With the world at war, strange, upside-down occurrences happen. In this strange world, Damien Peter Parer, a war cameraman, became a national celebrity for his newsreels showing the fighting in Palestine, Libya, Greece, Papua New Guinea and then island hopping in the Pacific where he eventually ended up on the Island of Peleliu. He had pursued his craft, with wild abandon to his own health and with a determination that bordered on the evangelical. He was as fit, rugged and as capable for the physical encounters of warfare and it’s terrain as most of the veteran troops, which allowed him to consistently navigate the horrendous variety of territory the war encompassed that few of his peers sustained for the duration he did during the war. For his passion, unassuming bravery, and affable, easy going nature the public and those who came in contact with him loved him. He died as he lived, capturing the heroism of soldiers, very aware of, but heedless to the dangers around him.
Damien died in mid-afternoon at about 3:15pm on Sunday, 17 September, 1944 from machine gun fire by a concealed Japanese pill box walking backwards behind the lead tank filming the “Magnificent Seventh”, US 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division as they attacked an isthmus on the south-eastern part of the Island of Peleliu, Palau. It was an ignoble end to a noble man, in a bloody, ferocious encounter on a tiny speck of an island in the Pacific in a terrible war on a patch of the island called Bloody Beach.
Damien was 32, not quite six months married to Elizabeth Cotter who was four months pregnant with Damien Junior. In the family and nation’s eyes he has remained forever young.
Peliliu is a 10 square kilometre island 860km east of the Philippines. About 11,000 Japanese troops were waiting in prepared defensive positions at high points in caves and bunkers. Assaulting the island were almost 48,000 US troops. The Americans, were much better supported and supplied than the Japanese, in fact at this time for every US combatant there was 17 non-combatants in support. The Japanese however were entrenched in difficult terrain and intended to fight to the last man and they very nearly did. Just over 13,000 soldiers died in the Battle of Peleliu, 10,695 of them Japanese. Incredibly only 19 Japanese soldiers were taken prisoner.
Robert “Pepper” Martin, Time, said, “Peleliu is a horrible place. The heat is stifling and rain falls intermittently–the muggy rain that brings no relief, only greater misery. The coral rocks soak up the heat during the day and it is only slightly cooler at night. Marines are in the finest possible physical condition, but they wilted on Peleliu. Peleliu is incomparably worse than Guam in its bloodiness, terror, climate and the incomprehensible tenacity of the Japs. For sheer brutality and fatigue, I think it surpasses anything yet seen in the Pacific, certainly from the standpoint of numbers of troops involved and the time taken to make the island secure.”
The initial attack, code named Operation Stalemate II, on the south-west part of the island with the marines landing from 8:32am on 15 September 1944. They were quickly bogged down with intense crossfire from coral promontories destroying 60 amphibious vehicles and thousands of lives, but by the end of the day held 3km of beach.
Damien with his friend and colleague John Brennan, correspondent for the Bulletin, departed their transport ship on an LVT amphibious vehicle. Half way there though it became wedged on the coral reef and they somehow managed to raft themselves and equipment the 650 metres to shore. They were caught up in the Japanese crossfire of mortar and it was impossible to shoot footage.
Neil McDonald in Kokoda Front Line, says, “Parer and Brennan decided to stay on the beach and dug a foxhole for the night. They could not have got much sleep. The Japanese kept up the pressure as darkness fell. The destroyers countered by firing flares. They covered the beachhead with a greenish glow, casting shadows as their parachutes slowly descended. Then there was the ‘freight train rumble’ of naval shells and the double explosions of mortars.”
Artist, Tom Lea described the landing, “lying there in terror looking longingly up the slope to better cover, I saw a wounded man near me staggering in the direction of the LVTs. His face was half bloody pulp and the mangled shreds of what was left of an arm hung down like a stick, as he bent over in his stumbling, shock-crazy walk. The half of his face that was still human had the most terrifying look of abject patience I have ever seen. He fell behind me, in a red puddle on the white sand.”
By the end of the second day of the Battle of Peleliu all 30 tanks had made it ashore and the centre beachhead was held, though under sporadic enemy fire.
John McManus in his article Fatal Pride at Peleliu outlines the terrain, “the true horror of the fighting was almost indescribable. The ridges were steep, so much so that some were little more than sheer rock faces, dotted only with fortified caves. The rocky, crevassed ground was so unstable that troops could not hope to keep their footing, much less maneuver in any coherent fashion. Under perfect circumstances, it would have been difficult to overpower such a formidable network of caves. Under these conditions, it was a veritable impossibility, even for the gallant Marines.”
John Brennan in his letter to Damien’s mother Teresa on the 19 September, 1944, describes, “we had landed on the island of Peleliu in the Palau group two days earlier. Damien and I were together all the time. We worked on the beach and we slept in the same hole at night. He boiled the billy and we made tea. On the Sunday we went to the southern end of the island where the marines were to attack across a narrow isthmus to force a way out onto a small promontory where a large number of Japanese had been cornered. Damien was pleased at the opportunity the attack presented to make pictures. It was the best material we had had since the landing. The first attack, in the morning, was driven back. We waited till mid-afternoon when tanks and fresh troops were brought up to force the crossing.”
In Bloody Beaches: Marines of Peleliu, Brigadier General Gordon D. Gayle, USMC (Ret) outlines the fight across the isthmus, “In the south, from D plus 1 through D plus 3, the 7th Marines was in vigorous assault against extensive fortifications in the rear of the Scarlet Beaches. These were defended by a full battalion, the elite 2d Battalion, 15th Regiment. Although isolated and surrounded by the Marines, this battalion demonstrated its skill and its understanding of Colonel Nakagawa’s orders and mission: to sell Peleliu at the highest possible price. The 7th Marines attacked with 3/7 on the left and 1/7 on the right. They enjoyed the advantage of attacking the extensive and well prepared defenses from the rear, and they had both heavy fire support and the terrain for limited maneuver in their favour. Both sides fought bitterly, but by 1530 on 18 September (D plus 3), the battle was substantially over. The Marines had destroyed an elite Japanese reinforced infantry battalion well positioned in a heavily fortified stronghold. Colonel Hanneken reported to General Rupertus that the 7th Marines’ objectives he had set for D-Day were all in hand. The naval gunfire preparation had been significantly less than planned. The difference had been made up by time, and by the courage, skill, and additional casualties of the infantry companies of 1/7 and 3/7.”
Temperatures were intense hovering between 40-45C (105-115F), frying this atoll that had been blasted to look like a simmering lunarscape. Brennan says, “Damien went with the men who followed behind the first tank. I was with the group following the next. We realised we might be separated in the thick brush and broken country when the attack fanned out on the other side. We arranged to go back to the beach for the night. Damien said to leave it later than I suggested because the light would be good and he anticipated some good pictures. I did not see him alive again after we began the crossing. The attack was pushed on against very heavy opposition.
“We were working together, and we had been talking together less than a quarter of an hour before he was killed. I did not actually see him hit, nor, unfortunately, could I be certain that he had been hit until the following day, though I searched for him all afternoon and next morning.
“I went back to the crossing about five o’clock and waited for him. He did not arrive by the time it was getting dark, but I was not worried because I knew he may well have stayed till he thought it was too late to leave. I stayed there the night and the next morning went in to the men with whom he had been. They believed he had left the previous afternoon. I returned to the beach, but could not find him.”
When John Brennan discovered Damien’s body, marines had plundered his corpse, opening the camera, his body was surrounded by reels of unspooled film and empty film canisters. Brennan said, “We found his body some fifty yards beyond the crossing. He had obviously been killed while the attack was still being pushed forward, not long after I had last seen him: I should think about 3.15. He had been caught in a burst of machine gun fire from a pillbox. It was obvious that he had been killed instantly.”
There have been family apocryphal stories that Damien had been shot in the front by US marines as he got between the two fighting forces, this story is untrue as the footage shot by Edward Steichen 15 minutes before his death and John Brennan’s stories both confirm. Edward Steichen went on to win the academy award for The Fighting Lady in 1945.
The 2010 TV series by Steven Spielberg, The Pacific, episodes 5 to 7: “Peleliu Landing”, “Peleliu Airfield” and “Peleliu Hills” give a visceral visual indication of what Damien’s final days would have looked like.
A tank officer said of the marines at Peleliu, “the infantry inspired all who witnessed its indomitable heroism to do one’s damnedest.” Indeed it was this heroism that Damien wanted to capture up close on the faces of the fighting men, to show people back home just how much was being given for the war by these young men. He wanted to bear witness to these men and their efforts to inspire everyone.
For the Battle of Peleliu and Negesebus from 15-19 September, 1944 eight Marines won the Medal of Honor and the 1st Marine Division was awarded its second a Presidential Unit Citation. The citation states, “landing over a treacherous coral reef against hostile mortar and artillery fire, the First Marine Division, reinforced, seized a narrow, heavily mined beachhead and advanced foot by foot in the face of relentless enfilade fire through rain-forests and mangrove swamps toward the air strip, the key to the enemy defenses of the southern Palaus. Opposed all the way by thoroughly disciplined, veteran Japanese troops heavily entrenched in caves and in reinforced concrete pillboxes which honeycombed the high ground throughout the island, the officers and men of the Division fought with undiminished spirit and courage despite heavy losses, exhausting heat and difficult terrain, seizing and holding a highly strategic air and land base for future operations in the western Pacific. By their individual acts of heroism, their aggressiveness and their fortitude, the men of the First Marine Division, Reinforced, upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
Was Damien buried in Hong Kong?
Frank Clune, a well known Australian author, radio entertainer and journalist on his ABC radio program offered to send a photo he had taken on the 27 December, 1945 of Damien Parer’s grave in Hong Kong. Michael S Parer, Damien’s nephew, did just that and in return for the photos, he wrote a glowing endorsement to the shows sponsors. The two photo’s which are labeled “Overlooking Hong Kong Harbour, Aberdeen Cemetery” with Damien’s gravestone marked “W/C D. Parer, Paramount News. 17.9.44” has been a mystery up until recently.
While the handwritten label on the edge of the photo suggests this is Aberdeen Cemetery, Hong Kong Harbour, it is in fact Hong Kong’s Sai Wan War Cemetery.
According to Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) records, Damien Parer was initially buried in Peleliu US Military Cemetery on Palau. As John Brennan described it for Damien’s mother, “next day I saw him buried in a cemetery just behind the beach where all those who died during the campaign are being gathered together. I collected his belongings – his wallet; the Rosary Beads he had from George Silk in Rome. The Cinepac Press Relations Officer will send them on to you.”
Damien was exhumed and moved to Makassar War Cemetery, Celebes, South Sulawesi, Indonesia after the war in 1946. He was then moved to his current grave location in Ambon War Cemetery, Pandan Kasturi, Kota Ambon, Maluku, Indonesia when all the graves in Makassar were relocated there in 1961. There are no records of Damien ever being moved to Hong Kong.
Roy Hemington, CWGC Records Data Manager says, “The mystery is now solved. The photo shows Plot 1. Row E. Grave 13 in Sai Wan War Cemetery, which was initially believed to be Damien Parer’s grave. The body had been received from Manila USAF Cemetery No.2, The Philippines. However, this was later disproved after records from Makassar War Cemetery were received. The grave is now marked as an Unknown Soldier.”