With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

Author: Eugene B. Sledge
ISBN: 0-19-506714-2
Reviewer: Bryan Hiatt
Review Date: 25 Jul 2005

E. B. Sledge's With the Old Breed - At Peleliu and Okinawa is a difficult book to describe. Memoirs from World War II are generally descriptive and paint a reasonably detailed view of the subject in question. Sledge, however, takes With the Old Breed to an entirely different level of description and analyses.

A biology professor after the war at the University of Montevallo in Alabama, Sledge brings an academic style to the text that flows easily from chapter to chapter. Sources are used, Sledge suggests, "to orient the reader to the larger war that raged around me and to be sure I had the names and places right" (319). But he is quick to point out that the text is a personal view of combat as he experienced it, from the ground as a infantryman (as part of a mortar team) in K/3/5. That's Company K, Third Battalion, Fifth Marines, 1st Marine Division (29).

Sledge begins his memoir admitting, like many men of his generation, he was "prompted by a deep feeling of uneasiness that the war might be over before [he] could get overseas into combat..."(5) so he joined the Marines. He initially found himself in Atlanta, continuing his college studies at Georgia Tech, and upon graduation, he would enter the Corps as an officer. But 90 men, nearly half of the student detachment, flunked out of the program, earning a trip to basic training in San Diego. Sledge was among them, still anxious to do his part (6).

Perhaps the book's most evident theme is the "feeling" of being of a Marine, what Sledge calls "esprit de corps." Readers will see it in many examples through the book, through Sledge's initial training, preparations for combat overseas, and in the grim Peleliu and Okinawa campaigns, where Marines regularly exposed themselves to fire to retrieve their wounded. From his training just prior to entering combat, we see this "esprit," played out on a dusty island road, from an army guy no less.

"Hey soldier," a dogface called to Sledge as he rested for a moment on the side of the road during a march. "You look tired and hot, soldier. Why don't you make the army get you a truck like me?

"Go to hell," Sledge yelled.

Straightaway, a another dogface yelled "stop calling that guy a soldier. He's a Marine. Can't you see the emblem? He’s not in the army. Don't insult him" (27). And so it is through this book. Sledge and his buddies in Company K did their best to live up to the difficult standard of being a Marine.

With the Old Breed is an especially graphic book and there are many examples here of downright awfulness (there is no better word for it). Sledge's company often fought in the same confined jungle areas for days on end and were witness to the decaying of corpses in all kinds of weather, from unbearable heat on Peleliu to the near constant rainfall on Okinawa. His descriptions of fat blow flies feasting on the corpses is particularly disgusting, as is his admission of being ordered to dig a fox hole in a particular spot on Okinawa, right where a Japanese soldier happened to be buried. Sledge made the discovery as he dug THROUGH the corpse, and was ordered to continue digging, until finally relieved of the task. And there are many more examples of similar awfulness, and Sledge does a remarkable job of detailing what he saw. There is no glorification of combat here. Just the facts.

Sledge also relates a few instances of fellow Marines extracting gold teeth from the Japanese dead. In one case, Sledge witnessed an extraction while the Japanese soldier was still alive. A Marine Sledge did not know drifted in after an engagement to take some "spoils." As the Marine drove his knife into the still live soldier, He was promptly shouted down by Sledge and others in Company K, and another Marine ran over and shot the Japanese soldier. The Marine took his prize and drifted away (120), cursing the others for their humanity.

Sledge refrained from extracting gold teeth from the dead for a while, but then decided to give it try, thinking his father (a doctor) might find the teeth interesting. Pulling out his KABAR knife, he leaned over to take his "spoils." A hand on his shoulder stopped him and pulled him back to his senses.

"'What are you going to do, Sledgehammer?' asked Doc Caswell. His expression was a mix of sadness and reproach as he looked intently at me." (123).

Caswell suggested to Sledge that extracting the teeth might expose him to unwanted "germs" from the corpse. Sledge continues:

"Reflecting on this episode after the war, I realized that Doc Caswell didn't really have germs in mind. He was a good friend and a fine, genuine person whose sensitivity hadn't been crushed out by the war. He was merely trying to help me retain some of mine and not become completely callous and harsh" (124).

From examples like this, Sledge proves again and again that With the Old Breed is a book with heart.

Sledge served with distinction through two campaigns without being wounded, and for him, this was a miracle considering all that he witnessed. Though he didn't win a medal, he won the respect of his fellow Marines, from his peers to the "old salts" of previous campaigns. He went on to serve in the post war Corps in China and his book China Marine recounts those experiences. Among World War II memoirs, With the Old Breed is one of the finest I've read. It will no doubt give readers an appropriate introduction to what Marines like Sledge endured in the Pacific.

For those seeking more information about Sledge, you can listen to the Studs Terkel (author of The Good War) interview here in six parts, and is worthwhile to hear the author speak about his experiences.

Also, check out WW2DB contributor Jimmy Lebel's review of With the Old Breed!



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Visitor Submitted Comments

  1. Elizabeth says:
    3 Oct 2007 01:00:14 PM

    In THE WAR the words of Sledge were powerful for me. I weep for these men who had little help for their deep psychological wounds. How incredibly strong and resilient humans can be.
  2. Mary says:
    3 Oct 2007 03:52:30 PM

    Finished watching The War by Ken Burns and wanted to know more about E. B. Sledge, I have not read his book but intend to. I spent about 2 hours this morning reading about Sledge and had a hard time pulling myself away. Powerful stuff.
  3. Robert says:
    4 Oct 2007 09:18:27 PM

    I read With the Old Breed some years ago, but hearing the spoken words in The War made his insightful observations so much more powerful. His remark that to civilians all veterans were the same, the guy who tapped keys on a typewriter was placed on the same level as the frontline combat soldier. That had to gall and embitter all infantry soldiers who suffered so much, both physically and psychologically.
  4. Cheryl says:
    29 Oct 2007 07:50:26 PM

    I just purchased With the Old Breed after watching Ken Burns documentary. It made me see WWII Veterans in an entirely different light. We pass by these Vets every day...now I intend to say Thank you.
  5. Tom says:
    7 Jan 2008 07:47:07 PM

    Throughout my entire adult life I have felt that my generation owed a debt of gratitude to that generation of men and women that fought, endured and won WWII a debt that can never be repaid. With every WWII war story I read and every documentary I see that feeling is revisited. But, it wasn’t until I read the memoirs of E.B. Sledge in “With the Old Breed” that the front line soldier’s sacrifice and toil and his willingness to endure to the end became real to me. E.B. Sledge has personified the incredible accomplishment and gift of his generation to mine. Though he has passed, I hope to thank him someday.
  6. Anonymous says:
    7 Jul 2008 11:36:09 PM

    Good ****
  7. Anonymous says:
    6 Dec 2008 09:04:41 AM

    I knew Dr. Sledge when I was a student at the University of Montevallo. I was a wonderful caring man. However he was very quiet. You could always tell that his experiences were not very far from the surface.
  8. W. Tyler says:
    18 Feb 2009 09:07:42 AM

    This is the most profound WWII memoir you will ever come across, and easily the best book I've ever had the pleasure of reading. You will not be able to put down the book. Sledge's memoir is written in such a way that you will not even realize that you're reading a book. You will feel as if you are amidst Sledge and his fellow Marines. READ THIS BOOK NOW. God bless all our service men and women for all they do. Semper Fi.
  9. anthny says:
    23 Feb 2009 08:12:19 PM

    Dr. Sledge is also interviewed in the documentary by The History Channel
    Ultimate Collections
    World War ll
    Okinawa: The Final Battle
    I have read the book twice and by far he brings the war home to where a guy born after the war can understand the pain and suffering that these heros withstood.
    Fifteen hundred men a day are dying and there are not many men left from that era.
    I talk to any guy who looks like he fought in the war from, they are a wealth of information that will be lost for good.
  10. Steve says:
    26 Feb 2009 06:17:11 PM

    I first read "With The Old Breed" in 2000. I've read it every year since. Nothing that I will ever face in my life is likely to equal that which "Sledgehammer" faced at the age of 19 and 20. This short memoir is the most impactful book I've read on war, any war. You can smell the stench of it. His follow up memoir is very good as well and you can feel the resentment for those who stayed behind in the U.S. Though Sledge volunteered to go, his bitterness towards those who did not serve and his own battle with PTSD is clear. Read this book and nothing about war will seem trivial, glorious, or exciting. Only very, very real.

    Also, try reading "Lieutenant Ramsey's War" by Edwin Price Ramsey. Ramsey led the last Cavalry charge in U.S. military history in the Philippines in WWII, then stayed behind to run guerrilla operations for MacArthur. Awesome book!
  11. Anonymous says:
    10 Jul 2009 12:31:20 AM

    My Grandfather was there and is mentioned in the book. The pictures he had were enough to wrench my stomach. It's amazing what people can live through. Much respect
  12. K. Wood says:
    30 Jul 2009 09:19:26 PM

    I've just finished "With The Old Breed" for the second time, yet again in awe of what men of my father's generation lived through fighting WWII. I grew up with stories of Tarawa,Saipan and Tinian, all be it not as graphic as Sledge's account. "With The Old Breed" should be required reading for high school seniors to put their lives into perspective.
  13. Tex says:
    19 Aug 2009 06:43:25 AM

    An old Marine that slipped through between Korea and Vietnam, I read this book in many small doses. Had to take time off to, breath! If people want to know what war is like, up close and personal, and what Marines are all about, this is the book ... but be prepared for the shock and pain of it all.
  14. Phil Pangborn says:
    26 Oct 2009 10:19:12 PM

    A gripping book, I could not put it down. No less a historian than John Keegan calls this book "The greatest enlisted man's memoir of combat since the Civil War". Amen to that. Absolutely should be required reading in American high schools (but it probably never will be).
  15. Charles says:
    28 Nov 2009 11:57:11 AM

    I just read 'With the old breed'. I am researching my fathers military career in the pacific. He was a major in the Dutch army and worked as intelligence officer with the US 6th army in New Guinea in 1944. Reading much about the Pacific war and all the horrors of war, Sledge's story is just tremendous. After reading his book I found out more about Eugene Sledge on the internet. He gave some fabulous interviews and his style of storytelling is very special indeed. After seeing the tv series ' The War' and other original material of the period, I have now a much better insight on wat was really goin on over there. The new serie 'The Pacific' will be a fitting memorial to al the Sledges of the world and to the Marine corps in particular. My hat is off to all these brave men who fought for our freedom.
  16. hahah yeah i like cats :) says:
    5 Jan 2010 03:14:23 PM

    i had to read this book for school, i loved it
  17. AJV says:
    22 Feb 2010 11:54:29 AM

    So like others, I just read this book and was amazed, horrified, and any number of other adjectives. I'm glad he was able to keep his humanity through it all. Surely one of the best books I've ever read, as horrible as much of the material is. I particularly enjoyed his descriptions of the relationships he formed with the other men of K/3/5, and the warm feeling he got when a Gloucester veteran told him he "did okay" on Peleliu. Again, amazing read, I'll probably read it many more times.
  18. Anonymous says:
    4 Mar 2010 05:03:27 PM

    i cant wait to read this book and see the new movie about the book called The Pacific
  19. Gregg Heilman says:
    10 Mar 2010 05:15:10 PM

    The "Old Breed" brings back memories of my father giving our son an interview for his 9 TH Grade History Class as a school project.

    My father had enlisted in 1937 and was present during the Attack on Hickam December 7, 1941. He served in the Pacific until 1945.

    I have his words in type and on a CD I transfered from a cassette tape.

    It is only recording of my fathers voice I can listen to since his death in his favorite chair quietly one night.

    After his death I was given all his papers materials, medals and photos from his time in the military.

    He explained to our son that his serial number was that of an enlisted man not a draftee. The "Old Breed" took pride in that fact, they were there from day one to defend the country they served and loved.

    With his papers I have made contact with several other families who had loved ones in my father's photos. They too were of the "Old Breed" and were the VERY FIRST ARMY AIR CORP TO GO INTO THE PACIFIC after the Japanese Attacks of December 7 th. Their Unit fought at Midway, the Solomon Islands, Guadalcanal, Espiritu Santos and many died in that first year of the Pacific Campaign of 1942.

    On February 1, 1943 my fathers' 42 Squadron of the 11 BG H lost their last three B-17s and entire crews over the Pacific. In the Pacific bodies and shot down planes were never recovered as in Europe.

    The "Old Breed" lived in tents that were full of disease, mosquitoes and rot. The hospitals were full of wounded and very sick men nearly everyday.

    In the Pacific in 1942 it was made clear to the "Old Breed" the war in Europe had to be won first. As a result the Air Corp in the Pacific NEVER had enough materials, men, bombs, fuel, medicine and ammunition.

    Few returned from the original 11 BG H. My father did and he trained those who came to replace the "Old Breed" who were his family since 1937.

    One of three men he later trained I have come to know told me how my father trained them like the "Old Breed" in the movie "All is Quiet on the Western Front".

    Warren Coats told me, "Your father told us what a shell sounded like coming over you or one coming down on you sounded like." He said, " I would not be here today without your fathers "Old Breed" experiences and training from the first campaigns of the Air Corp in the Pacific.

    Yet NO ONE is left to remind people of sacrifices of the "Old Breed" or honor those who did not return. Just us their families, their sons, grandchildren, brothers and men like Warren Coats. Coats who had the serial number of a replacement, but also the serial number of a Brave American who came to continue the fight on to victory in the Pacific.

    Recently I spoke to a Gunner from the 8 TH Air Corp. I told him about my father in the 11 BG H in the Pacific. He said "your father's Air Corp Units had it real bad, real bad. They never had a hot meal or a dry bed. The only thing they had in abundance was disease and **** .
  20. Daniel says:
    12 Mar 2010 06:59:04 PM

    Mr. Sledge told the truth of the matter, others have done it also. William Manchester's "Goodbye Darkness" is is probably the only other book that puts the horrible truth of what that forgotten Pacific War did to the Marines, Soldiers, and Sailors who served there.

    Sam Watkins is another Master of The Reality of Total War. His war was our Civil War, his book "Company Aytch" is much like Mr. Sledge's, not a glorified history, but a raw recounting of What it Was Really Like, told in way that makes you feel like your wearing confederate gray. You will never look at The Civil War the same one you've made friends with Sam.

    Books like these should be read by every American. I was a U.S. Marine and I never forgot for a second that men like Mr. Sledge and Mr. Manchester had worn that uniform also. I am a Tennessean by birth and have gained a clearer understanding of why those men fought for their cause long after hope, food and dear friends were gone.
  21. Anonymous says:
    17 May 2010 03:09:36 PM

    I believe many people have a keen desire to know what the experience of combat is really like.I personally have read many books and watch every documentary or movie that might explain this more fullyY .It wasn't until I read this book that I felt I really knew what combat is REALLY like.
    Sledge takes you into the heart of the experience and does more than just give you the facts.He makes you feel the experience.
  22. Doug in St. Louis says:
    18 May 2010 11:41:24 PM

    I was an 0300 grunt at Con Thien in '68. I thought I had it bad ...
  23. Pete Donahue says:
    25 May 2010 12:20:24 PM

    As the son of a Pacific War veteran (Saipan and Tinian)I thought I read everything from Pearl Harbor to the surrender on the Battleship Missouri. However, thanks to the HBO Series Pacific, I will pick up a copy of With the Old Breed by EB Sledge. I have listened to some of the many interviews he graciously gave recounting his experiences and I'm in awe of the fact that he kept his humanity and humility. God bless his soul and the men and women like him who served our country so gallantly.

    Thank you Mr. Sledge for your service to our country. Rest in peace.
  24. Greg DiGiovanna says:
    29 May 2010 03:11:58 AM

    I just finished watching "The Pacific" Series and I have to tell you the "Old Corps" Marines are an amazing fighting machine - Hoo-Rhaa. I served in USMC 1969-73 and have the greatest respect for what our WWII Vets did for our country. We as a country have forgotten how to win a war.

    I am ordering Eugene Sledge's book to gain a greater understanding of what our WWII Marine Heros did for the USA and the world.

    Semper Fi Marines...
  25. Anonymous says:
    4 Jun 2010 04:01:09 AM

    I am an Australian and although we have our own campaigns waged in the Pacific one cant help but admire what US Marines went through on I wo Jima Guadalcanal and the other islands portrayed in HBOs series The Pacific which has just finished screening here in Australia(most of it filmed here in Queensland by the way)we shall always be grateful to our US allies during these darkest hours,I for one will never forget what those men suffered and did.
  26. Chris Dixon(ENGLAND) says:
    12 Oct 2010 01:57:09 PM

    I don't really know what to say I thought I could reel off loads of complements about this book but I can't because I would be here all day its that well written and documented.Although excellent forget Pacific read the book.Those brave U.S Marines deserve the up most respect tough bastards.
  27. tpartridge says:
    14 Oct 2010 10:31:15 AM

    I finished his book for a project in a history course. As a veteran of Iraq two times I could relate to some of his feelings. Even though I am a support person. His story was amazing, He had great admiration for veterans who went before him. That stands out to me. He is an inspiration to anyone serving in uniform. Thank you Sir for your selfless service to out great nation and the opportunity to continue to serve today!
  28. Don Jarmon says:
    8 Nov 2010 01:50:22 PM

    As a member of the military book club back in the early eighties I purchased my copy of “With the Old Breed”, I can remember sitting down just after receiving it and thumbing through the pages, at the time I was working evenings and the time was approaching for me to head out for work but as I began to read I knew I would not be going in that day. Luckily my manager at the time was a WWII vet he was stationed on the Cruiser USS Pittsburg that lost its bow during the famous Halsey typhoon and someone that understood my fascination for that era and gladly granted my short request for a vacation day. I spent the remainder of the evening engrossed in Sledge’s book, the next day I reread several chapters and I began to realize this book had changed me somehow. As it sat there just holding the book I noticed on the books dust cover information about Mr. Sledge and that he was a professor at the University of Montevallo in Alabama, before I knew it I was on the phone calling information. I asked for the main number at UMA, when I called the university operator answered and I asked for professor Sledge, she said, “Hold please” and the next thing I heard was, “Gene Sledge here”. It all happened so fast, I grasp for the words of what I wanted to say, I told him I’d just read his book and how much it had changed my perspective not just on the war but deeper things that I really couldn’t put my finger on. He was great, we had wonderful 15 minute conversation, one that almost 30 years later is still a treasured moment. The changes I experienced then from reading With the Old Breed are still very much evident today, just ask my two boys, every time they would complain about a chore or school work I’d tell them, “hey be glad because it could be much worse, you could be thrusting in the stifling heat of Peleliu or laying in maggot infested mud of Okinawa wondering of the next bullet or mortar round had your name on it. Perspective! Needless to say, they both have read it more than once. Thank you men of Company K, Third Battalion, Fifth Marines, 1st Marine Division and the countless others who gave so much to protect the freedoms we enjoy in this country today.

    Don J Franklin, TN
  29. Anonymous says:
    10 Dec 2010 07:44:29 PM

    Being an ex-marine and veteran sledge hits it home and hard. Marines love, rely and die for each other. Sledge personifies the willingness to endure hell on earth and beyond for his fellow marine. God bless us all the few the proud that carry the bonds that go beyond family & friends.
  30. Buck says:
    4 Jan 2011 02:18:13 AM

    Mr. Sledge's book is so painfully authentic as to beggar the thought of any part of it being fictionalized. He and his comrades were truly American heroes. I also was equally impressed with Russell Davis' similar book "Marine At War" which describes his combat experiences on Peleliu and Okinawa. Through the years I had heard bits and pieces of stories like theirs from veteran friends, but found these detailed, articulate accounts to be fascinating and instructive.
  31. Dale says:
    1 Feb 2011 03:21:01 PM

    As great as this book is, it reminds me of my father who served in the European theater of operations. How he gave me a single piece of paper with how he was awarded a Bronze Star for walking into a mine field to rescue his Captain, and in the same instance how he became blinded when a mine blew up in his face during this same event, during the Battle of the Bulge, Dec. 1944. I buried my dad on Nov. 10, 2009., I wrote out his legacy in his own words for my grandchildren. Like Eugene Sledge, he will be missed forever.
  32. Gahan says:
    20 Aug 2012 07:21:07 AM

    After watching "The Pacific" I read this book.
    Harrowing and terrifying, i couldn't put it down.
    My father was Marine who served in the Pacific in WW2 on Guam as part of the 3rd Marine Division. We owe them everything.
  33. model 1939 uniform says:
    10 Jan 2013 12:07:23 AM

    The Swedish military uniform classed as 1939 was extremely similar to the of the German uniforms. Including tunic, trousers, waterbottles etc. I feel Sweden was always going to be on the 'winning' side no matter what result of the war.

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