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Eric Mailander
Peleliu Explorations

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Eric Mailander
with a BAR found near
Bloody Nose Ridge

Tell a little about yourself, and your background
I am 36 years old and originally from Massachusetts (although I was born in a navy hospital in Japan). Just an interesting tidbit regarding my birthplace. There is a well-know picture of Yokusuka Naval Base taken by one of Doolittle's low-flying bombers during the air raid on Japan in 1942. The shot shows some buildings and part of the engine of the B-25. It's a neat picture and shows the hospital I was born in 23 years later! My father was a navy officer and I don't remember anything about Japan.
We moved to the East Coast when I was about a year old and then my family moved to California when I was about four years old. Now I live in the Bay Area (Campbell, California which is an hour south of San Francisco) where I work as a paramedic. I also work in an Emergency Room at a local hospital. I have always been in the medical field and I guess if I had participated in the Peleliu battle I would have been a corpsman.

 

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Yokusuka Naval Base

What got you interested in WWII Pacific?
I have always held an interest in WWII history, particularly the war in the Pacific. My father passed that interest on to me. I also love the ocean and learned to SCUBA dive when I was 11 years old. Shortly after certification, my father took us on a diving trip to Truk Lagoon, Guam, and Saipan (best of both worlds...diving and WWII history!). I immediately fell in love with the islands and the WWII history they held. I started researching the lost wrecks of Truk Lagoon which lead me to other battlesites and ocean graveyards like Palau. A few years later, in early 1981, my father took us diving in Palau and it was in between dives that our guide toured us around Peleliu. I was hooked on the history of that island and have been researching the battle ever since.

Speak about your research and travels to Peleliu
In 1994 I had the honor and privilege to accompany many Peleliu veterans back to the island for the 50th anniversary reunion. That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I had the opportunity to meet Maj. Everett Pope, Gen. Ray Davis, and Lt. Ei Yamaguchi, the well-known Japanese holdout who did not surrender until 1947. Since then, I have returned to the island many times, including the 55 year anniversary return with other Peleliu vets. I have also visited Iwo Jima, Tinian, Saipan and Guam. Peleliu is far the best place to see WWII artifacts and probably one of the few battlefields still intact.

My main goals exploring Peleliu was to conduct an extensive battle survey of the sites and photograph and document them. I wanted to find the legendary Japanese gun on railroad tracks that was supposedly mounted in a cave behind steel doors that was reported by so battle accounts and veterans. I debunked that myth but found almost all of Col. Nakagawa's artillery emplacements, most with the guns still intact.

I discovered the Japanese heavy machine gun in 1996. It was found near a position that covered the western approaches to Col. Nakagawa's last CP cave near Death Valley. I was tipped off by the presence of several spent shell casings, nambu clips and the gun's carrying handles. A short time later I found the machine gun almost completely buried in coral ruble and it took about an hour of hard digging to extract it. Today it rests in the Peleliu Musuem. Nearby we also found a completely intact BAR, helmets, and Japanese rifles and grenades - indications of the heavy fighting that occurred in the area during the battle.

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Japanese Type 92 machine gun found in coral badlands

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USMC satchel charge TNT

Mention some of your discoveries and surveys
Other exciting discoveries included a M4 Sherman tank that was destroyed by a mine during the battle. After extensive research, I was able to track the history behind that tank and locate the only survivor. The former tank commander accompanied me back to Peleliu in 1999 and visited the tank site. Now the complete story can be told. Today a plaque is mounted near the site honoring the six crewmembers killed in the tank. I was also able to locate the former driver of an armored amphib tank that we found in the jungle in 1990. Researching the history behind that tank took even longer but I was assisted with archival photos of the tank after it was destroyed and matching the name which is still intact on the turret!

In 1996 a dog tag of a Marine was found on White Beach and I was able to track the unit the Marine served in and trace his history. Turns out he was a platoon sergeant in Capt. Everett Pope's C Company and was horribly wounded on the beach by machine gun fire during the invasion. Although he survived the battle, the Marine passed away a few years ago but I was able to find the son. Now efforts are being made to have the dog tag returned to the son.

During the 55 year reunion of the battle for Peleliu, my research team found the famous "Sledge Pillbox" on Ngesebus Island. The pillbox, vividly described in Gene Sledge's book "With the Old Breed", eluded discovery on two previous trips to the island. After further interviews with former Marines who were involved with its capture during the battle, I pinpointed its location and found it covered in dense jungle vines after a very brief search. Incredibly, Henry Sledge, Gene Sledge's son, was with me during the discovery!

Discovery of Japanese Remains
Perhaps my most exciting discovery was finding the remains of several Japanese soldiers inside a gun cave. The entrance was very concealed and only by chance did I find it. A 70mm Bn. gun was inside although completely blown-up. In 1999 a team of Japanese, lead by Mrs. Iwanami Tojo (Gen. Hideki Tojo's grand daughter) visited the cave with us and had a small ceremony honoring the deceased soldiers. A very moving experience!

What was it like to meet Lt. Ei Yamaguchi in 1994
Speaking of Japanese, in 1994, during the 50th anniversary return to the island, several Marine veterans asked me to take them to Lt. Yamaguchi's last hideout cave located near the beach. Today a sign is posted near a road about 100 meters or so from his cave. We started trudging through the mangrove swamps and soon found it.

I crawled inside and noticed U.S. gear and supplies scattered inside! I figured the Japanese stole the supplies after the battle. Just as I popped my head out of the cave to was show the vets a U.S. hand grenade that I had found, an entourage of people appeared out of nowhere. It was NBC Dateline camera crews filming Lt. Yamaguchi returning to his hideout along with a few other Japanese vets! Our timing was incredible! One of the camera men asked me to exit the cave so that he could film Yamaguchi's return inside. Without hesitation, I crawled out and photographed the once-in-a-lifetime event. This did not go well with my veteran friends who told me to throw the hand grenade that I was clutching back into the hole after Yamaguchi crawled in! Somehow I don't think that would have went well for U.S. and Japanese relationships! It's interesting how some of the American vets still harbor hatred for the Japanese.

I did talk with Yamaguchi via an interpreter while on Peleliu. Last year Col. Joe Alexander and I interviewed him via a professional translator and had his diary translated. In addition, I have accumulated some great archival photos taken during Yamaguchi's surrender to the Island Command in 1947.

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Japanese skeleton (one of five) found in a cave, the helmet and shoes are still intact.

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Ei Yamaguchi on Peleliu 1994

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Yamaguchi returning
to his cave in 1994

What were the highlights of your 1996 trip to Peleliu?
I returned to Peleliu in 1996 with Ed Sturgeon. Ed was a former Marine who had a very colorful and interesting military career. He served on Wake during the Japanese invasion and was captured. He was shipped off to Japan and later did slave labor in China then shipped back to Japan. He was beaten, starved and tortured but survived captivity. When he was liberated in 1945 he weighed only 85 lbs (from 160lbs). Ed reinlisted in the Marines in 1946 and put in charge of a special contingent of Marines sent to Peleliu to track down Yamaguchi and his holdouts. Despite all their efforts, Yamaguchi eluded capture and a Japanese Admiral was sent out from Guam to try and convince the holdouts to surrender. Ed lead him around and they used a bullhorn around the island.

Ed told me that they always had a suspicion of Yamaguchi whereabouts; near the West Road along the beach. One night they set up an ambush and caught a group of holdouts crossing the road in the dark. Ed and his men fired on them but no hits. That was the closest they ever came to Yamaguchi or his men. The stories Ed related were incredible! He told me that he searched almost every cave and crevice on Peleliu looking for him! There is a picture showing Yamaguchi surrendering, as mentioned, his men to the Island Command with Ed Sturgeon shown in the background.

During the 1996 trip, a group of some 60 Marines came to visit Peleliu. I was assigned by the Governor to assist them with their battle survey and lead them through the ridges and caves. One night Ed related his experiences to the group while they were camped along the invasion beach. It was so quiet and eerie that night and neat hearing him reminisce. Every young Marine was so attentive you could hear a pin drop! An amazing night and unforgettable experience!!

Ed died a year later and I have been saddened ever since. He was a great friend and I will always cherish his memories and stories. He was very funny and had vivid memories of Peleliu and Yamaguchi. I wish the two could have met in 1994. If you want more information on Ed and his exploits let me know. He was featured in a book about the battle for Wake published a few years ago.


Any future projects and travel upcoming?
I was working on publishing a book about the battle with noted Military Historian Col. Joseph Alexander but other commitments have delayed the book project. I hope to get my exploits of discovery on Peleliu published sometime soon and look forward to my next visit to Palau.

Thank you for the interview, Mr. Mailander

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