Later History of Palau: World War II and Independence

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Before the outbreak of World War II, the Japanese forced to the Palauan populace and people brought in from elsewhere to work in slave-like conditions to fortify and militarize Palau. In 1944 there was fierce fighting between Japanese and American forces. The United States prevailed and occupied the islands. In 1945, Japanese settlers are repatriated .

Thirty-three Japanese ships were lost or damaged in and around Palau in 1944. A U.S. submarine operating north of Palau fired a torpedo and sank itself on March 26, 1944. The only survivor said the submarine surfaced, shot two torpedoes at a at Japanese cargo ship, and one of the torpedoes circled around and sunk the sub.

After the battles in the Marianas and Truk, the only major Japanese base between the American fleet and the Philippines was in Palau. The islands of Angaur and Peliliu in Palau were the settings for some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific theater of World War II. The objective of the invasion of Palau was to secure the U.S. approach to the Philippines from New Guinea and the islands of Micronesia and protect MacArthur's right flank during the invasion of the Philippines by removing the threat of a Japanese air attacks from Palau.

The original plan was to make an amphibious landing on Babeldaob, the largest island in Palau. Most of the Japanese force, including 25,000 men in Koror, were stationed in Babeldaob. The primarily defensive force of 5,300 soldiers, 1,100 naval fighters and 4,000 other men were positioned on Peliliu, a small island at the southern end of Palau archipelago. Later is was decided to attack Peliliu.

Battle of Peleliu

The Battle Of Peleliu lasted from September 15 to November 27, 1944. The primary generals and commanders were William H. Rupertus on the American side and Kunio Nakagawa on the Japanese side. Approximately 27,000 American and 11,000 Japanese soldiers took part, with Americans suffering 9,800 casualties and the Japanese: 10,700, with 200 captured. [Source: “Peleliu: A Second-Generation Perspective” by Matthew Stevenson, Military History Quarterly, Winter 1998, Stevenson is an international banker living in Switzerland. He grew up in New York. |||| ]

Matthew Stevenson wrote: “Peleliu is an island the remote archipelago of Palau, 800 kilometers southeast of Manila. In September l944, U.S. Marines, launched an amphibious assault against the Japanese forces on Peleliu that were threatening the flank of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s troops as they advanced toward the Philippines. Around 11,000 Japanese from the 14th Infantry Division with some Korean and Okinawan workers occupied Peleliu Island. The Japanese devised a plan to disrupt the landings at the water’s edge but rather than stop the enemy at the beach they employed an inland defense. Colonel Nakagawa’s defense was concentrated at the highest point in Peleliu which was the Umurbrogol Mountain. The Japanese were also supported by a light tank unit with anti-air ammunition. ||||

“The landings were more difficult than anyone had anticipated. Instead of overrunning an obscure Japanese garrison and seizing the island’s airstrip, the marines had to attack and reduce a network of interlocking caves and coral ridges defended by the 10,000 soldiers of Japan’s 14th Infantry Division. Although the Japanese defenders were annihilated, the three infantry regiments of the 1st Marine Division suffered dreadful casualties in the process. During the battle my father, formerly a company commander, served as executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment.”||||

After the Battle of Peleliu

During the American invasion of Palau and the Battle Peliliu most Palauans, including the residents of Peleliu, were rounded up and taken to Babeldaob, where some historians say they were placed for protection and others argue they were rounded for mass executions. Whatever the case, there were relatively few Palauan casualties during the invasion of Palau. When locals returned to Koror they found their once lovely city in ruins. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Palau was devastated by the fighting in World War II. As was true in the Vietnam War, forests and vegetation were stripped off the mountains with Agent-orange-like defoliants and napalm was dropped. The fighting caused huge fires on Peleliu that left the island almost completely bare after the war. The wreckage of tanks, planes and artillery can still be found on the island. The bones of dead Japanese soldiers still remain in some of the caves there.

Twenty-six Japanese stragglers were found on Peleliu over two and a half years after the war ended. In the late 1950s a Japanese straggler who had been hiding out in the jungle was discovered by woman who saw the man stealing tapioca from her garden. The man had matted hair, torn clothes and black-streaked teeth. He was later hunted down like an animal by the Palauan police who bound him in ropes and paraded him through the streets of Koror.

After the war the inhabitants of Peleliu learned how to extract gunpowder from unexploded shells and use the powder to dynamite fish. Some people were injured or killed by the unexploded ordinance, including a small boy who liked to amuse himself by throwing grenades into fires. An old man survived an attempt to defuse a bomb in which he prayed "Oh God, tell me which wire to remove next."

U.S. Trust Territory in Palau After World War II

In 1947, following the occupation by U.S. forces in World War II, Palau became part of the UN Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, which was administered by the United States. The U.S. Navy was in charge of day-to-day administration. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2023]

The Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands included Palau, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Guam and the Marianas. The 2,141 island — with a total land area of less than half of Rhode Island — that made up the Trusteeship where then grouped into the Marshall Islands, Caroline Islands and Marianas, with Palau being grouped with Micronesia in the Caroline Islands.

Compared to the development that took place during the Japanese period, the Americans didn’t pay much attention to Palau. The Japanese infrastructure was left to be swallowed up the jungle. During the cold war the C.I.A. sent agents to Palau to make sure the local government stayed in line. Palauan politics has often been littered with intrigues and conspiracies involving spies, bribes, drugs, hit men and military bases.

Palau’s Road to Independence

Talk of self-determination for Palau began in 1965 when it was part of Micronesia. That year the Congress of Micronesia was formed by delegates from Pacific islands to press for independence. In 1967, a commission was established to make recommendations on the future government of the islands of Micronesia. In 1970, the commission confirmed that the peoples of Micronesia had a right to sovereignty, self-rule, and to terminate association with the United States.

The Palauans voted against becoming part of the Federated States of Micronesia in 1978. Four of the Trust Territory districts had formed a single federated Micronesian state but this eventually broke down as the individual states — long culturally distinct — chose more local autonomy. Palau remained U.S. trusteeship until 1981 when it became an independent republic with its own constitution — although not fully independent of the United States — and a government modeled after U.S. government.

Full fledged nationhood was held up while Palauans decided which was more important a Free Association Treaty with the U.S. which gave the Palauans millions of dollars in return for access by the American military to bases in Palau or a provision in the Palauan constitution that banned nuclear weapons from Palau.

The 1981 constitution stated that Palau was a nuclear-free country. In 1982, Palau signed a Compact of Free Association (COFA) with the US, which granted Palau financial assistance and access to many US domestic programs in exchange for exclusive US military access and defense responsibilities. However, many Palauans saw the COFA as incompatible with the Palauan Constitution because of the U.S. military’s nuclear arsenal, and seven referenda failed to achieve ratification because of an inability to have the proposals to reach the required 75 percent approval vote to pass. After changing the constitution to allow approval by simple majority, the compact was approved on the eighth referendum in 1993. The COFA was then ratified and entered into force in 1994 when the islands officially gained their independence. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2023]

In October 1994 Palau became an independent nation in free association with the United States; under the 1994 CPA, the United States is responsible for Palau's defense. In addition, CPA funds were allocated to finance the building of roads and infrastructure on Babelthuap, across from the capital Koror, in order to attract people and economic activity. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, 2007,]

Palau After Independence: Assassinations, Suicides and Intrigues

Palau's first president Haruo Remeliik was assassinated in June 1985. One of his political opponents was convicted for the murder but later acquitted. Remeliik governed Palau during a difficult period, marred by violent strikes. Before he was killed, his offices, the offices of an American lawyer involved in Palauan politics, and a meeting house at the Palau Museum were burned.

Vice President Alfonso Oiterang served as acting president until August 1985, when he was defeated in an election by Lazarus E. Salii. President Salii committed suicide in August 1988. Salii was found with a fatal bullet wound. It was believed that he committed suicide after his administration was accused of corruption and he was suspected of accepted bribes in return for the awarding of power plant contract.

The next president, Ngiratkel Etpison, a successful business and part owner of the Palau Pacific resort, took power in 1989. He was followed in 1993 by Kuniwo Nakamura, a Palauan with a Japanese name. Nakamura was elected president in November 1992. He was the leader when Palu became fully independent in December 1994. Two month later President Nakamura said before the United Nations: “My country will be one of the smallest members of this August body, but we are large in things that count.”

In the early 2000s, despite President Nakamura's support, Paramount Chief Ibedul Yutaka Gibbons of Koror, the most powerful traditional leader in Palau, opposed the Compact and its channeling of resources away from Koror and to Babelthuap, arguing the Compact would erode Palau's autonomy and threaten traditional values. Palau's CPA with the United States was renegotiated in 2009 and it funding was renewed in 2010.[Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, 2007,]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: CIA World Factbook, 2023; “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia,, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2023

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