With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa
Contributor: Jimmy Lebel
Review Date: 5 Nov 2010
I have just finished reading With the Old Breed by E.B Sledge. I really had to step back for a few weeks after I had completed it in order to fully reflect on what I had just experienced.
Like all WWII memoirs, With the Old Breed had no shortage of graphic accounts of what combat was really like for the U.S. Marines fighting in the Pacific Theater. Sledge was a 60mm mortar man attached to the Third Battalion, 5th Marines. This of course was only after he had intentionally flunked out of officer training stateside in order to get to the fight quicker. This was the first obvious indicator of Sledge's true character in the book. He just wanted to get to where most would do anything to avoid, but also the most important place: the front lines. And getting to the fight is just what Sledge did. He was soon on his way across the Pacific Ocean to two of the bloodiest, hardest fought conflicts of the Pacific conflict with Japan. Peleliu and Okinawa.
Keeping a diary back then was prohibited, so getting really accurate accounts of specific battles from Marines memories alone is usually the norm. And naturally, in the utter chaos that combat is, much must be missed. Sledge however had the wits about him to take notes in the margins of his Old Testament whenever something struck him as significant. These notes clearly aided him in creating such a vivid recollection of certain battles and situations that do nothing short of leave you with your jaw on the floor. Sledge is able to get down to even the minute details of certain events, like this time on Peleliu where the gravity of his situation was hitting him.
We received the password as darkness settled on us, and a drizzling rain began. We felt isolated listening to moisture dripping from the trees and splashing softly into the swamp. It was the darkest night I ever saw. The overcast sky was as black as the dripping mangroves that walled us in. I had the sensation of being in a great black hole and reached out to touch the sides of the gun pit to orient myself. Slowly the reality of it all formed in my mind: we were expendable!
It was difficult to accept. We come from a nation and a culture that values life and the individual. To find oneself in a situation where your life seems of little value is the ultimate in loneliness. It is a humbling experience. Most of the combat veterans had already grappled with this realization on Guadalcanal, or Gloucester, but it struck me out in that swamp.
Just for one second, try to put yourself in that hole, in that place, and at that time. Now imagine coming to grips with all of this suddenly. It amazes me that Sledge had the mental strength to even have such a complex thought. But it is even more amazing that he was able to bring these feelings back for us to read so clearly after he had survived these conflicts; that feat is truly a significant accomplishment. Sledge just does an incredible job in relaying these experiences to the reader. In my opinion, it is the next best thing to have actually having been there. Sledge holds absolutely nothing back either, like explaining the ugly side of combat that even Hollywood would be cautious to tackle.
While I was removing a bayonet and scabbard from dead Japanese, I noticed a Marine near me. He wasn't in our mortar section but had happened by and wanted to get in on the spoils. He came up to me dragging what I assumed to be a corpse. But the Japanese wasn't dead. He had been wounded severely in the back and couldn't move his arms; otherwise he would have resisted to his last breath.
The Japanese's mouth glowed with huge gold-crowned teeth, and his captor wanted them. He put the point of his kabar on the base of a tooth and hit the handle with the palm of his hand. Because the Japanese was kicking his feet and thrashing about, the knife point glanced off the tooth and sank deeply into the victim's mouth. The Marine cursed him and with a slash cut his cheeks open to each ear. He put his foot on the sufferers' lower jaw and tried again. Blood poured out of the solders mouth. He made a gurgling noise and thrashed wildly.
After his tell all accounts of these two horrific conflicts, after you are almost in shock by what this man had to endure, he ends his masterpiece:
War is brutish, inglorious and a terrible waste. Combat leaves an indelible mark on those who are forced to endure it. The only redeeming factors were my comrades' incredible bravery and their devotion to each other. Marine Corps training taught us to kill efficiently and try to survive. But it also taught us loyalty to each other-and love. The esprit de corps sustained us all.
Until the millennium arrives and countries cease trying to enslave others, it will be necessary to accept one's responsibilities and to be willing to make sacrifices for one's country-as my comrades did. As the troops used to say, "If the country is good enough to live in, it's good enough to fight for." With great privileges goes responsibility.
This is the man that Sledge was. This last phrase gives me goose bumps. No wonder Tom Brokaw calls this the "greatest generation of our time". This book is an absolute must read.
Also, check out WW2DB contributor Bryan Hiatt's review of With the Old Breed!
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Lt. Gen. Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, at Guadalcanal