Friday, December 18, 2009

With the Old Breed

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa
© 1981 Eugene B. Sledge
326 pages

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."

I've been at my university for two and a half years now, and have heard much about Eugene Sledge's With the Old Breed, largely because he taught biology at this same university for several decades. History majors in particular hear about Sledge, as our professors are quick to recommend it. They do so with good reason. With the Old Breed is titled as such because Sledge, an Alabama native, fought two major battles of the Pacific War in the oldest and most experienced division and battalion in the Marines: pride in his company and its history marks Sledge throughout the book.

The book is written in a simple narrative, as the author values communicating a sense of the grittiness of his and his comrades' life than he is about composing artistic sentences. Style is simple, and sentences are short and to the point. Sledge's personal accounts are supplemented by italicized portions of text that allow Sledge to speak as as historian, as there he explains Pacific strategy relating to his experiences as he now understands it, or offers greater detail on subjects that Sledge-as-soldier missed.This is easily the grittiest war memoir I've ever read, perhaps even the grittiest book:  I've read other Pacific War memoirs (William Manchester's Goodbye, Darkness and  Samuel Stavisky's Marine Combat Correspondent come to mind), but they don't come close to rivaling this book in terms of visceral detail. I stopped reading at several points to recover. His accounts prior to and following the attack on Shuri Castle are especially grim. One of the more miserable scenes depicted in the book is of Sledge serving as a forward artillery observer beyond the platoon's main lines: he maintained a nightly vigil over an area he describes in this way:

Everywhere lay Japanese corpses killed in heavy fighting. Infantry equipment of every type, U.S. and Japanese, was scattered about. Helmets, rifles, BARs, packs, cartridge belts, canteens, shoes, ammo boxes, shell cases, machine-gun ammo belts, all were strewn about us up to and over Half Moon.
The mud was knee-deep in some places, probably deeper in others if one ventured there. For several feet around every corpse, maggots crawled about in the muck and then were washed away by the runoff of the rain. There wasn't a tree or bush left. All was open country. Shells had torn up the turf so completly tht ground cover was nonexistent. The scene was nothing but mud; shell fire; flooded craters with their silent, pathetic, rotting occupants; knocked-out tanks and ambtracs; and discarded equipment -- utter desolation.
The stench of death was overpowering.[...] I existed from moment to moment, thinking death would have been preferable. We were in the depths of the abyss, the ultimate horrors of war. [...] [I]n the mud and driving rain before Shuri, we were surrounded by maggots and decay. Men struggled and fought in an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell's own cesspool.

Soon after, he is ordered to dig a foxhole -- but stumbles into the shallow grave of a Japanese soldier, not that the NCO who ordered foxholes to be dug five feet apart from one another cared. Sledge doesn't spend a lot of time talking about combat itself, although it does happen as very active background. Only in a few instances does actual combat enter into the picture, as it does when he describes his first time shooting a Japanese intruder at close range. It seemed to me that a lot of attention was paid to the absolute hellishness of the conditions. Slege also railed against the stupidity of war in general,  but ended on the grudging note that sometimes hell has to be endured for a righteous cause. The book is an invaluable resource for historians, offering dismal details on the physical and emotional conditions and suffering of Pacific War soldiers.

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