The battle for Peleliu island in the Pacific Ocean during World War II was a brutal battle whose necessity many still question to this day. For the Marines involved in the initial invasion, it was even worse than that: it was a meat-grinder. Last Man Standing by Dick Camp is the tale of the 1st Marine Regiment's horrific five days on the island, from the invasion itself to its eventual disintegration as a unit as casualties mounted. It is a riveting account, relatively short (there are lots of photographs), and quite grim.
This book does not cover the entire battle. It took the American military at least two months to secure the island; even then, pockets held out (such as one Japanese lieutenant and 26 other men who remained hiding there until 1947, when a Japanese admiral convinced them that the war was over). What was supposed to be a three-day battle turned into a grind that cost thousands of casualties.
Last Man Standing focuses strictly on the 1st Marine Regiment and those deadly five days being pulled from the battle for the simple fact that it almost didn't exist anymore. Camp covers the planning for the operation and discusses briefly how unnecessary the battle may have been. The island was never used for any kind of jumping-off point for operations in the Philippines or any other action, and it's doubtful that the airfield on the island could have hindered the American fleet much.
But the Americans decided to attack the island anyway, and the 1st Marines formed the spearhead of that invasion. After the planning, Camp moves battalion by battalion as the regiment assaults the beaches with Japanese fire raining down on them mercilessly. The reader can almost feel the intensity and fear these men went through as their comrades were wounded or killed all around them.
Camp highlights the courage of these men thrown constantly into the heat of battle, ordered to make frontal assault after frontal assault even as the Japanese, positioned in the hardened and prepared cave systems, continued to blast them. Camp often cites the descriptions about the actions of individual Marines from their Navy Cross or Medal of Honor citations, adding even more immediacy to his descriptions.
The author makes use of a lot of historical sources, including Marine historical records and other survivorsí' accounts of the battle. He personally interviewed two Marines as well, both of whom ably led men despite disagreeing with the orders they were given. He doesn't bother with footnotes or endnotes, instead occasionally citing the work in question in his narrative and listing them all in the bibliography.
Through this engrossing account of the battle, the reader really starts to feel it as platoons and companies are wittled away to almost nothing. Compounding the grimness of the story are many of the photographs included in Last Man Standing. Mostly taken from military archival sources, and many of the photos are quite graphic. There are no depictions of blood and guts, but many feature images of burned-out corpses in Japanese positions, or dead Marines who were unable to be recovered at the time as the battle slogged forward.
Other photographs bring the battle to life, though, giving the reader a clearer picture of what transpired. Some reflect on what life was like for a Marine during these five days, including one that shows a Marine keeping watch out of the shellhole he and his buddy are hiding in, while his buddy quickly eats something to keep himself going.
Last Man Standing is a fascinating book about a seemingly pointless battle, a showcase of Marine courage, camaraderie among men who are going through Hell together, and the honor with which they perform their duties.
It's a must-read for those qualities alone