Presidio Press, 1981, 326 pages
With the Old Breed is a modern classic of military history AND has been called "one of the most important personal accounts of war that I have ever read," by distinguished historian John Keegan. Author E. B. Sledge served with the First Marine Division during World War II, and his first-hand narrative is unsurpassed in its sincerity. Sledge's experience shows in this fascinating account of two of the most harrowing and pivotal island battles of the Pacific theater.
On Peleliu and Okinawa, the action was extremely fierce. Amidst oppressive heat and over land obliterated by artillery shells, the combat raged ferociously. Casualties were extreme on both sides, and by the time the Americans had broken through at Okinawa, more than 62,000 Japanese soldiers were dead. Against military policy, Sledge scribbled notes and jammed them into his copy of the New Testament. Those notes form the backbone of what Navy Times said "has been called the best World War II memoir of an enlisted man."
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
Since I became more interested in World War II history, particularly in the Pacific Theater, I have been reading a lot of books that cover the war from the grand strategic level. Most books about the war are written at a general's or admiral's eye level, describing fleets and armies and the movement of troops across vast distances. Major battles and their outcomes are summarized in a few paragraphs. We know, abstractly, that "a fierce and bloody two-month battle for Peleliu" means thousands of troops spending months in hellish conditions fighting for their lives, a level of discomfort and fear few of us can imagine. But in most history books, that's all waved away with a brief description of casualty figures.
Eugene B. Sledge (called "Sledgehammer" by his comrades) was with the 1st Marines, "the Old Breed," through the campaigns of Peleliu and Okinawa. Sledge wrote what is now considered a classic among World War II memoirs, a description of Pacific fighting from an enlisted man's point of view. He was never an officer, just a line trooper with the 1st Marines. So while he is able to note the strategic significance of the battles he was in with historical hindsight, mostly what he describes is what he perceived at the time, produced from notes he took while he was there (against regulations), the view of a rifleman who often had no idea why they were being told to go to this particular island or take that particular hill.
Think about the worst discomfort you've ever felt. Maybe some time when you were extremely hungry or thirsty and there was no food or water immediately at hand. Or maybe you were stuck in traffic and you really, really needed to pee. Or maybe (if you are into the outdoors) you have been on a miserable hike when you suddenly had a case of the runs. Use your imagination, but add "hungry, tired, exhausted to the limits of your endurance, need to shit and there is no toilet or TP or privacy or even a trench anywhere and several thousand men are all crowded together in the same situation and also you're under heavy shelling and your buddies are getting blown to bits right and left."
Let that sink in again — you're on a coral beach being shot at in hundred degree heat, and you and everyone around you also has diarrhea and there is no TP.
Few books really convey how hellish war is like this one, and even in his years-later narration, Sledge can't really convey to his readers the visceral horror he felt, and still remembers. It wasn't just the danger they faced in all their many battles, but the physical deprivation and hellish conditions. On those Pacific islands no one had ever heard of before the war, there was malaria and vicious biting insects and no facilities at all, and he describes beaches that have become open cesspools, in which the Marines had to sleep and fight, with little cover. Peleliu was 120 degrees when the 1st Marines hit the beaches to take on an entrenched enemy that was waiting for them with withering mortar and machine gun fire.
Individual moments Sledge describes kind of get at what they endured every single day — it's not just the battles, but the truck that brought water to a remote unit, except the water was in a 55-gallon drum. Imagine a bunch of men standing around looking at a drum of water weighing nearly 500 pounds at the bottom of a truck bed, on a tilting coral slope, in sweltering heat, thinking "How the fuck are we supposed to get this out of there?"
It's not surprising Sledge describes more than once how a brave, tough veteran marine would suddenly snap and lose it, behaving suicidally, hysterically, or just collapsing, unable to go on.
E.B. Sledge is one of ten men in his regiment who survived Peleliu and Okinawa without ever being wounded. He reports the moment, while on Peleliu, that he suddenly heard a voice saying "You will survive the war." He looked around and asked his buddies if they'd heard someone speaking. They hadn't. He believed it was God speaking to him, and like Private Ryan, decided this meant he had to make his life somehow worth his surviving.
By Peleliu, the Marines were used to taking islands from the Japanese. They knew what to expect — they'd come ashore and the Japanese would try to swarm them in suicidal "Banzai charges" that were Japanese infantry doctrine up to that point, no matter that it had repeatedly proven ineffective against disciplined troops.
But Peleliu was different. The Japanese were finally (too late) realizing that they needed to change their tactics, and so they set up the relatively unimportant island of Peleliu to draw in the Americans and inflict massive casualties in a war of attrition. Colonel Kunio Nakagawa was selected by the Imperial Japanese Army to prepare the island as a death trap. They dug a small city of tunnels and caves beneath the coral mountains, and set up pillboxes and machine gun nests to cover every approach, so no matter where the Marines landed, they would immediately be exposed to withering fire. No Banzai charges this time.
The ironic thing is that Peleliu was made a strategic objective by the Americans because of its airfield, which was thought to be a possible threat to Allied shipping. So it was decided Peleliu needed to be taken as a first step in MacArthur's campaign to retake the Philippines. But the admiral in charge thought, based on previous experience, and overconfidence, that after softening the island up with heavy shelling (in fact, the Navy poured ordnance on Peleliu until they ran out of targets) the Marines could clear out the Japanese in a couple of days. He did not know about the underground fortifications; the shelling, for all the noise and destruction, which should have practically scoured the island of Japanese, barely touched them. When the Marines landed, they found themselves in a death trap that eventually inflicted upwards of 65% casualties and took two months of heavy fighting before it was considered secured.
(Even Sledge did not know that in fact, some Japanese remained hidden beneath Peleliu until 1947.)
Afterwards, military historians generally were of the opinion that the Peleliu campaign was unnecessary — the Americans could have simply bypassed it and ignored the entrenched Japanese, who didn't have much air power left to threaten them with anyway.
Losing Your Humanity
Savagery was evident on both sides, though far more so on the Japanese. Sledge initially is able to feel some empathy for the Japanese troops who he knows are men like him, fighting in conditions just as miserable as his own. But the Japanese are suicidally brave and murderous. They do not surrender. They do not take prisoners. They lure American medics to their wounded and then blow themselves and the medics up with grenades. Their snipers deliberately target men on stretchers and medical corpsmen, and Sledge describes finding the corpses of American Marines who'd had their penises cut off and stuffed into their mouths.
It doesn't take long before the Marines are incapable of pity for the enemy. They start collecting war trophies, and gold fillings out of the teeth of Japanese corpses. Sledge witnesses one young Marine cut open the face of a fatally wounded Japanese soldier to pry his gold teeth out of him. Sledge yells at the Marine to put the Jap out of his misery. The Marine just curses him, until someone else puts a bullet in the Japanese soldier's head.
Then one day Sledge himself starts pulling a gold tooth out of a corpse. A medical corpsman tells him "You shouldn't do that - he could be carrying diseases." Sledge desists, saying he hadn't thought of that. He only realizes afterwards that the corpsman wasn't really worried about disease — he recognized that the young Marine was about to cross a moral threshold, and talked him out of it. Sledge sees another Marine start collecting severed hands, which is too much for him, and the ghoulish collector is finally forced to bury his prize when other Marines tell him they don't want it stinking up the place.
Okinawa - digging in among the corpses
On Peleliu, men tumbled to the bottom of ravines and had to climb out covered with maggots because the bottom of the ravine was filled with rotting corpses.
After Peleliu, the 1st Marines went on to Okinawa. This was the final rolling up of the Empire of Japan — by now, the war was clearly lost for Japan, and yet the miserable, bloody fighting continued.
There were corpses everywhere, as on Peleliu, often left unburied and putrefying in the hot sun. At one point, Sledge is ordered to dig a foxhole at the specified five yards apart, and upon digging, pulls up swarms of maggots. Then there is a stench, and he discovers he is literally digging through a dead Japanese soldier. He calls his NCO over and says he can't do it. The NCO orders him to keep digging. Sledge is on the verge of vomiting and cannot continue, until a senior NCO finally comes by, and tells him to dig a few feet over. He does so, but still smells the rotting corpse.
Sledge encounters an elderly Okinawan woman in a hut, who opens her kimono to reveal a hideously infected, gangrenous wound in her abdomen, no doubt from the shelling that happened during the initial invasion of the island. Then she grabs his rifle and points it at her forehead, begging him to pull the trigger. He doesn't, and goes to find a medic, only for another Marine to walk into the hut and calmly shoot her.
The book is full of small stories like this, decent men snapping, breaking, going feral, or just losing their will to live, and afterwards having to live with what they have been through.
With the Old Breed is a gripping war memoir that won't tell you much about the war on a large scale, but a great deal about the war as it appeared to a grunt, and just how awful it was. The remarkable thing is that despite the horrors Sledge endures, he writes like someone who emerged basically intact, mentally and physically. He doesn't talk much about his own nightmares or PTSD, if he had any, only about the horrible loss he felt when his friends died, the horrible waste of life he perceived all around him, the regret that any of this had to happen at all. He does not analyze the causes of the war or why they were fighting, or evaluate the competence or planning of the generals and admirals. The only officers who mattered to them were their unit commanders, who could make day to day living miserable or less miserable, as well as having enormous impact on their morale. When FDR dies, it's of little significance to the 1st Marines — all they care about is whether Truman will prolong the war or shorten it. Likewise, when they hear that Germany has surrendered, it has little meaning for them — they are still fighting the Japanese, and fully expect that they will have invade Japan itself in what is sure to be the bloodiest battle yet.
Verdict: With the Old Breed is highly recommended for anyone who is interested in World War II history, but especially for anyone who find war memoirs interesting and would like to know what war looks like to someone who's just another rifleman, not a general or a destroyer captain or a pilot, but a Marine whose job was to hack through jungles and shot and get shot at until the shooting is over. Read this book, and be grateful you will never have to go through that. 10/10.
My complete list of book reviews.