Peleliu in the Palau Islands (Western Carolines) became a bastion of Japan's last defense line after the fall of Saipan and the Marianas in July 1944. And yet it is among the most tragic and unnecessary battles in US history. The airfield on Peleliu guarded Allied approaches to Japan's oil supply in the Dutch East Indies and Mindanao, the most likely target of a US reconquest of the Philippines, but it became irrelevant and bypassable when the US Navy decided to bypass Mindanao and aim directly at Luzon in July 1944. Nevertheless the Marines landed on September 15, 1944, and were lured into a 2-month battle that killed and wounded 13,000 US servicemen.
The Marines landed here on 9/15/44 and took brutal casualties, 70% in some units. I rank it among the most tragic and ill-conceived battles in history - fought for an island that wasn't needed and contributed nothing to final victory.
This is the view the Marines had chugging into the beaches. Peleliu, part of the Palaus (Carolines) became an irrelevant battle once the Navy decided to bypass Mindanao and hit Leyte and Luzon instead.
The Japanese learned the lessons of their previous battles, where they'd tried to stop the Marines at the water's edge and been annihilated by naval and air bombardment. Peleliu was their first successful use of defense in depth, luring the Americans deep into the island and forcing them to fight for its 600+ caves.
Nobody visits Peleliu, and so you find stuff scattered around, like this Japanese helmet.
This M4 Sherman was destroyed by a massive mine as it went out to shoot up Japanese caves and rescue a downed air crew.
Unexploded ordnance remains a massive problem on Peleliu. I climbed up to a cave and nearly stepped on this live Japanese grenade.
A crashed Mitsubishi Zero fighter, reclaimed by the jungle.
In one of the hundreds of caves we found this BAR, evidence of the close-in combat.
The Japanese connected their cave complexes with tunnels. Here I explore (with the Nat Geo film crew) "Caisson Cave." We are looking at it for an episode of Nazi Megastructures: America's War.
74 years later, this badly shot-up U.S. Landing Vehicle Tracked just sits here.
Marines and GIs called the ground below me "Death Valley." The Japanese raked it with fire. this was Japan's last defense line after the fall of Saipan.
Only America could have waged war in the Pacific, across this vast ocean space, and won. The Japanese gamble at Pearl Harbor was based on their assumption that the U.S. wouldn't rise to the challenge.
Downfall -- the invasion of Japan -- was two ops, Olympic for Kyushu and Coronet for Honshu, via the landing beaches of Tokyo Bay shown here. Had Japan not surrendered in 8/45, the US would have hit these beaches in 3/46.
Tokyo Bay, with its concentration of population, roads, rails, and industry was the beating heart of Japan. This machine gun bunker in Futtsu is just one of many still standing guard behind the beaches.
The US invasion of Tokyo Bay would have been twice as big as D-Day in Normandy. 12 divisions landed there; 25 were planned here. We are filming for Nat Geo's Nazi Megastructures: America's War.
We were lucky to get access - 7 miles of tunnels dug into the mountains of Nagano to house the emperor, the millitary commands, and the government in the event of a US and Soviet invasion of the Home Islands.
7,000 Koreans were forced to dig these tunnels in appalling conditions. Every Japanese subject was ordered to fight. The Americans estimated that they'd lose 2 million men in an invasion of Japan.
You'd never know there was a tunnel complex just behind these graves. It was brilliantly concealed, and placed in faraway Nagano to deceive the Allies.
In 5/44, Allied bombing destroyed the entire German oil industry. The Nazis then built whole refineries underground, like this one under the Jakobsberg near Minden.
What a great crew -- Billy, Luke, and Sid, nicknamed "Lazy Company," but anything but. Look for us on Nat Geo's Nazi Megastructures.
The Nazi refinery, code-named Badger 1, was built with slave labor from the death camps in just 8 months. Thousands were worked to death in horrid conditions of extreme cold, pain, and hunger. This pic gives a sense of the awesome scale of the place.
My first book was a detailed study of the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 in which Prussia, guided by Bismarck and Moltke, defeated the Austrian army on this very spot, forcing the dissolution of the Austrian-led German Confederation and its conversion into a Prussian-run state that would become the German Empire after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. The battlefield is little changed, you can stand where the Austrian and Prussian commanders stood and feel the battle unfold.
2016 was the 150th Anniversary of the climactic Battle of Koeniggraetz and the city fathers of Hradec Kralove held an outstanding international conference to reconsider the impacts of the war on history and Europe. Having written my dissertation on the war and first visited Hradec Kralove under Communism, this return was a gratifying experience.
A reenactment accompanied the conference; here the two commanders or Feldherren -- Benedek and Moltke -- brief the local press on the pending battle.
The last-minute cavalry battle was a feature of the reenactment but a mere footnote in the battle.
The battle unfolded in the fields north of the fortress with its stately Baroque core.
Thanks to Jiri Hutecka, who organized this great and memorable conference.
In Chapter 9 of my book Sons of Freedom I call this "one of the more affecting American memorials in France." In these fields careless American officers launched storm attacks against entrenched German machine guns. Depicted are men of the Alabama National Guard, whose two battalions lost 825 killed and wounded in the fight. Ultimately the Doughboys saved Paris and the faltering Allies in June-July 1918.
In the Chemin des Dames you can descend into the limestone quarries and visit the old positions of the Germans -- where they shattered the Nivelle Offensive in 1917 and provoked the French army mutinies. After the Germans withdrew, the newly arrived Americans occupied the quarries. It is fascinating to read their graffiti today, like this one: "Bob Jones, Company K, 102nd Infantry, Thompsonville, Connecticut, March 1, 1918."
I shot this from the American monument on the Montsec, a height dominating the crucial Saint-Mihiel salient. The Germans overran it in 1914 and held it until the Americans evicted them in September 1918. Saint-Mihiel, the subject of two chapters in Sons of Freedom, was crucial because it projected across the Meuse and gave the Germans a foothold in the rear of Verdun. The battlefield is largely unchanged after 100 years.
France lost 50,000 troops after 1914 trying to retake Saint-Mihiel from the Germans who installed themselves in concreted trenches like this. In some parts of the salient, the enemy trenches are just yards apart. The French needed the place to guard Verdun, which was the keystone of the French defense line on the Western Front. The Americans took the salient in just two days from German rearguards who were evacuating back to the Hindenburg Line. The battle is discussed in detail in Sons of Freedom.
Across the fields behind me, the Doughboys struck on September 26, 1918. It was the decisive battle of World War I, smashing the German army's "vital pivot" and lifeline in the space between Metz and Sedan, compelling the surrender of Hindenburg's 3-million man army on the Western Front. Sons of Freedom has five detailed chapters on the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne.
Petain and Nivelle guided the Battle of Verdun in 1916 from this desk and Pershing moved in here in 1918 to command the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne from this office in the Town Hall of Souilly. I am grateful to Mayor Christine Habart who gave me the run of the mairie and let me sit at the fabled desk.
To drive on the critical hub of Sedan, the U.S. First Army had to clear the Germans out of the Argonne Forest, where powerful German bunkers remain, like this luxurious army headquarters of Crown Prince Wilhelm.
For a nation that quickly forgot about WW1, the U.S. had a mania for monuments immediately after it. Every state vied with the others in the 1920s to place its monuments in the most prominent sites, the Army only belatedly and ineffectively intervening to control the pell-mell process. The result, elephantine monuments like this one, completely overwhelming the little village of Varennes-en-Argonne, where the U.S. 28th Division -- the Pennsylvania National Guard -- had its bloody baptism of fire in September 1918.
The ground behind me is the Champagne sector, rolling up from Reims to the summit of the Blanc Mont, a tactically vital ridge which the post-mutiny gun-shy French army could not take from the Germans. The U.S. 2nd Division, Marines and Doughboys, took it at the cost of 8,000 casualties in early October 1918, propelling the French forward. The bloody battle is described in detail in Sons of Freedom.
I was fortunate to attend the 200th Anniversary of Waterloo reenactment outside Brussels, and it was magnificent. Waterloo is one of those pivotal battles that underscore the importance of military history. Had the French won, and they very nearly did, Napoleon would have had time to reorganize the French Empire, save his throne, and manage the shifting balance of power.