A close relative served in the U.S. Navy prior to and during World War Two. Though reluctant to share his experiences with family members, there were times when I could get him to spin a few "sea stories" that were decidedly more truth than fiction. (Why enhance a story when you've already got good material to work with?) One of the underlying concepts, however, was the natural rivalry between sailors and Marines. For example, more than one of these bedtime stories included tales of how two sailors would enter an establishment where liquid refreshment was served.
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Upon approaching a bar lined with Marines, the sailors would split, one to each end of the bar, and order their drin... uh, refreshments. After a couple of minutes, one sailor would yell to his shipmate at the other end of the bar and say: "Hey Joe!! What color are Marine Corps uniforms?!"
The owner of the establishment would then bar the door to keep out the SP's while the sailors and Marines would practice a little interior decorating. Once things were settled, everyone would kick into a kitty at the bar to pay for the furniture; one such establishment, owned by an old chief petty officer, actually having a 'factory' for tables and chairs in the basement. No one, usually, was seriously hurt; it was typically and simply a way to let off some steam. In a very real sense, it was just a 'game.'
But, as my relative would wind up the story, he would inevitably point out that this was fun until the "New Breed" was brought along with WWII enlistments. The "new guys" just never seemed to get it or know how to play the game. The old guys, the Old Breed, now they were (expletive deleted) Old Marines...
The following review is based on the 2007 Presidio Press Trade Paperback Edition of With The Old Breed At Peleliu and Okinawa by E.B. Sledge. Referenced in the PBS series The War, by Ken Burns, this edition is 357 pages, including frontis material, Foreward, text, appendix, bibliography, and index. Originally published in 1981, this edition also includes a new, 2007 introduction by noted author and professor, Victor Davis Hanson. There are a handful of maps and quite a number of black & white photographs. The cover price is $14.95; but, I managed to pick up my copy at Costco for $8.99.
Eugene Sledge's work is considered a classic of military literature. In fact, if you are in the company of Marines, particularly older ones, his name carries some weight; his nickname, "Sledgehammer," drawing immediate awareness of to whom you are referring. The author's intent was not fame, but catharsis. In many respects, it is not that unusual for veterans of WWII who actually had "been there and done that" to understate their experiences or not wish to talk about them at all; particularly as regards actual combat. As he states in his Preface:
"This book is an account of my World War II experiences in training and in combat with Company K, 3d Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division during the Peleliu and Okinawa campaigns. It is not a history, and it is not my story alone. I have attempted, rather, to be the spokesman for my comrades... I began writing this account immediately after Peleliu... I outlined the entire story with detailed notes as soon as I returned to civilian life, and I have written down certain episodes during the years since then. Mentally, I have gone over and over the details of these evens, but I haven't been able to draw them all together and write them down until now... My Pacific war experiences have haunted me, and it has been a burden to retain this story. But time heals, and the nightmares no longer wake me in a cold sweat with pounding heart and racing pulse. Now I can write this story... In writing it I'm fulfilling an obligation I have long felt to my comrades in the 1st Marine Division..." - p. xv
In his 2007 Introduction, Victor Davis Hanson points out that this work was "originally intended only as a private memoir for his family..." (p. xvii-xviii). As with many WWII vets, Sledge went on to become a productive member of society; in his case, as a professor of microbiology and ornithology. Hanson further notes that such vocation lends credibility and readability to the text:
"The look back at the savagery of Peleliu and Okinawa... is presented with the care of a clinician. Sledge's language is modest; there is no bombast. The resulting autopsy of battle is eerie, almost dreamlike. Dispassionate understatement accentuates rather than sanitizes the barbarity... Indeed at the heart of Sledge's genius of recollection is precisely his gift to step aside to condemn the insanity of war, to deplore the bloodletting, without denying that there is often a reason for it, and a deep love that results for those who share its burden. " - pp. xviii & xxiii
While Hanson (for who I am something of a fan) may be somewhat generous and a bit of an apologist in the above description, he is actually on point in terms of the relevance of this book. Written in an easily read format, while Sledge does manage to convey a Marine's pride in being a member of the tribe, in a sense, what readers are treated to is how one individual Marine was able to rationalize in his mind, the irrationality inherent in war. What readers are also shown is how a generation went from being naive civilians to experienced warriors as they learned to deal with an implacable enemy who played to win.
"...a soldier hanging out of a truck just ahead of me shouted, 'Hey, soldier. You look tired and hot, soldier. Why don't you make the army issue you a truck like me?'... I grinned and yelled, 'Go to hell.'... His buddy grabbed him by the shoulder and yelled, 'Stop calling that guy a soldier. He's a Marine. Can't you see his emblem? He's not in the army. Don't insult him.'... 'Thanks,' I yelled... We might grumble to eacher other... but it was rather like grumbling about one's own family - always with another member. If an outsider tried to get into the discussion, a fight resulted." - p. 27.
"...Our level of training rose in August and so did the intensity of 'chicken' discipline...coupled with the constant discomforts and harsh living conditions, drove us all into a state of intense exasperation and disgust with out existence... 'Don't let it get you down boys. It's just part of the USMC plan for keeping troops in fighting shape,' calmly remarked a philosophical old salt of prewar service...'Well, it's this way,' answered the philosopher. 'If they get us made enough, they figure we'll take it out on the Nips when we hit this beach coming up. I saw it happen before Guadalcanal and Gloucester. They don't pull this kind of stuff on rear-echelon boys. They want us to be mean, mad, and malicious. That's straight dope, I'm telling you...I griped as loudly as anyone...In retrospect, however, I seriously doubt whether I could have coped with the psychological and physical shock and stress encountered on Peleliu and Okinawa had it been otherwise...Our commanders knew that if we were to win and survive, we must be trained realistically for it whether we liked it or not." - p. 41
"The veteran's buddy came up and started stripping the other Japanese corpses. His take was a flag and other items. He then removed the bolts from the Japanese rifles and broke the stocks against the coral to render them useless to infiltrators...The corpses were sprawled where the veterans had dragged them... Would I become this casual and calloused about enemy dead? I wondered..." - p. 64
"It was an immense relief to me when we got our gun pit completed... I started to take off my right shoe... 'Have you gone Asiatic?' he asked excitedly. 'What the hell are you gonna do in your stockin' feet if the Nips come bustin' outa that jungle or across the field?...do you reckon you'll move around on this coral in your stockin's?'... Snafu then nonchalantly drew his kabar and stuck it in the coral gravel near his right hand... He then checked his .45 automatic pistol. I followed his example... We settled down for the long night..." - p. 72
"Suddenly movement in the dried vegetation toward the front of the gun pit got my attention...It must be a Japanese trying to slip in as close as possible...A helmeted figure loomed up against the night sky in front of the gun pit...'What's the password?' I said in a low voice...No answer...'Password!' I demanded as my finger tightened on the trigger...'Sle-Sledghammer!' stammered the figure...I eased up on the trigger...'It's de l'Eau, Jay de l'Eau. You got any water?'...'Jay, why didn't you give the password? I nearly shot you!' I gasped...He saw the pistol and moaned...'I thought you knew it was me,' he said weakly...Jay was one of my closest friends." - p. 84
"...a Marine we called the Fatalist, was manning Number One gun. Between firing missions, I could see him sitting on his helmet next to his gun, keeping watch to our left and rear... 'Hey, Sledgehammer, let me see your carbine a minute,' he whispered nonchalantly in his usual laconic manner... I handed him my carbine... I followed his gaze as he pointed my carbine toward the sea. in the pale light a shadowy figure was moving slowly and silently along the reef parallel to the shoreline in the shallow water... There was no doubt he was a Japanese trying to get farther along to where he could slip... up on our mortars... No challenge or demand for password was even considered in a situation like that. No Marine would be creeping along the reef at night. The Fatalist rested his elbows on his knees and took careful aim... Two quick shots; the figure disappeared... The Fatalist flipped the safety back on, handed me my carbine, and said 'Thanks, Sledgehammer.' He appeared as unconcerned as ever." - p. 139
"As we moved past the defilade, my buddy groaned... I took a quick glance into the depression and recoiled in revulsion and pity at what I saw...these Marines had been mutilated hideously by the enemy. One man had been decapitated. His head lay on his chest; his hands had been severed from his wrists and also lay on his chest near his chin. In disbelief I stared at the face as I realized that the Japanese had cut off the dead Marine's penis and stuffed it into his mouth. The corpse next to him had been treated similarly. The third had been butchered... My emotions solidified into rage and a hatred for the Japanese beyond anything I ever had experienced. From that moment on I never felt the least pity or compassion for him no matter what the circumstances... but I never saw a Marine commit the kind of barbaric mutilation the Japanese committed if they had access to our dead..." - p. 148
The Old Breed
Not all of With The Old Breed... is so heavy. In fact, it is his description of the Old Breed and the example they set that provides some sanity and hints at how members of this generation survived. As Sledge states near the end: "War is brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waste... The only redeeming factors were my comrades' incredible bravery and their devotion to each other. Marine Corps training taught us to kill efficiently and to try to survive. But it also taught us loyalty to each other - and love. That espirit de corps sustained us." (p. 315)
Such espirit was inculcated in the new generation by members of the Old Breed. You know, you just gotta love a guy with character and class...
"About this time I began to feel a deeper appreciation for the influence of the old breed on us newer Marines. Gunnery Sargeant Haney provided a vivid example of their impact...first noticed him in the shower one day because of the way he bathed. About a dozen naked, soapy replacements, including myself, stared in wide-eyed amazement and shuddered as Haney held his genitals in his left hand while scrubbing them with a GI brush the way one buffs a shoe. When you consider that the GI brush had stiff, tough, split-fiber bristles embedded in a stout wooden handle and was designed to scrub heavy canvas...and even floors, Haney's method of bathing becomes truly impressive...When the lieutenant turned the pistol's muzzle away from the target, Haney reacted...He scooped up a large handful of coral gravel and flung it squarely into the lieutenant's face. He shook his fist at the bewildered officer and gave him the worst bawling out I ever heard. The offending officer...took off rubbing his eyes and blushing visibly. Haney returned to his seat as though nothing had happened...Thereafter we were much more conscious of safety regulations...To say that he was 'Asiatic' would be to miss the point entirely...The company had many rugged individualists, characters, old salts...but Haney was in a category by himself. I felt that he was not a man born of woman, but that God had issued him to the Marine Corps...Haney inspired us youngsters...He provided us with a direct link to the 'Old Corps.' To us, he was the old breed. We admired him - and we loved him." - pp. 37 - 38.
For me, this is the value of With The Old Breed At Peleliu and Okinawa. War is not a videogame and combat is not about heroics. It's about survival; your's and your buddies'. It's about doing a job that your country has called you to do and what it takes to get that job done. What E.B. Sledge has done is provide a new generation insight into how the Old Breed saw things; i.e., when to play 'the game,' when to recognize the serious, and how to behave in those circumstances. Perhaps the best summation is the last paragraph of the text on page 315:
"Until the millenium 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 privilege goes responsibility."
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