With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa
Contributor: 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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Lt. Gen. Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, at Guadalcanal