Gordon Gayle dies at 95; received Navy Cross for attack on Peleliu

Retired Marine Brig. Gen. Gordon Gayle, who received the Navy Cross for leadership and bravery during the assault on Peleliu, one of the bloodiest and most complex and controversial battles fought by Marines during World War II, has died. He was 95.

Gayle died April 21 at an assisted-living facility in Farnham, Va., after suffering a stroke, according to the U.S. Marine Corps.

As an officer with the 1st Marine Division, Gayle led troops in five key battles in World War II, starting with Guadalcanal in 1942, where Marines, after weeks of fierce jungle fighting, stopped the advance of Japanese troops toward Australia.

By the time Marines were ordered to assault Peleliu in the Palau islands in September 1944, Gayle had been promoted to major and was commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. The Marines faced rugged island terrain, stifling heat and a smart, resilient enemy.

The "Two-Five," as the unit was known, was given the task of seizing a heavily defended area near an airfield, a key objective of the assault.

"Immediately after repulsing a strong Japanese counterattack, Maj. Gayle skillfully seized the critical moment to cross the Peleliu airdrome, personally leading his battalion in the assault over 1,400 yards of open ground in the face of intense hostile mortar, artillery and machine-gun fire," according to the citation for the Navy Cross bestowed on Gayle.

Although wounded, Gayle refused to be evacuated. His bravery "contributed materially to the success with which his battalion seized and held the major portion of the airfield," according to the citation.

Promoted to lieutenant colonel in November 1944, he was an instructor at the command and staff school at Quantico, Va. After World War II, he had several assignments, including as assistant director of the Marine Corps history division.

Assigned to Korea in September 1951, he was executive officer of the 7th Marine Regiment during the height of the fighting. He received a Navy Commendation Ribbon.

After returning from Korea, Gayle had assignments involving recruiting, long-range planning, Marine history, and as deputy assistant chief of staff for Marine forces in Japan. He retired in 1968.

Gayle's account of Peleliu, "Bloody Beaches: The Marines at Peleliu," provides a detailed, dispassionate look at the hardships and horrors of an assault against a well-fortified enemy redoubt. Gayle mentions his own role only in passing.

"1st Division Marines," Gayle wrote, "peering over the gunwales of their landing craft saw an awesome scene of blasting and churning earth along the shore. Smoke, dust and the geysers caused by exploding bombs and large-caliber naval shells gave optimists some hope that the defenders would become casualties from such preparatory fires...."

That optimism, Gayle wrote, was soon shown to be misplaced, and the Marines were forced to fight yard by yard. An attack that was predicted to be complete in days instead took two months.

While praising the Marines, Gayle shows respect for the Japanese tactics and determination. "Rather than depending upon spiritual superiority, they would combine the devilish terrain with the stubborn, disciplined Japanese soldiers to relinquish Peleliu at the highest cost to the invaders."

Although hardly a debunking account, Gayle notes that the assault was hampered by supply problems, disagreements among top officers, "friendly fire" casualties and "confusion and delay."

"Every advance opened the advancing Marines to new fire from heretofore hidden positions on flanks, in rear, in caves above or below nearly won ground," he wrote. After four days, "the 1st Marines was a regiment in name only, having suffered 1,500 casualties."

Eight Marines received the Medal of Honor for their actions on Peleliu, five of them posthumously. Gayle was among 69 Marines who received the Navy Cross, the second-highest award for combat heroism.

The battle at Peleliu remains controversial, with some historians saying it was not worth the sacrifices and that military brass knew at the time that the island was of minimal strategic value and could be bypassed.

In the final portion of "Bloody Beaches," Gayle acknowledges the lingering dispute but does not dwell on it. Taking Peleliu away from the Japanese, he wrote, "was a convenience but not a necessity." He notes that it was a Navy plane working out of Peleliu that spotted survivors of the Indianapolis, which had been sunk by a Japanese submarine after delivering the atomic bomb to Tinian in preparation for the attack on Hiroshima.

Gordon Donald Gayle was born in Tulsa, Okla., on Sept. 13, 1917. His father was in the oil business, and Gayle grew up in Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma.

After briefly attending Southern Methodist University in Dallas, he transferred to the U.S. Naval Academy. He graduated in 1939 and received a commission in the Marine Corps.

In one of his last assignments, Gayle was part of a study group that called for better training and better integration of infantry and air power. Many of that study's recommendations remain integral to Marine doctrine for what is called the air-ground task force approach to warfare that was used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After retiring, Gayle spent three years at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University and taught mathematics at a prep school.

Gayle's wife, Katherine Frank Gayle, died in 2004. He is survived by a daughter, two sons, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. A third son died in 1971.

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