My wife and I learned of Eugene Sledge when we had the pleasure of viewing Ken Burns’ new documentary, The War, on PBS. A marine infantryman who fought in the Peleliu and Okinawa campaigns, Sledge was repeatedly quoted by Burns in the depiction of those battles. Apparently, Sledge kept an informal diary on loose sheets of paper that he would stick in the pages of his pocket New Testament. His sentences were vivid; each containing articulate, descriptive force, and the characteristic stark realism of marine life. For example, the night before the Peleliu invasion, having not yet experienced combat, Sledge notes:
“I concluded that it was impossible for me to be killed, because God loved me. Then I told myself that God loved us all and that many would die or be ruined physically or mentally or both by the next morning and in the days following.” (50)
I kept telling Marni, “This guy must have been a writer after the war.” He was actually a biology professor, but wrote a memoir called With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa in 1981 (reprinted again in 2007). What’s amazing is that he survived the war at all. He was one of just twenty-six marines in his company to survive both campaigns unwounded.
Marni read his book in its entirety; I’m still on page 80 and finding it fascinating. She was kind enough to write a review for us, which I thought I’d post on Veterans Day. We’d like to take this opportunity–small though it may be–to express our appreciation for the men who gave their lives in WWII to protect the liberties we enjoy every day. Hitler had his eyes on America; Japan had already attacked. You answered the call and fought, as Ken Burns has said, “a necessary war on our behalf.” Thank you for your courage, sacrifice, and example.
Sledge enlisted in the Marine Corps on December 3, 1942 although he was a freshman at Marion Military Institute. He explains that he quit college because he was “prompted by a deep feeling of uneasiness that the war might end” before he could get overseas. But his parents wanted him to become a military officer, so he compromised by signing up for the V-12 new officer training program. That put him in a comfortable classroom in Georgia Tech–and with boring teachers, detached from the war. At the end of the first semester, Sledge was one of ninety men (half the detachment) to intentionally flunk out of school in order to be allowed to enter the Marine Corps as enlisted men.
With the Old Breed walks us through boot camp, Sledge’s training at Camp Elliot, further training at Pavuvu, and then into the battle of Peleliu. I was struck by Sledge’s maturity, bravery, and almost unqualified respect for those in his chain of command. How different from so many 18-19 year old men today! Sledge paints a vivid picture of the horrors of war, providing a clear context of the larger scale troop movements and progress while also dwelling on the relationships of the soldiers, the details of daily life (from wet socks, to enjoying scavenged Japanese rations of sea scallops, to “field sanitation”), and countless anecdotes of incidents showing the bravery of the men and their devotion to each other.
In no way does Sledge glorify the war. He describes it eloquently as “brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waste.” The stress the men endure and the atrocities they witness slowly (or quickly) dehumanized many of them, to the point that some are guilty of atrocious acts, like looting the gold teeth of a still-living Japanese soldier. Sledge does not spare readers (except he must have heavily edited the epithets uttered) the misery of their surroundings, the terror of being constantly under barrage by machine gun bullets and enemy shells, or the despair at the senseless loss of life.
As miserable and fearful as he was in battle, he never once expresses regret. There is a sense that despite all the misery and futility the war was still necessary. But what seemed to motivate Sledge was not the abstract principle of protecting the American way of life. It was the comradeship and commitment he shared with his fellow marines, the knowledge that they were going through this together as friends and that each of them would die to save the others. Still, on the last page of the book, he says: “If the country is good enough to live in, it’s good enough to fight for. With privilege goes responsibility.”
The book is a page-turner. Written in a calm, almost detached way, Sledge’s memoirs are surprisingly engaging and even suspenseful. I read it very carefully, not wanting to miss a word, feeling as though I was experiencing the war along with Company K (though thankfully without the maggots, flooded foxholes, or constant threat to my life).