On this day in 1944, a United States Marine participates in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. Captain Everett Pope was one of many Marines fighting in the Battle of Peleliu, a hard-fought battle during World War II. Americans expected to take the island of Peleliu from the Japanese in a few days. Instead, the effort lasted for two months.
The battle was “the bitterest battle of the war for the Marines,” according to the National Museum of the Marine Corps. The Japanese used an intricate series of caves to defend their island, and the casualty rates among our Marines were much too high. Adding insult to injury, the island is not far from the equator, and it was excruciatingly hot.
“Everything about Peleliu left a bad taste in your mouth,” Colonel Merwin H. Silverthorn (USMC) concluded.
Nevertheless, Captain Pope landed on the island on September 15. “I landed with a rifle company of about 235 men,” he later said. “By the time, four days later, we got to the foot of that hill, there were about 90 of us left.”
Pope’s company had been ordered to assault a steep hill, despite the fact that they faced horrible odds. Worse, they became disorganized and confused after a confrontation with enemy cannon fire. Pope rallied the men, reorganized them and led them to the summit of the hill. “We knew we had to get to the top,” he later said, “and we did.”
Once he got there, he realized he was in a bit of a predicament. The Marines had made it to the summit of the hill that they were climbing, but they discovered that the summit was really more of a plateau. The Japanese still held another high position nearby and could fire down upon the badly outnumbered Americans.
It was Pope’s job to figure out how to hold this tenuous position all night long.
The night was indescribable. The number of Marines was dwindling. Their ammunition was running out. At one point, they alternated throwing grenades and rocks. They were running out of grenades, but hoped to at least keep the enemy guessing as to which one they were throwing. At another point, the Marines were simply throwing ammunition boxes, fighting in hand-to-hand combat, or even throwing the enemy off cliffs.
“It sort of turned into a brawl,” Pope concluded.
Marines reduced to fist-fighting and rock-throwing atop a hill on a remote island in the Pacific. But they did it, and Pope was the one leading the effort.
The Americans were finally ordered to withdraw. When they left, only 8 of the original 90 Americans were still alive to retreat down the hill. It would be nearly two weeks before the Marines could return to find and bury their dead.
Pope would receive a Medal of Honor in recognition of his leadership and bravery on that terrible night.
“[H]alf the Japanese army [was] shooting at you from three different sides,” he later said. “Of course you were scared, but your responsibility is to do what you’ve been trained to do, which is to lead Marines in action. It doesn’t matter whether you’re scared or not. It’s your ability to do your duty, even though you may be afraid. . . . That’s what I hope that I did. . . . I was not a hero, but I was among heroes.”
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (3d ed. 2011)
Medal of Honor: Oral Histories (Everett Pope, WWII)
Medal of Honor citation (Everett Pope, 6-15-1945)