The soldiers and Marines who landed on the island of Peleliu during World War II were about to take on an entirely new doctrine of island defenses implemented by the Japanese. It would force the Americans to commit more men and resources while inflicting much heavier casualties on the invading forces.
But the Americans didn’t know that. They thought they would be able to clear the island of its defenders in just four days. It would take two months to capture Peleliu, and more than 2,200 of them would be killed or wounded. Luckily, for the Marines, they had corpsmen like Pharmacist’s Mate Third Class Eleuterio “Joe” Marquez.
A Los Angeles native, Marquez was just 19 years old and had been in the Navy for only a year before landing on the 13-square-mile island. The son of Mexican immigrants, he was class president in high school and a star athlete. He briefly worked as a mechanic before joining the Navy. It was a risky job.
He and the Marines and soldiers on Peleliu had to fight through artillery barrages, intense Japanese fortifications and snipers hell-bent on killing corpsmen. In the first month of the battle, 59 corpsmen were killed in action.
Marquez stuck to his training, establishing an aid station where he could administer first aid and plasma and send wounded troops back to the ships. He also went on patrols with his Marines as they fought along the north-south axis of Peleliu. One daunting task still lay ahead: taking the position Marines called “Bloody Nose Ridge.”
On Oct. 11, 1944, Marquez and his unit climbed Bloody Nose Ridge in an attempt to dislodge the Japanese from their fortifications in the mountainside. The defenders of Peleliu had excavated bunkers and other concrete bases inside the caves of the island and would attack unsuspecting American troops from these positions.
After two days of fighting, the Marines stopped to take a quick break in the dark when they came under intense mortar, grenade and small arms fire. Shrapnel and coral fragments tore through Marquez’s legs and the legs of his Marines. Severely wounded, he dragged himself into action. He started tending to the wounded and sent up a flare to let others know they needed assistance. Marquez heard another corpsman volunteer to help, and the two of them set to work.
When the sunrise arrived, so did more Marines bearing stretchers. More corpsmen arrived on the scene as well. Marquez told the newcomers that he and the other corpsman had tended to the wounded through the night, but all he got in return were looks of disbelief. The new Marines told Marquez they were the only other unit in the area, and there could not have been another corpsman in the area.
Marquez was dumbfounded and found himself slightly afraid. A cold shiver went down his spine. He never knew who -- or what -- helped him and his Marines survive through the night or whether it was a figment of his imagination. He did not get treatment for his wounds until all of his Marines were carried to relative safety.
Maquez was awarded the Navy Cross for his work on Peleliu, the first American of Mexican descent to receive the honor. He would carry the coral fragments in his legs for the rest of his life. Marquez survived the war and another enlistment afterward. He died in 2015 at age 90.
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