Wednesday, November 11, 2015

With The Old Breed
It was a drizzly Saturday in the early 1980s and THC was running errands when he decided to stop by the library in the Boston suburb of Needham where he and Mrs THC made their home.  This was back in the days when libraries still had books and Needham had a very good library.  THC liked wandering through the stacks and checking out the New Books section, which is exactly what he did that day.

He noticed a hard cover book called With The Old Breed: At Peleliu And Okinawa by EB Sledge.  He'd not heard of it but looking at the blurbs and thumbing through it THC realized it was a World War II combat memoir.  While THC loves history and reads quite a bit about WWII he usually stayed away from combat memoirs because so many were poorly written, but for some reason he was intrigued by the book and took it home.  Once he reached the section describing the landing at Peleliu he realized he was reading something extraordinary.  He's reread it three times since then.

With The Old Breed is today widely considered by historians and veterans the best combat memoir of the war in the Pacific and the author's tale became one of three around which Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg built The Pacific, their 2010 HBO mini-series.

The book should be required reading in every high school in America.

Eugene Sledge was nineteen years old when he volunteered for the Marine Corps in December 1943.  The quiet, shy Alabamian from a fairly well to do background deliberately flunked out of a officer training program so he could more quickly get to war, which he did as a private in the First Marine Division, serving as a 60mm mortarman during the campaigns on the islands of Peleliu (Sept-Oct 1944) and Okinawa (April-June 1945).  Of the 235 men in his company who landed on Peleliu only 85, including Sledge, were still with the unit at the end.  At Okinawa, 65 of the original company participated in the initial landing, 26 of whom were still in the ranks at the end (including several wounded who had returned to duty).  Eugene Sledge was part of that small band, having survived both campaigns unwounded. Sledge, 1945 from encyclopedia of alabama)

Returning to Alabama after the war, he enrolled at Auburn, finding his calling when after telling his father he could no longer hunt after what he experienced during the war, his father suggested he take up bird watching.  He eventually became a Professor of Biology at Alabama College, remaining a popular teacher until his death in 2001. Sledge, 1990s, from

During the war he kept notes in a pocket sized New Testament and in the book's preface  describes the writing process:
"I began writing this account immediately after Peleliu while we were in rest camp on Pavuvu Island.  I outlined the entire story with detailed notes as soon as I returned to civilian life, and I have written down certain episodes during the years since then.  Mentally, I have gone over and over the details of these events, but I haven't been able to draw them all together and write them down until now."
Initially intended only for his family, they eventually persuaded him to seek publication and the book was published in 1981, which is how THC came across it in the Needham library.  The reference to the Old Breed in the title is to those Marines who had served for many years with the Corps prior to WWII, formed its backbone, providing an example and a firm hand for all the new recruits.

Sledge's style is unadorned and straightforward.  He describes the people, the incidents and the feel and smell of these island assaults.   He does not seem to hold anything back and his story is not glamorous.  This is his description of the gun pit he inhabited for a few days during the assault on the The Umurbrogal Pocket, a 400 x 1200 yard battlefield on Peleliu, consisting of coral ridges and "rubble filled canyons"; an assault undertaken in temperatures of 115 degrees and high humidity:
"The overwhelming grayness of everything in sight caused sky, ridge, rocks, stumps, men, and equipment to blend into a grimy oneness.  Weird, jagged contours of Peleliu's ridges and canyons gave the area an unearthly alien appearance.  The shattered vegetation and the dirty-white splotches peppering the rocks where countless bullets and shell fragments had struck off the weathered gray surfaces contributed to the unreality of the harsh landscape."

"Rain added the final touch.  On a battlefield rain made the living more miserable and forlorn and the dead more pathetic.  To my left lay a couple of bloated Japanese corpses teaming with maggots and inactive flies who seemed to object to the rain as much as I did.  Each dead man still wore the two leather cartridge boxes, one on either side of his belt buckle, neat wrap leggings, tabi shoes, helmets and packs.  Beside each corpse lay a shattered and rusted Arisaka rifle, smashed against a rock by some Marine to be certain it wasn't used again."

"Cans of C rations and K rations boxes, opened and unopened, lay around our gun pit along with discarded grenade and mortar shell canisters.  Scattered about the area were discarded U.S. helmets, packs, ponchos, dungaree jackets, web cartridge belts, leggings, boondockers, ammo boxes of every type, and crates.  The discarded articles of clothing and the inevitable bottles of blood plasma bore mute testimony that a Marine had been hit there."
"Many tree stumps had a machine-gun ammon belt draped over them.  Some of these belts were partially filled with live cartridges.  Amid all this evidence of violent combat, past and continuing, I was interested in the fact that spent, or partially so, machine-gun ammo belts so often seemed to be draped across a shattered stump or bush rather than lying on the ground.  In combat, I often experienced fascination over such trivia, particularly when exhausted physically and strained emotionally."   
Sledge describes the practical issues of combat on a small coral island where it was impossible to undertake normal field sanitation and Marines fought in the same positions for days on end.  He tells us of his fear when, shortly after the landing on Peleliu, his unit charged across an open airfield under mortar fire and of killing his first Japanese soldier:
"I had just killed a man at close range.  That I had seen clearly the pain on his face when my bullets hit him came as a jolt. . .  The expression on that man's face filled me with shame and then disgust for the war and all the misery it was causing.  My combat experience thus far made me realize that such sentiments for an enemy soldier were the maudlin meditations of a fool . . . and was thankful my buddies couldn't read my thoughts."
And he tells us of his feelings about the enemy.  After coming across a dead Marine who had been horribly mutilated and defiled by the Japanese he writes:
"My emotions solidified into rage and a hatred for the Japanese beyond anything I ever had experienced.  From that moment on I never felt the least pity or compassion for them no matter what the circumstances.  My comrades would field strip their packs and pockets for souvenirs and take gold teeth, but I never saw a Marine commit the kind of barbaric mutilation the Japanese committed if they had access to our dead."
But he also sees a Marine casually prying gold teeth from a mortally wounded, but still living Japanese soldier, prompting this observation, "It was uncivilized . . . It wasn't simply souvenir hunting or looting the enemy dead; it was more like Indian warriors taking scalps."

Sledge tells us of a conversation with Gunnery Sgt Elmo Haney, one of the Old Breed, who fought in France during the First World War.  Early in his account, Sledge is in awe of Haney, a man who scrubbed his genitals with a bristle brush, and cleaned his M1 and bayonet three times daily, concluding "I felt that he was not a man born of woman, but that God had issued him to the Marine Corps".  When he asked Haney what he thought of Peleliu:
"Instead of the usual old salt comment - something like 'You think that was bad, you oughta been in the Old Corps' - Haney answered with an unexpected, 'Boy, that was terrible!  I ain't never seen nothin' like it.  I'm ready to go back to the States.  I've had enough after that'."
Peleliu was awful but, in some ways, Okinawa was worse.  Geared up for fierce fighting on the landing beaches, the Marines were pleasantly surprised to initially meet little resistance and quickly moved inland.  That relief gave way to dismay in a few days when they butted up against the sophisticated defenses of the Shuri line.  For the next two months relentless vicious fighting amidst rain and mud, under conditions resembling the trench warfare of the Western Front in WWI, was to be their fate.  Sledge describes the scene for us:
"During the fighting around the Umurbrogol Pocket on Peleliu, I had been depressed by the wastage of human lives.  But in the mud and driving rain before Shuri, we were surrounded by maggots and decay.  Men struggled and fought and bled in an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell's own cesspool."

"The situation was bad enough, but when enemy artillery shells exploded in the area, the eruptions of soil and mud uncovered previously buried Japanese dead and scattered chunks of corpses.  Like the area around our gun pits, the ridge was a stinking compost pile".

"If a Marine slipped and slid down the back slope of the muddy ridge, he was apt to reach the bottom vomiting.  I saw more than one man lose his footing and slip and slide all the way to the bottom only to stand up horror-stricken as he watched in disbelief while fat maggots tumbled out of his muddy dungaree pockets, cartridge belt, leggings lacings, and the like. . .  We didn't talk about such things.  They were too horrible and obscene even for hardened veterans."
The physical and psychological strain was terrible, and Sledge came closing to breaking (the ten weeks of fighting on Okinawa would leave 75,000 Americans dead, wounded or psychologically disabled).  According to his account the periodic rotation out of the front lines for a few days rest just made the ordeal even worse:
"The increasing dread of going back into action obsessed me.  It became the subject of the most tortuous and persistent of all the ghastly war nightmares that have haunted me for many, many years.  The dream is always the same, going back up to the lines during the bloody, muddy month of May on Okinawa."
After surviving Okinawa, Sledge recuperated and prepared for this third invasion, Japan.  Marines and soldiers in the Pacific had to participate in three island assaults after which you would be rotated home to the United States, so Eugene had one more to go.  It was one that he, like most others in the same situation, felt he would not survive.  When news came of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Japanese surrender he relates:
"We thought the Japanese would never surrender.  Many refused to believe it.  Sitting in stunned silence, we remembered our dead.  So many dead.  So many maimed.  So many bright futures consigned to the ashes of the past."
For all the horror he experienced what comes through most strongly in With The Old Breed are the bonds among the Marines and their feeling towards each other.  The book is dedicated:
In memory of Capt Andrew A Haldane
beloved company commander of K/3/5
and to the Old Breed
and the most shattering moment for Sledge is when his beloved Capt Haldane is killed on Peleliu:
"It was the worst grief I endured during the entire war.  The intervening years have not lessened it any . . .  He was the finest Marine officer I ever new.  The loss of many close friends grieved me deeply . . . but to all of us the loss of our company commander at Peleliu was like losing a parent we depended upon for security - not our physical security, because we knew that was a commodity beyond our reach in combat, but our mental security."
He closes With The Old Breed with these thoughts:
"Combat leaves an indelible mark on those who are forced to endure it.  The only redeeming factors were my comrades' incredible bravery and their devotion to each other.  Marine Corps training taught us to kill efficiently and to try to survive.  But it also taught us loyalty to each other - and love.  That espirit de corps sustained us."

"Until the millennium arrives and countries cease trying to enslave others, it will be necessary to accept one's responsibilities and to be willing to make sacrifices for one's country - as my comrades did.  As the troops used to say 'If the country is good enough to live in, it's good enough to fight for.'  With privilege goes responsibility."
So today, let's remember Eugene Sledge, his comrades and all those who shouldered that responsibility since 1775.


  1. Semper Fidelis. Wonderfully written, Mark. Thank you!

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