The Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Company of Chester, Pennsylvania launched the Island Mail in 1941. Built to carry 499 passengers, it transported 1,800 men across the western Pacific in August 1944.
The Marines disembarked at Saipan to assist Americans already fighting there.
The sailors proceeded to Peleliu, a tiny coral island, six miles square, located approximately 500 hundred miles east of the Philippines. American commanders wanted to procure the Japanese airstrip so McArthur’s fleet could recapture the Philippines and then move further north toward the Japanese archipelago.
David Anderson of Champaign was one of the sailors who landed on Peleliu in late October 1944. He was eighteen, and this was his first military campaign.
The ocean crossing had been tough for everyone on board the Island Mail.
It was too hot to sleep in bunks stacked four high in the belly of the transport. So enlisted men slept on deck. They washed with salt water and salt water soap. They drank fresh water from a fountain, and there was always a line in front of it. A guard made sure no one took more than his fair share.
Food was rationed, too. Men ate only breakfast and supper, and perhaps an orange or an apple for lunch. They grew thin.
The heat was stifling. Sailors cut military-issued pants into shorts, and most wore no shirts. They carved high-topped boots into sandals and sported “baseball” caps. Minimal clothing meant cooler bodies.
The sailors spent two months at sea. Lonely months. No letters from home. No letters going home. No newspapers. No radio transmissions. Anderson remembers leaning on a rail watching the flying fish and the waves. On other occasions, he played cards with the guys and they’d tell stories about what they had done before the war and what they would do after it.
The sailors had no idea where they were heading. They knew nothing about their mission. The commanders of the Island Mail did not talk about the carnage already taking place on Peleliu.
September 15, 1944 marked the beginning of ground combat.
Prior to that time, American planes had bombed the island for ten consecutive days. Naval vessels also fired upon it. When Marines landed on shore, approximately 11,000 Japanese soldiers shot at them from obscure mountainside positions.
The Japanese were well prepared for the ensuing battle. Approximately 500 natural and man-made caves within Umurbrogol Mountain stored artillery, heavy mortars, and 22mm rockets. Man-made tunnels linked these caves. A miniature railroad moved men and weapons from cave to cave and from level to level. Japanese soldiers lived within this honeycomb.
Steel doors protected each exterior cave opening. Americans could not blast through these or the thick coral mountainside.
So Marines detonated smoke bombs for cover and, as steel doors opened or closed, they used grenades and flame throwers to knock out the weapons and men inside the tunnels.
When Anderson landed on Peleliu in late October 1944, most of the fierce fighting was over.
Anderson climbed down the rope ladder of The Island Mail with only four items: a back pack (containing underwear, a razor, and a tooth brush), a rifle, a gas mask, and a steel helmet. Government-issued clothing was in a duffle bag below deck, and it would be brought on shore later.
Devastation was everywhere. Anderson saw eviscerated amphibious landing craft, twisted barbed wire fences, and shattered Japanese pill boxes. Dense jungle foliage had been destroyed by napalm, making cave entrances easier to spot.
By late October, Quonset huts had been constructed for US sailors, Seabees, and ranking military officers. Each group lived in separate camps with identical facilities.
Quonset huts were made of corrugated metal with a semi-circular midsection. Windows were few. Ten to fifteen sailors slept in each hut. Separate Quonsets provided space for reading, religious services, and movies.
The mess hall was a standard wooden building. Spam and powdered eggs were always on the menu. Turkey was provided for special occasions, like Thanksgiving Day and Christmas. Otherwise, fresh meat was unavailable because it required refrigeration and there was little of that on the island. Powdered milk was always available. So were “hot weather bars” which didn’t melt but which didn’t taste much like chocolate, either.
Anderson’s job was to keep military records and to work in the chaplain’s office. He also recorded testimony at military trials including one involving murder.
The Battle of Pelelui finally ended on November 24, 1944. The US Naval Institute called it one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific. By the end of the war, 2,336 Americans had been killed and 8,245 wounded (1). The Japanese lost 10,695 men and 202 had been captured (2). A battle that was to last only three days, according to Major General William Rupertus, continued for seventy-three.
Anderson remained on Peleliu for nineteen months.
After the war was over, a point system determined who went home first because there weren’t enough ships to remove all military personnel at once. Married men were given priority, and then men who had served the longest.
When Anderson arrived home, he spent one month on leave, was then assigned to the Naval Armory off Lake Michigan, and finally discharged at the Great Lakes Naval Training Base on May 30, 1946.
Anderson’s transition to civilian life was relatively easy. He attended Shurtleff College in Alton, Illinois between 1946 and 1950 where he studied accounting and economics under the GI Bill. In 1950 he worked for the Illinois Central Railroad in the freight house where, among other clerical duties, he wrote bills for the daily rental of train cars. He then became Train Master’s Clerk, interviewing applicants for brakemen and coordinating work schedules for station managers all along the Illinois Central Railroad, Champaign Division.
One June 2, 1952, Anderson joined the Colwell Publishing Company. Dr. Colwell, a prominent Champaign physician, had developed a new system for accessing patient accounts. Anderson was the eighth employee hired in a company that would grow to over 600. Colwell’s building was originally located at 115 W. University Avenue which is now the site of Christie Clinic’s parking lot. In 1985, DeLuxe Check Printers bought the company, and Anderson retired on August 31, 1987.
During this time, Anderson co-owned a gift shop in Market Place Mall for eleven years.
Now, at the age of ninety-one, Anderson volunteers at the Empty Tomb which provides basic items for individuals with few or no resources. For ten years he worked for the Senior Health Insurance Program (SHIP) which helps senior citizens manage Medicare paperwork. He currently serves as docent at the Champaign County History Museum most Sundays from 1:00 to 5:00 o’clock.
We at the Champaign County History Museum thank David Anderson for his military and volunteer service. He is a brave, patriotic, and compassionate man. We treasure him and his stories.
The Stamford Historical Society: Peleliu. Retrieved 24 September 2017.
The Stamford Historicl Society: Peleliu. Retrieved 24 September 2017.