For the islanders, World War II is a distant, abstract event that happened three generations ago. There are barely any eyewitnesses left here. For McQuillen, that gives the battle debris even greater significance. "When I'm on Peleliu, I feel the war. It's impossible to understand the battle unless you've been to this jungle," he says.
The islanders were evacuated before the battle and didn't recognize their homeland when they returned. The vegetation was burnt to the ground, their villages razed. "The US Navy distributed sunglasses because the naked chalk rocks reflected the light so brightly," says former Marine McQuillen.
The returning islanders, most of them fishermen, were fed canned tuna fish and meat. It took them a long time to resume agriculture. Because the fighting had removed all the signs and land demarcations, it was unclear who owned what, and land ownership disputes continue to this day.
At first, the islanders sold war relics for scrap. Engines and aircraft parts were stripped down, mixed with concrete and used to construct a quay wall. And before it was made illegal to take artifacts off the island, Japanese and American tourists left with all kinds of items in their luggage. Some residents decorated their homes with old war equipment. Preserving Peleliu
Today, the focus isn't just on making the island safe for its 500 inhabitants and the vsitors, or about showing off overgrown tanks as tourist attractions. The authorities want to preserve Peleliu as a memorial and an open-air museum. And gradually, younger generations are starting to show more interest in the island's history, says McQuillen, who volunteers at a local primary school.
Matsutaro has brought his tour group back safely to the quayside. The team of Clear Ground Demining has come along and waves while the group departs. As the palm trees recede into the distance and swarms of flying fish leap along the boat, it seems that this tropical island really is enchanted.
But the snow-white beaches and the glorious sunset can't hide the horrors of its past.