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).
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.
Although Marines were forbidden to keep a diary during the war, Sledge had broken with that policy and had jotted down notes in the copy of a New Testament he always carried with him.
He began compiling those notes and eventually in 1981, he had enough material to publish a book titled: With the Old Breed, at Peleliu and Okinawa. His book is so riveting, that the noted historian John Keegan who is himself a master at military history, called it, “one of the most important personal accounts of the war that I have ever read.” The Navy Times said that With the Old Breed is a work that “has been called the best World War II memoir of an enlisted man.”
Sledge’s book isn’t an exercise in strategic thought and there is little talk of any grand strategy in it. It is the memoir of a Marine who is just doing his best to survive in brutal, horrific conditions. While he does interject some overall historical context, Sledge and the Marines were just young men, trying to do their duty while struggling to understand what was the importance of these island specks in the Pacific and why so many of their own had to die to take them.
Peleliu was supposed to be a cakewalk… just a four-days’ business, some of the brass had said. The Navy would blast the Japanese defenders to oblivion and the Marines would just mop up. So the Navy blasted the island for three days with gunboats and airstrikes. It finally stopped because it said it had “run out of targets.” In actuality, the 11,000 Japanese defenders, heavily dug into caves, were hardly touched. Peleliu became “the bitterest battle of the war for the Marines.”
The Japanese were savage: They would desecrate the corpses of dead Marines by cutting their penises off and stuffing them into their mouths. Soon Americans start collecting war trophies and began cutting gold fillings out of the teeth of Japanese corpses. At first, Sledge was horrified by the actions.
Then, one day, Sledge found himself starting to pull a gold tooth out of a corpse. A medical corpsman told him “You shouldn’t do that — he could be carrying diseases.” Sledge stopped telling the medic he hadn’t thought of that.
Afterwards, Sledge realized that the corpsman wasn’t worried about disease at all — he saw that Sledge was about to cross a moral threshold, and brought him back from the brink:
“Reflecting on this episode after the war, I realized that Doc Caswell didn’t really have germs in mind. He was a good friend and a fine, genuine person whose sensitivity hadn’t been crushed out by the war. He was merely trying to help me retain some of mine and not become completely callous and harsh.”
Sledge witnessed another Marine start collecting the severed hands of dead Japanese soldiers. But thankfully that man was forced to bury them when other Marines told him they didn’t want the hands stinking up the place.
The Americans (Marines and the Army’s 81st Division) suffered over 10,000 casualties in the two-month-long battle. All but about 300 of the 11,000 Japanese were killed in the fighting.
But if Peleliu was bad, the experiences of Okinawa were arguably worse. Sledge wrote about his recurring nightmares of having to go back into the bloody line at Okinawa.
“The increasing dread of going back into action obsessed me,” he wrote. “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. It remains blurred and vague, but occasionally still comes, even after the nightmares about the shock and violence of Peleliu have faded and been lifted from me like a curse.”
In Okinawa, like in many other islands, dead bodies were everywhere, rotting in the sun and bringing thousands of flies that buzzed incessantly. Sledge was ordered to dig a foxhole and immediately began pulling up swarms of maggots. The stench of the rotting corpse assaulted his nostrils as realizes to his horror that he was literally digging through a dead Japanese soldier.
He stopped and was about to vomit. His sergeant ordered him to keep digging. Finally, a senior NCO came by and told him to dig a few feet over. But the stench lingered.
With the Old Breed is a graphic and important work. It shows what the cost of the war is and what it does physically and mentally to those in the midst of it. The men who came through it don’t put themselves on a pedestal; rather, they dwell on their friends who did not make it and feel awful guilt for having survived. You can find it on Amazon here.
It is one of the best books on World War II. It tells the story of what it was like to be a Marine in the island-hopping campaigns. It is a must-read for any history buff.