The last episode of Ken Burns’ The War aired last night. Marni and I watched about 70% of it (and recorded the entire series on several VHS tapes). It was absolutely captivating. A great balance of historical coverage on how WWII progressed in each of the major theatres combined with the personal stories of several families from Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; Waterbury, Connecticut; and Luverne, Minnesota.
The soldier Eugene Sledge stood out to me. While engaging in several years of fighting in the Pacific, Sledge would keep an informal diary on loose sheets of paper that he would stick in the pages of his pocket New Testament. Every now and then, the producers of THE WAR would directly quote Sledge, read by one particular actor in a dry, laconic tone (which seemed to fit Sledge’s personality). I kept saying to my wife Marni: “What a fantastic writer!” Particularly when I considered that he was not exactly recording his musings in an ideal environment. His records of the major battles at Peleliu and Okinawa were later published (at his wife’s urging) in the 352-page volume entitled With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa. Sledge’s memoirs were later named one of the top five books in epic 20th-century battles, and with good reason. The book is currently the 116th best-selling book on Amazon. Consider some of these excerpts:
On his enlisting with the Marine Corps:
Prompted by a deep feeling of uneasiness that the war might end before I could get overseas into combat, I enlisted in the Marine Corps at Marion, Alabama. The recruiting sergeant asked me lots of questions and filled out numerous official papers. When he asked, “Any scars, birthmarks, or other unusual features?”? I described an inch-long scar on my knee. I asked why such a question. He replied, “So they can identify you on some Pacific beach after the Japs blast off your dog tags.”
On fighting in Peleliu:
We existed in an environment totally incomprehensible to men behind the lines–service troops and civilians. To the noncombatants and those on the periphery of action, the war meant only boredom or occasional excitement; but to those who entered the meat grinder itself, the war was a nether world of horror from which escape seemed less and less likely as casualties mounted and the fighting dragged on and on. Time had no meaning; life had no meaning. The fierce struggle [in the abyss of Peleliu] eroded the veneer of civilization and made savages of us all.
On leaving Peleliu:
As I struggled upward (onto the boat) with my load of equipment, I felt like a weary insect climbing a vine. But at last I was crawling up out of the abyss of Peleliu! I stowed my gear on my rack and went topside. The salt air was delicious to breathe. What a luxury to inhale long deep breaths of fresh clean air, air that wasn’t heavy with the fetid stench of death. But something in me died at Peleliu. Perhaps it was a childish innocence that accepted as faith the claim that man is basically good. Possibly I lost faith that politicians in high places who do not have to endure war’s savagery will ever stop blundering and sending others to endure it.
On fighting in Okinawa, after Germany surrendered:
Nazi Germany might as well have been on the moon. On Okinawa no one cared much. We were resigned only to the fact that the Japanese would fight to total extinction as they had elsewhere, and that Japan would have to be invaded with the same gruesome prospects.
Reflecting on V-J day:
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. So many dreams lost in the madness that had engulfed us. Except for a few widely scattered shouts of joy, the survivors of the abyss sat hollow-eyed and silent, trying to comprehend a world without war.
Mr. Sledge apparently had great difficulty adjusting upon his return. He went to business school on the G-I bill, tried the insurance industry, and later quit. Eventually, he studied biology and became a teacher. His wife said that the study of nature helped him maintain his sanity. He passed away in 2001.