Book Review: With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

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The documented history of the United States Marines serving in the Pacific during World War II is vast and extremely abundant. Textbooks, documentaries, and even Hollywood productions have proven to be accurate as to the details of this theater of war. Nothing, however, can substitute for a first-person narrative presented by an enlisted man who fought on the front lines; the best of which is E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa.[1] This account of the Pacific theater was written from notes taken and thoughts recorded by Sledge during his time on Peleliu and Okinawa.

It took him more than three decades for him to muster the ability to relate his experience to the public. Sledge not only wrote as a means by which to exorcise his demons, what we now know to be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but also to offer his audience a glimpse into the psyche of all of the naïve and gentle young men who sacrificed in the Pacific and suffered at home. With the Old Breed covers the misconception held by Americans that the Japanese Imperial Army was inferior to the U.S. military, the physical and psychological afflictions endured by the young Marines, and exposes the full and dehumanizing circumstances of war.

In 1942, Eugene Sledge was a nineteen year old boy who romanticized war. As he was born in Mobile Alabama in 1923, Civil war veterans were still alive to regale young boys with their stories of battle for the Old South. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Sledge felt the need to bring to life his romantic notions and fight against the Japanese. He enlisted in the Marines, K Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division (knowns as K-3/5), in December 1942 and was trained as a mortar man. At the time of his enlistment, Sledge was a freshman training to be an officer at Marian Military Institute. He dropped out in order to be a fighting Marine before the war was over. Sledge was not alone in his attitude. Many of his peers did the same; eschewing the relative safety of staying at the academy and serving as an officer in order to engage in battle in the Pacific. This attests not only to the sense of patriotism at the time but also to the lack of understanding and naiveté regarding war itself, and specifically the ability and tenacity of the enemy.

Eugene Sledge, 1946.

The Japanese Imperial Fleet was underestimated by the U.S. government and this misconception was handed down to front-line Marines. Sledge notes that in certain instances, “the Japanese had advantage over the Americans in numbers, choice of terrain, and even supply.” Further, he adds that the U.S. had a tendency to “underestimate the wartime technology of imperial Japan, forgetting that it was often as good as, or even superior to, American munitions.”[2]This, coupled with the fact that the U.S. placed a higher priority on defeating Nazi Germany than the Japanese, raised a feeling of being expendable among the Marines. Going into battle under these circumstances quickly erased the romantic beliefs held by Sledge and his peers when they first experienced combat.

Sledge’s first experience with battle came just two months before his twenty-first birthday on September 15, 1944 when the Marines landed at Peleliu. With the Old Breed details not only the assault on the island, it also provides a glimpse into the minds of young men experiencing this type of violence for the first time. Sledge describes the feeling of waiting to disembark the amtrac. His “stomach was tied in knots,” and his “knees nearly buckled.” He felt “nauseated and feared that [his] bladder would surely empty itself,” and reveal his as a coward. His concern abated somewhat when he noticed the men around him seemed to feel the same. This description debunks the myth of the larger-than-life American hero dodging bullets while running ashore to defeat the enemy. For the first time, these young men (most of whom were 18-20 years of age) faced “violent explosions and snapping bullets,” and like Sledge were “benumbed by the shock of it.”[3]The innocence of the gentle young man from Mobile was quickly erased and with each scene of horror, the sickness and shock altered his being.

Marines taking cover in foxholes on the beach at Peleliu, September 1944.

It was on Peleliu that Sledge encountered his first enemy corpse. He describes the dead Japanese soldier as being “on his back, his abdominal cavity laid bare.” Sledge stared “in horror, shocked at the glistening viscera bespecked with fine coral dust. This can’t have been a human being…I felt sick as I stared at the corpses.” Sledge continues by describing the actions of his fellow Marines and questions his own morality: “The corpses were sprawled where the veterans had dragged them around to get into their packs and pockets. Would I become so casual and calloused about enemy dead? Would the war dehumanize me so that I, too, could ‘field strip’ enemy dead with such nonchalance? The time soon came when it didn’t bother me a bit.”[4]The tolerance and numbness were not unique to Sledge as the majority of Marines devolved into mere killing machines whose humanity was suspended for the duration of the war.

Those who were incapable of enduring the slaughter, rain, mud, maggots, hunger, disease, and fear simply went mad. Sledge recounts an event where a fellow Marine on Peleliu began pleading with the company dog for help. According to Sledge, “The poor Marine had cracked up completely. The stress of combat had finally shattered his mind.” Because the man was making loud noises and was uncontrollable, he was killed by his comrades for the safety of the group.[5]Seemingly horrific to the reader, civilian, or even officers at the Command Post well behind the lines, this event is but one example of “the incredible cruelty that decent men would commit when reduced to a brutish existence in their own fight for survival amid the violent death, terror, tension, fatigue, and filth that was the infantryman’s war.” The undervalued Battle of Peleliu was one of the most ferocious and gruesome of the Pacific war and these men struggled for survival to the point where the struggle “eroded the veneer of civilization and made savages of us all.”[6]Living in savagery on Peleliu and Okinawa came to an end with the surrender of Japan in August 1945.[7]

K-3/5 on Peleliu, October, 1944.

Where do warriors go when the battle has ended? That is another topic discussed in With the Old Breed. Marines returned home to find non-veterans who “griped because America wasn’t perfect, or their coffee wasn’t hot enough, or they had to stand in line and wait for a train or a bus.”[8]These men had just returned from places such as Peleliu and Okinawa, places Sledges describes as “hell’s own cesspool,” and could not adjust to the attitude held on the home front.[9]Many veterans from all branches of the military and theaters of war had a difficult time adjusting to civilian life. Most problematic of all for the returning combatants was the sense of alienation from those who did not share the same experiences. A veteran who did not experience nightmares was a rarity. The majority of men, such as Sledge who suffered nightmares until his death, isolated themselves and did not share their war activity with their families. Some became violent and many turned to drugs and alcohol. Then it was labeled Combat Fatigue, today it is called PTSD. This is a very real and prevalent condition, one that makes With the Old Breed just as relevant today as when it was first published in 1981.

The writing of this memoir was a cathartic event for Sledge. He not only dealt with his own unresolved issues, he also hoped to aid other veterans who he knew suffered in a similar manner. This book is an invaluable piece of history and an exceptional teaching tool. As the author states, “It is not a history, and it is not my story alone. I have attempted, rather, to be the spokesman for my comrades, who were swept with me into the abyss of war. I hope they will approve my efforts.”[10]Indeed they will.

References

  1. E.B. Sledge, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (1981, repr., New York: Presidio Press, 2007).
  2. Sledge, 1.
  3. Sledge, 58-60.
  4. Sledge, 64-65.
  5. Sledge, 100.
  6. Sledge, 120.
  7. The formal signing of the surrender treaty occurred on September 2, 1945.
  8. Sledge, 268.
  9. Sledge, 253.
  10. Sledge, 1.

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