a retired Army major with 25 years of service, including deployments in support of Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. He received his master’s degree in military history from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. His published works include The Transformation of the German Reichsheer, 11 oral history interviews published via the BiblioGov program, various chapters and articles, and regular book reviews in the Army History bulletin.
About the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum
Founded in 1896, the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum is an accredited museum focusing on South Carolina’s distinguished martial tradition through the Revolutionary War, Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, Vietnam, the War on Terror, and other American conflicts. It serves as the state’s military history museum by collecting, preserving, and exhibiting South Carolina’s military heritage from the colonial era to the present, and by providing superior educational experiences and programming. It is located at 301 Gervais St. in Columbia, sharing the Columbia Mills building with the State Museum. For more information, go to https://crr.sc.gov/.
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