US military rebuilds runway on site of ‘nightmare’ World War II battle

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A US Marine Corps aircraft has landed on a rebuilt runway on a World War II-era Japanese airfield on the Pacific island of Peleliu, site of one of the Marines’ bloodiest battles of the war and now a possible US basing option in a strategy to counter China.

The KC-130 Hercules transport aircraft touched down on the 6,000-foot runway on June 22 in what a Marine Corps press release called “a significant and triumphant return to this iconic World War II site.”

Marine engineers had been working on rebuilding the runway for months, clearing brush, removing trees and ensuring no unexploded ordnance remained from the World War II battle on the island, which is part of the island country of Palau.

More than 1,500 US troops and nearly 11,000 Japanese were killed on Peleliu between August and November of 1944, according to the US Naval History and Heritage Command, which noted that some Japanese troops hid in the island’s jungle and weren’t found until two years after World War II ended.

One US unit, the 1st Marine Regiment, suffered 70% casualties in six days of fighting on the island.

The Marines named the rebuilt landing strip the “Sledge” runway in honor of a veteran of the Peleliu battle, Pfc. Eugene Sledge, a mortarman on the island who wrote about it in a memoir “With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa,” and whose memories were portrayed in the HBO miniseries “The Pacific.”

Sledge described Peleliu as “an alien, unearthly, surrealistic nightmare like the surface of another planet.”

Now the runway “bridges the past and the future, honoring WWII sacrifices while enhancing regional security and cooperation,” the Marine Corps release said.

That regional security has been largely focused on China in recent years, which the Pentagon identifies as its “pacing threat.”

Part of mitigating the threat has been building facilities where the US could disperse assets like aircraft in the event of hostilities, including in the so-called Second Island Chain, locations far enough away from the Chinese mainland that Beijing would have difficulty striking targets there.

The First Island Chain, in such places as Okinawa in Japan, and US bases in the Philippines, “is neither a survivable nor viable operating location due to Chinese military capabilities in long-range bombers, cruise missiles, and theater ballistic missiles,” US Air Force Lt. Col. Grant Georgulis wrote in a 2022 commentary posted on the US Defense Department website.

“Thus, the United States should prioritize Midway Island, the Marianas, Palau, and the Marshall Islands to complement an already fortified Guam,” Georgulis wrote.

China has been deeply critical of Washington’s alliance-building efforts in the Pacific, viewing them as an attempt to halt Beijing’s rise as a military and economic superpower.

Beijing has long felt boxed in by the US presence in the First and Second Island Chains and under leader Xi Jinping has become much more assertive in regional waters and confrontational with neighbors such as Japan and the Philippines.

It has also sought to boost its own diplomatic and security ties across the Pacific region.

“In a bid to protect its hegemony, the United States is forming blocs globally to target specific countries, provoke confrontation and destabilize the world,” China’s state-run Xinhua news agency wrote in a recent editorial.

“It claims to protect its allies under mutual defense treaties, but in reality, the treaties serve as a tool to subordinate them to the superpower and push them to the forefront of conflicts.”

Reviving airfield used by US atomic bombers

Meanwhile, on Yap island in the Federated States of Micronesia, midway between Guam and Palau, the US Air Force in its 2025 budget requested $400 million to extend the runway at the island’s international airport – also a former Japanese military airfield – so it can be used by US military aircraft.

The US is already performing work on other locations in the Second Island Chain, including reviving North Field on Tinian island in the Northern Marianas, from where the US bombers that dropped the atomic bombs departed in August 1945.

“The United States must focus like a laser on the need for air superiority in the Pacific region. The United States must recapitalize islands gained during World War II to form a Second Island Chain of strategic expeditionary points,” Georgulis wrote.

For Washington, establishing strong ties to Pacific island states is also seen as a way to keep China from gaining footholds in the region. The Biden administration has signed a bilateral defense agreement with Papua New Guinea and reopened an embassy in the Solomon Islands since the beginning of 2023.

Palau is a remote archipelago of coral and volcanic islands in the western Pacific and home to about 20,000 people.

Since 1994, Palau has been covered by a compact of free association with the United States, making Washington responsible for its defense needs and allowing Palauans to serve in the US military.

Palau last year signed a bilateral law enforcement agreement with Washington that will let the US Coast Guard enforce its laws in its exclusive economic zone without a Palau officer present.

US Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro visited Palau’s capital of Koror in March as part of a Pacific trip that included stops at two key US allies, Japan and South Korea, during which he said Washington’s partnership with the island state “directly supports a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

“I can assure you that the United States remains committed to Palau’s national security,” Del Toro said during a trip that also included a visit to the Peleliu island runway work.

Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. has been critical of China’s increasingly assertive moves in the region, including toward Taiwan. Palau is one of the few remaining countries to diplomatically recognize Taiwan over Beijing.

Along with the runway, US Marines are helping make improvements to the Peleliu Civic Center Museum, to house artifacts from the World War II battle.

At an event last month marking the landing of the Marine aircraft on Peleliu, island Gov. Emais Roberts thanked the US Defense Department for its efforts there.

“Our small island community has benefitted immensely with the US Marine presence. We value the great partnership, and we feel safe and protected with the support of the greatest country in this world.”

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