tampabay.com

A hero's hill that no one needed

So many died, but the hill's namesake lives thanks to a change in orders.

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD
Published August 28, 2005


"One handful of Marines, out of ammunition, fought off an assault with bayonets, chunks of coral, and their fists... The courage displayed in taking the island is undiminished by a bitter truth: The invasion was not necessary." - entry on "Peleliu" from World War II: The Encyclopedia of the War Years

AMELIA ISLAND - It was supposed to be over quickly, the American invasion of Peleliu in September 1944.

As if clambering over razor blades, the Marines found the coral rock slashed through their boots and bloodied their hands. Their entrenching tools, cast away as useless, soon littered the tiny South Pacific island.

Worst of all, the Japanese had been digging in for months, readying caves and bunkers and sniper nests, transforming the two-mile-wide island into a death trap.

Everett Pope, a 25-year-old Marine captain, stormed the shore with 235 men. In war, he carried a picture of his wife, Eleanor, a prayer book, and a volume of anti-war poems by Siegfried Sassoon that he was glad his commanders never saw.

There was no history of military glory in Pope's family, no pedigree of great generals. Pope was from a tight-knit Massachusetts family, had married his childhood sweetheart, played some tennis, and majored in French at Bowdoin College.

He had spotted a recruiter on campus, and found himself beguiled by the uniform. Now he was leading the men of Company C into one of the war's most vicious maws, watching helplessly as they died all around him.

His commander was Lewis "Chesty" Puller, the blood-and-guts Marine who was already becoming a legend.

Chesty wanted Hill 100. According to maps, it was a stand-alone peak. It was an ugly chunk of charred, denuded, stump-covered coral, very steep, with little for a Marine to hide behind.

Chesty said: Take it.

* * *

It's a gorgeous hill, in the picture. You might be forgiven for calling it that, if you did not know what happened up there on the night of Sept. 19, 1944.

Pope keeps the picture on his desk, in the study of his Amelia Island home. He snapped it himself, when he returned to Peleliu 50 years later. By then, the jungle had grown lushly over the mingled skulls and bones and bullets. By then, people had long since taken to calling it Pope Hill.

"Most of the time, I'm the kindly old retired banker," said Pope, Florida's last living recipient of the Medal of Honor from World War II, one of just 42 recipients from that war still living anywhere. Of the 464 Medals of Honor given for the war, 266 were posthumous.

At 86, impeccably cordial but no-nonsense, Pope moves like a man 15 or 20 years younger.

"There's no bravado in wearing the medal," he said. "None. None. None."

After a long career as a Boston banker, he likes to putter in the yard, tend his flowers, feed his fish. His back door opens onto a golf course, but he's staying inside today with Eleanor, his wife of 63 years now, because he's a New England boy and it's July in Florida.

He keeps his Medal of Honor framed near the front door, along with a photo of President Harry Truman bestowing it.

Pope's study teems with war and history books, including one called Chesty, about the life of the famous Puller, who won an unmatched five Navy Crosses for valor. "The mythological hero of the Corps," the book calls him.

Pope wants it understood, up front, that he has small regard for Puller, whom he thinks recklessly fed so many good men into Peleliu's death traps.

Puller had a poor grasp of the island's terrain, Pope said. Send enough men to their slaughter up the hill, Puller's strategy went, and a few are bound to make it.

"The adulation paid to him these days sickens me," Pope said.

* * *

Peleliu, one of the Palau Islands, is five miles long, two miles wide, and shaped like a lobster claw.

By the time Pope got the order to take Hill 100, there were just 90 men left for the job. Scrambling past blasted trees up the slope, past barrages of Japanese mortars and bullets, just 24 made it to the top.

There, they realized the maps were wrong. It was not an isolated hill, but part of a long ridge, with Japanese fighters perched on higher ground and surrounding them on three sides.

As the Japanese hurled grenades and strafed them with gunfire, Pope rallied his small cluster of fighters. He chose to hold the hill, to absorb the attacks to protect the men lying wounded behind him.

The sun set, and the Japanese kept charging down the ridge through the night. Pope had about a dozen men left, now. Water ran out, ammunition ran out, grenades were disappearing fast. They threw coral chunks, which sounded like grenades when they fell, to slow the enemy.

In case of capture, Pope kept a bullet in his Colt .45 handgun, intended for himself.

Dawn broke, and Pope got word to retreat. He and just seven or eight others scrambled down, forced to leave their dead and wounded.

Later that day, Puller ordered Pope and his handful of remaining men to retake it. It was an obvious suicide mission.

"The trouble is, it was our suicide, not Puller's, you see," Pope said.

Pope was readying himself for the charge when the order was canceled.

Pope had taken shrapnel in the thigh, which he pulled out of his flesh with pliers, piece by piece.

It would be two weeks before the Americans retook the hill, and could bury their dead. It would be another two months before the island fell.

Nine months after the battle of Hill 100, Pope was at Yale University studying Japanese when he received an order to appear at the White House to receive the medal. President Truman had trouble pronouncing Peleliu.

Pope has two sons, neither of whom he encouraged to join the military. One became a diplomat, the other a professor.

Pope gave away the .45 he carried on Peleliu, the one with the suicide bullet.

"I just didn't want the damn thing around anymore," he said.

* * *

In the end, the Allies didn't even need Peleliu.

The strategic aim was to protect Gen. Douglas MacArthur's flank during his drive to the Philippines, but in reality the Japanese forces on the island posed small threat to that effort.

Pope unflinchingly acknowledges the pointlessness of the battle. But a Marine followed orders.

"We had a job to do and we did it," he said. "And if we hadn't done that, we'd be capturing some other island, some other airfield."

He said he returned to civilian life from Hill 100 - and other places he fought, like Guadalcanal - without nightmares.

"To be just as blunt as can be, I had no trouble whatsoever," he said, adding: "I also had no doubt about what I had done."

It helped that he did not have to fight amid civilian populations. "We had no such problem. If he wasn't us, we killed him. Very simple."

H.C. "Barney" Barnum Jr. has worked closely with Pope in the Medal of Honor Society, having received the medal himself for valor in Vietnam.

"When we guys are together, we don't talk about what we did," said Barnum, who is now Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy. "We talk about families, grandkids, golf. Hell, I couldn't tell you what half the guys in the society did to get their medal."

* * *

There are certain things Pope will not talk about still, like the details of the hand-to-hand fighting that went on that night. His blue eyes skitter uncertainly around the room, and he finally manages to say he would prefer to skip that part.

Tears fill his eyes, when he thinks about young Americans going off to fight in Iraq. But he refuses to give an opinion about the war. In social settings, he shuns political arguments.

"I've had enough conflict," Pope said. "At dinner tonight, we can talk about the weather (and) "How are your grandchildren?' But not, "What do you think of George Bush?"'

* * *

It was a strange feeling, when he and his wife returned to the Palau Islands for the 50th anniversary to find American flags flying next to Japanese flags.

Some Japanese veterans came for the anniversary too, but he kept his distance. "You didn't have to fight them, but you didn't have to hug them, either," he said.

These days, he said, the island is a haven for scuba divers and marijuana growers. He would just as soon people called it Hill 100 as Pope Hill. He said he doesn't care, but at times he refers to it as "my hill."

"I understand my hill is vanishing, by the way," he said. "They're mining it for phosphate. It may not even exist anymore."

-- Times researchers John Martin and Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Christopher Goffard can be reached at 727 893-8650 or goffard@sptimes.com