With Veterans Day coming this week, it is a good time to do some relevant reading. If you saw the HBO miniseries “The Pacific” or “The War” the documentary on World War II by Ken Burns, the name Eugene “Sledgehammer” Sledge — will be instantly recognizable. Sledge’s book, With the Old Breed recounts the bloody battles fought by island-hopping Marines in WWII.

Sledge was born in 1923 and grew up in Mobile, Alabama. He joined the Marine Corps just after the United States Pacific Fleet was bombed at Pearl Harbor; he had just turned 19 years old a month before. He served in K Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division (K/3/5).

Eugene Sledge during WWII

Sledge took part in the bloody fighting in Peleliu and Okinawa as a mortarman and rifleman, one of only 10 men from his regiment that took part in both of those campaigns and weren’t wounded. But while Sledge wasn’t awarded a Purple Heart, he was as deeply wounded as many other Marines by what he saw, did, and experienced.  

After the Japanese surrendered, Sledge was posted to China before being returned to the United States in 1946. He had a rough time transitioning to civilian life in Mobile after what he did during some of the most savage fighting in the war.

In 1946, Sledge was trying to register for classes at Alabama Polytechnic Institute — now Auburn University. Colleges were giving (and still do) college credit for some courses taken in the military. A young woman that Sledge described as a “pretty brunette” kept questioning him as to what schools he had attended as a Marine. When none of the numerous courses in tactics and weapons showed up on her list, she finally said in a loud exasperated voice, “Didn’t the Marine Corps teach you anything?!” 

The room became quiet, and Sledge, raising his voice, answered, “Lady, there was a killing war. The Marine Corps taught me how to kill Japs and try to survive. Now, if that don’t fit into any academic course, I’m sorry. But some of us had to do the killing — and most of my buddies got killed or wounded.”

Sledge was so affected by his wartime experiences that he could no longer hunt: the thought of killing or wounding an animal was abhorrent to him. His father, a physician, suggested he take up bird watching rather than hunting. Although he graduated with a BS in Business Administration, he returned to Auburn and studied science, eventually getting his Doctorate in Biology. 

But his love of science could only keep those nightmares of Peleliu and Okinawa at bay for so long. His wife urged him that he put his story on paper to ease his own internal suffering.