Coral a casualty of combat: UH-Hilo team to research historic World War II battlefield, surrounding reefs

  • Department of Defense photos

    Images of the battle at Peleliu. At left, soldiers deploy from amphibious vehicles on the beach and, at right, depart from ships toward the shoreline through the substantial blast zone.

A postdoctoral researcher and a graduate student from the University of Hawaii at Hilo will embark on an expedition in early April to study a forgotten World War II battlefield in the Western Pacific.

Dr. John Burns is the co-principal investigator of a one-year, $90,000 project funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to research the impact on surrounding coral communities from the amphibious invasion of Peleliu in the Republic of Palau. He will be joined by Kailey Pascoe, who graduated from UH-Hilo in 2016 with a B.S. in marine science and is now a graduate student in the UH-Hilo Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science Program.


The project, titled “Peleliu’s Forgotten World War II Battlefield,” is the first attempt to conduct a comprehensive, systematic study of the island, which became the scene of the bloodiest first-day amphibious landing in the entire Pacific campaign. A total of 73 amphibious tractors approached the beaches of Peleliu on Sept. 15, 1944. Within hours, Marine casualties exceeded 500, and by the end of the day, nearly 60 of the amphibious tractors, 15 tanks and numerous amphibious trucks were damaged, wrecked or sunk.

“The amphibious element of the invasion is largely ignored in World War II histories, and its impact on corals has never been investigated,” Burns said. “We want to identify if and how the invasion blasting may have affected coral community structure and how it may be altering the ecology of these systems.”

Their research employs remote sensing technology to search the landing beaches and fringing reefs for material remains, which include amphibious craft and their debris, as well as shells from defensive positions taken up by soldiers from Japan. Many of the amphibious craft failed to make it to the island, and are thought to be on top of or in the fringing reef, on the shallow plateau outside the reef, or in the lagoon and beach edges.

The study also uses high-resolution 3-D technology to map coral reef plots in affected areas and those unaffected by the invasion blasting. Burns plans a statistical comparison of data from both areas to determine what, if any impacts remain visible after 74 years, and to create a useful baseline for assessing reef health in future years. He said the biggest challenge might be overcoming the impact of evidence lost through previous shoreline development and reef cleanup.

“We do not know what sites are left or whether there are impacts of the pre-invasion blasting still visible,” Burns said. “Because the invasion beaches are a largely undocumented component of this historic battle, we are embarking on a project filled with the potential for discovery.”



To learn more about “Peleliu’s Forgotten World War II Battlefield,” visit

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