With long flowing hair, a bronzed muscular body and dressed only in salty paddling shorts, my co-guide, Ron Leidich, lectured us with focused authority. The subject was wartime death and destruction in Pelileu, a tiny atoll in the small Pacific nation of Palau. We were in the eastern-most archipelago within the Micronesian Islands, north of Papua New Guinea and east of the Philippines.
On one the pages of Ron’s interpretation notes, I noticed a picture of his decorated father, Marine Lt. Col. Jay Leidich. The two men could not have been more different in appearance, crew cut versus hippie hairdo, full parade uniform instead of one-piece clothing. What they had in common, however, was being excellent at standing up for what they believed in, the father training and leading men into combat and the son dedicated to saving a piece of paradise.
Ron had been running naturalist trips in the Pacific for more than 20 years, and we were lucky to have him join our small group on a two-week exploratory kayak journey through the Palau Archipelago. He swam with us in the famed Jellyfish Lake, snorkeled the reefs at the Blue Corner above the Mariana Trench and paddled through the iconic Rock Islands, officially declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012.
Ron trained initially as a zoologist in the U.S. and moved to Palau to start a family in the early nineties. Apart from leading trips, he became involved in natural history research and conservation projects. This included reducing invasive crown-of-thorns starfish, conducting bird surveys and participating in shark conservation programs. One of the projects that he is most passionate about is protecting Palau’s unique marine lakes from the harmful effects of unsustainable tourism, making sure that these pristine areas are conserved for future generations. He is also an expert war historian, as we experienced in full on that memorable last day on the beach.
As Ron explained, it was on this 3-mile stretch of white coral sand that the Battle of Peleliu started, on the morning of September 15, 1944. U.S. Marines in small amphibious crafts landed on the beaches and were caught in a heavy crossfire when the Japanese opened the steel doors guarding their positions above and fired devastating artillery.
The primary objective of the operation was to capture the small airstrip inland, and the commander of the 1st Marine Division predicted the island would be secured within four days. However, after repeated Imperial Army defeats in previous island campaigns, Japan had developed new island-defense tactics. They built well-crafted fortifications that allowed stiff resistance, extending the brutal battle over two months. The fighting in Pelileu has been called the most difficult fight that the U.S. military encountered in World War II. In total, the 1st Marine Division suffered over 6,500 casualties on Peleliu—over a third of their entire division. However, only nineteen Japanese soldiers out of almost 11,000 survived the battle.
At the end of November, the few Japanese left finally surrendered, and their commander proclaimed “Our sword is broken and we have run out of spears.” He then burnt his regimental colors and performed ritual suicide. Three days later, the island was declared secure, ending the 73-day-long epic battle. But strangely enough, a Japanese lieutenant with a small band of soldiers held out in hidden caves in Peleliu until May of 1947, and surrendered only after a Japanese admiral convinced them the war had been over for many months!
Ron led us across the beach, and close to the captured airfield, we found a bullet-scarred helmet and rusty machine gun resting on the memorial grave of the fallen Marines.
We walked inland and explored the jungle further. Here, we found plenty of rusty tank wrecks, caves with gun emplacements and intricate fortifications. We were told that just underneath our bare feet, Ron had discovered human bones, cleaned white by the coconut crabs, as well as shells and weaponry from the two armies, all corroding from salt and water.
It felt like nature was covering up all these human atrocities and rebounding back to its natural state in stubborn silence. When we paddled away from the beach, it was hard to believe that such a seemingly pristine and untouched place had been witness to such human destruction.
Conservation of nature is bouncing back in Palau. From being a destroyed battlefield arena, this small island nation is now becoming one of the leaders in conservation in the Pacific as it strives to protect its unique flora and fauna. Approximately three-fourths of the volcanic coral atoll and limestone islands of Palau are covered in native forest and mangroves. These pristine areas are the most species-diverse in Micronesia, with more than 1,400 types of plants, including two dozen endemic species of orchids. Palau’s coastal waters are teeming with marine wildlife, and its shores are home to an array of tropical birds.
To preserve all of this, the President of Palau recently initiated the Micronesia Challenge. This initiative aims to conserve a third of all near-shore coastal waters and 20 percent of forest land by 2020 in Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, as well as the U.S. territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. The government has now officially protected 80% of its water resources (fresh water and salt water alike), becoming the first country in the world to do so on such a scale. As a result, there have been significant increases in the country’s economy in less than two years. Conservation can pay off!
Even more inspirationally, in 2017, Palau became the first nation on Earth to change its emigration laws to support environmental protection. Upon entry, all visitors are required to sign a pledge stamped in their passport to act in an ecologically responsible way.
The pledge goes like this:
“Children of Palau–
I take this pledge as your guest to preserve and protect your beautiful and unique island home.
I wow to tread lightly, act kindly and explore mindfully.
I shall not take what is not given.
I shall not harm what does not harm me.
The only footprints I shall leave are those that can wash away.”
Indeed a great pledge—and a conservation beacon for other nations to follow!
Palau, you have gone through a tough time in your recent history, but have rebounded with inspiration.
Thank you, Palau.