© Eugene Sledge 2003
Last week I read Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed, a memoir of his experiences in the Pacific War. The memoir ranks as one of the most effective I’ve ever read in conveying the horrors of the front, so I looked forward to its sequel. His second memoir, China Marine, describes his experiences while occupying parts of China in the four-month period following the end of Japan’s surrender and his reintegration into civilian life. I knew nothing of the United States’ partial occupation of China, which I surmise was done to effect the repatriation of Japan’s soldiers there.
China serves as a midpoint for Sledge and his fellow soldiers: although they maintain the discipline of Marine life while patrolling and tending to guard duty, they are also able to enjoy the rudiments of civilization. Immediate postwar China is home to four armed forces: the remnant of Japan’s Kwantung army, American occupational troops, and the Chinese Nationalist and Maoist armies. Although the United States is not officially involved in the Chinese civil war, the US government does provide transport to Nationalist soldiers and American troops sometimes stumble into conflicts between the Chinese forces, sometimes dying in the process. The intermittent and wholly unpredictable dangers of guard duty do little to alleviate the mentally stressed condition of combat veterans, but Sledge’s experience appears to have been more restful than not. This first four-fifths of the memoir was a new experience for me, having read nothing of China during this time or of American troops inside.
The remaining one-fifth of the book covers Sledge’s return to the United States and civilian life, where he is dismayed at how much his fellow citizens take for granted and how quick they are to complain about what he sees as trivialities -- laborers striking for better working conditions attack his ire within minutes of landfall*. Sledge’s believes that his introduction to academic life allowed him to recover from the war more easily: the mental rigors required to obtain his doctorate in biology keep thoughts of war far from mind. The memoir bears out the ways Sledge’s life changed owing to the war: not only did it give him a greater appreciation for the simple things in life (clean, dry, and warm socks for starters) but it ended his hobby of hunting.
Although the book is an easy read and has information worth nothing, it seems much less focused than With the old Breed and I sometimes wondered what the point of what I was reading was. The bottom fifth of the book seemed particularly rushed, but overall Sledge’s second memoir will be of interest to those interest in the lives of postwar soldiers.
* Sledge's hostility toward the laborers was disagreeable for me, but to be fair, according to him, one of them carried a sign comparing management to Hitler.