Introduction to E.B. Sledge’s ‘With the Old Breed’

by Victor Davis Hanson

VDH was asked to do an introduction for a new edition of E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed, a memoir from the Pacific theater of World War II.


Until the millennium 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.

So E. B. Sledge ends his memoir of the horrors of the Marines’ fighting in late 1944 and spring 1945 against the imperial Japanese on Peleliu and Okinawa. We should recall these concluding thoughts about patriotic duty because With the Old Breed has now achieved the status of a military classic — in part on the perception of Sledge’s blanket condemnation of the brutality and senselessness of war itself.

Although there are horrors aplenty in the graphic accounts of the 1st Marine Division’s ordeal in these two invasions, his message is still not so darkly condemnatory. The real power of Sledge’s memoir is not just found in his melancholy. Even in his frequent despair over the depravity seen everywhere around him, there is an overriding sense of tragedy: until the nature of man himself changes, reluctant men such as E. B. Sledge will be asked to do things that civilization should not otherwise ask of its own — but must if it is to survive barbarity.

Who, in fact, was Eugene Bondurant Sledge — a previously unknown retired professor who late in life published his first book, originally intended only as a private memoir for his family? Yet within two decades of publication that draft became acknowledged as the finest literary account to emerge about the Pacific war.

Despite the still growing acclaim given With the Old Breed — first published more than twenty years earlier by the Presidio Press of Novato, California — the death of Sledge at seventy-seven, in March 2001, garnered little national attention. After his retirement, Sledge had remained a mostly private person who rarely entered the public arena.

Even with his perfect Marine name, E. B. Sledge might have seemed an unlikely combat veteran. Born the son of a prominent local physician in Mobile, Alabama, the articulate, slight, and shy Sledge spent only a year at Marion Military Institute, and then enrolled at the Georgia Institute of Technology — before choosing instead to leave the officer’s training program to enlist in late 1943 in the U.S. Marine Corps as a private. This early intimate experience with officer training, together with the subsequent decision to prefer service with the enlisted corps, colors much of the narrative of With the Old Breed. Sledge repeatedly takes stock of officers, and both the worst and best men in the Corps prove to be its second lieutenants and captains.

After the defeat of Japan, Sledge served in the American occupying force in China; his account of that tour was published posthumously as China Marine. Sledge later remarked he found the return to civilian life difficult after Peleliu and Okinawa, as did many veterans of island fighting in the Pacific who could not “comprehend people who griped because America wasn’t perfect, or their coffee wasn’t hot enough, or they had to stand in line and wait for a train or bus.” Yet Sledge adjusted well enough to graduate in 1949 with his B.S. degree. By 1960 he had completed his Ph.D. in zoology and settled on an academic career; at thirty-nine he joined the University of Montevallo, where he taught microbiology and ornithology until his retirement.

His scholarly expertise and precision of thought and language, gained from nearly thirty years as a teacher and scientist, perhaps explain much of the force of With the Old Breed. The narrative is peppered with wide-ranging empirical observations of his new surroundings — and philosophical shrugs about the incongruity of it all: “There the Okinawans had tilled their soil with ancient and crude farming methods; but the war had come, bringing with it the latest and most refined technology for killing. It seemed so insane, and I realized that the war was like some sort of disease afflicting man.”

The look back at the savagery of Peleliu and Okinawa — based on old battle notes he had once kept on slips of paper in his copy of the New Testament — 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. Sledge describes a dead Japanese medical corpsman torn apart by American shelling thusly: “The corpsman was on his back, his abdominal cavity laid bare. I stared in horror, shocked at the glistening viscera bespecked with fine coral dust. This can’t have been a human being, I agonized. It looked more like the guts of one of the many rabbits or squirrels I had cleaned on hunting trips as a boy. I felt sick as I stared at the corpses.”

We readers are dumbfounded by the first few pages — how can such a decent man have endured such an inferno, emerged apparently whole, and now decades later brought us back to these awful islands to write so logically about such abject horrors? On the eve of the invasion of Peleliu, the ever curious Sledge matter-of-factly asks an intelligent-looking but doomed Marine what he plans to do after the war, and then he describes the reply, “‘I want to be a brain surgeon. The human brain is an incredible thing; it fascinates me,’ he replied. But he didn’t survive Peleliu to realize his ambition.”

The Pacific ground theater of World War II from Guadalcanal to Okinawa that nearly consumed Sledge, as it did thousands of American youths, was no dream, but a nightmare unlike any other fighting in the nation’s wartime history. It was an existential struggle of annihilation. And the killing was fueled by political, cultural — and racial — odium in which no quarter was asked or given: “A brutish, primitive hatred,” Sledge reminds us decades later, “as characteristic of the horror of war in the Pacific as the palm trees and the islands.”

The sheer distances across the seas, the formidable size of the imperial Japanese fleet, and the priority of the United States in defeating Nazi Germany first, all meant that the odds were often with the enemy. In particular, theaters the Japanese had advantages over the Americans in numbers, choice of terrain, and even supply. We now might underestimate the wartime technology of imperial Japan, forgetting that it is was often as good as, or even superior to, American munitions. On both islands Sledge writes in detail of the singular Japanese mortars and artillery that wheeled out, fired, and then withdrew in safety behind heavy steel doors. Especially feared was “a 320-mmspigot-mortar unit equipped to fire a 675-pound shell. Americans first encountered this awesome weapon on Iwo Jima.”

As Sledge relates, the heat, rugged coral peaks, and incessant warm rain of the exotic Pacific islands, so unlike the European theater, were as foreign to Americans as the debilitating tropical diseases. Land crabs and ubiquitous jungle rot ate away leather, canvas — and flesh. “It was gruesome,” Sledge the biologist writes of Peleliu, “to see the stages of decay proceed from just killed to bloated to maggot-infested rotting to partially exposed bones — like some biological clock marking the inexorable passage of time.” He adds of the stench, “At every breath one inhaled hot, humid air heavy with countless repulsive odors.”

The awfulness was not just that the fanatical nature of the Japanese resistance meant that America’s Depression-era draftees were usually forced to kill rather than wound or capture their enemy. Rather, there grew a certain dread or even bewilderment among young draftees about the nature of an ideology that could fuel such elemental hatred of the Americans. On news of the Japanese surrender after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the veteran Sledge remained puzzled: “We thought the Japanese would never surrender. Many refused to believe it. Sitting in stunned silence, we remembered our dead. So many dead. So many maimed. So many bright futures consigned to the ashes of the past.”

E. B. Sledge’s story begins with his training as a Marine in Company K, 3d Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. The memoir centers on two nightmarish island battles that ultimately ruined the division. The first was at Peleliu (Operation Stalemate II, September 15–November 25, 1944), where in 10 weeks of horrific fighting some 8,769 Americans were killed, wounded, or missing. About 11,000 Japanese perished — nearly the entire enemy garrison on the island. Controversy raged — and still does about the wisdom of storming many of the Pacific islands — whether Gen. Douglas MacArthur really needed the capture of the Japanese garrison on Peleliu to ensure a safe right flank on his way to the Philippines.

Yet such arguments over strategic necessity count little for Sledge. His concern is instead with the survival of his 235 comrades in Company K, which suffered 150 killed, wounded, or missing. And so there is little acrimony over the retrospective folly of taking on Peleliu. Sledge’s resignation might be best summed up as something like, “The enemy held the island; we took it; they lost, and we moved on.”

Operation Iceberg (April 1, 1945–July 2, 1945) the next year to capture Okinawa was far worse. Indeed it was the most nightmarish American experience of the entire Pacific war — over 50,000 American casualties, including some 12,500 soldiers and sailors killed, and the greatest number of combat fatigue cases ever recorded of a single American battle.

My namesake Victor Hanson, of the 6th Marine Division, 29th Regiment, was killed near the Shuri Line, in the last assault on the heights, a few hours before its capture on May 19, 1945. His letters, and those of his commanding officer notifying our family of his death, make poignant reading — including the account of his final moments on Sugar Loaf Hill. Indeed, the very name Okinawa has haunted the Hanson family, as it had Sledge’s and thousands of other American households, for a half century hence. For decades in the United States no one really knew — or wished not to know — what really went on at Okinawa.

In fact, neither of Sledge’s two battles, despite their ferocity and the brutal eventual American victories — being in obscure, distant places and in the so-called second theater — garnered the public attention of Normandy Beach or the Battle of the Bulge. In the case of Okinawa, the savagery was overshadowed, first, by the near simultaneous death of Franklin Roosevelt on April 12, and the May 8 German surrender in Europe; and then later by the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 6 and 9), just over five weeks after the island was declared finally secured on July 2.

Sandwiched in between these momentous events, tens of thousands of Americans in obscurity slowly ground their way down the island. They accepted that they might have to kill everyone in most of the last crack Japanese units, led by the most accomplished officers in the Japanese military, the brilliant but infamous generals Mitsuru Ushijima and Isamu Cho and the gifted tactician Col. Hiromichi Yahara.

When the battle was over, the U.S. Navy had suffered its worst single battle losses in its history. The newly formed 6th Marine Division and Sledge’s veteran 1st Marine Division were wrecked, with almost half their original strength either killed or wounded. The commander of all U.S. ground forces on Okinawa, Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., became the highest-ranking soldier to die in combat in World War II. The destructive potential of thousands of kamikaze suicide bombers, together with the faulty pre-battle intelligence that had sorely underestimated the size, armament, and ferocity of the island resistance, created a dread about the upcoming November 1 scheduled assault on the Japanese mainland (Operation Olympic).

Controversy still rages over the morality of dropping the two atomic bombs that ended the war before the American invasions of Kyushu and Honshu. But we forget that President Truman’s decision was largely predicated on avoiding the nightmare that Marines like E. B. Sledge had just endured on Peleliu and Okinawa. If today Americans in the leisure of a long peace wonder whether our grandfathers were too hasty in their decision to resort to atomic weapons, they forget that many veterans of the Pacific wondered why they had to suffer through an Okinawa when the successful test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16 came just a few days after the island was declared secure. Surely the carnage on Okinawa could have been delayed till late summer to let such envisioned weapons convince the Japanese of the futility of prolonging the war.

There are fine memoirs of Okinawa and narrative accounts of the battle’s role in the American victory over Japan, most notably William Manchester’s beautifully written Goodbye, Darkness, and George Feifer’s comprehensive Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb. But E. B. Sledge’s harrowing story remains unmatched, told in a prose that is dignified, without obscenities or even much slang — all the more memorable since the author was not a formal stylist nor given to easy revelations of his own strong passions. John Keegan, Paul Fussel, and Studs Turkel have all praised Sledge’s honesty, especially his explicit acknowledgment that he experienced the same hatred, but fought daily against the barbarity that drove others to nearly match the atrocities of their Japanese enemies.

Unlike the case of many postwar memoirs, the accuracy of Sledge’s facts has never been called into question. He does not magnify his own achievements or those of his own Company K. Sledge sometimes uses a few footnotes of explication at the bottom of the page. Often they are heartbreaking asterisks that apprise the reader that the wonderful officer Sledge has just described in the text was later shot or blown up on Peleliu or Okinawa. He reminds his readers that his Marines, being as human as any other soldiers, were capable of great cruelty — “a passionate hatred for the Japanese burned through all Marines I knew.” But that being said, Sledge’s own moral censure reveals a certain American exceptionalism that such barbarism should and usually was to be condemned as deviance rather than accepted as the norm — quite different from the Japanese:

In disbelief I stared at the face as I realize that the Japanese had cut off the dead Marine’s penis and stuffed it into his mouth. 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 them no matter what the circumstances. My comrades would field strip their packs and pockets for souvenirs and take gold teeth, but I never saw a Marine commit the kind of barbaric mutilation the Japanese committed if they had access to our dead.

What I find most haunting about With the Old Breed is Sledge’s empathy with those whom he might not have been expected to share a natural affinity, among them even at times the enemy — whom he often wishes not to kill gratuitously and whose corpses he refuses to desecrate. His is a very mannered Southern world where the martial chivalry of an Alabama, Louisiana, or Texas shine through; implicit is a pride in the stereotyped manhood or the Old South, but also love for his Yankee comrades who he knows fight as well as his kinsmen. Sledge admits fear, occasionally acknowledging that his courage was the only result of desperation or rational calculation. He only incidentally notes his skill as a Marine. Yet through his own matter-of-fact descriptions the reader easily surmises why his comrades nicknamed a man of 135 pounds “Sledgehammer.”

Sledge’s heroes amid the desolation of the charred islands — Sergeants Baily and Hanney, Lieutenant “Hillbilly” Jones, and the beloved Captain Haldane — are singled out for their reticence, reflection, and humanity. Of Jones, Sledge writes “He had that rare ability to be friendly yet familiar with enlisted men. He possessed a unique combination of those qualities of bravery, leadership, ability, integrity, dignity, straightforwardness, and compassion. The only other officer I knew who was his equal in all these qualities was Captain Haldane.”

While the reader is astonished at the élan and skill of Sledge’s young compatriots, Sledge nevertheless describes them as apprentices in the shadows of the real “old-time” Marines — a near mythical generation that came of age between the wars and was made of even sterner stuff, fighting and winning the initial battles of the Pacific at Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester on New Britain against the supposedly invincible and ascendant Japanese of 1942 and 1943. Of Gunnery Sgt. Elmo Haney, who scrubbed his genitals with a bristle brush and cleaned his M1 and bayonet three times daily, Sledge concludes, “Despite his personal idiosyncrasies, Haney inspired us youngsters in Company K. 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.”

Indeed, in Sledge’s Pacific, there are Homeric heroes of all sorts of an age now long gone by. Bob Hope at the height of his Hollywood career turns up as the devoted patriot at out-of-the-way Pavuvu, flying in at some danger to entertain the troops. And the future Illinois senator Paul Douglas — noted author and University of Chicago economics professor — appears in the worst of combat at Peleliu as a gray-haired, bespectacled fifty-three-year-old Marine enlistee, handing out ammo to the young Sledge. Douglas later becomes severely wounded at Okinawa and receives the Silver Star and Purple Heart. Again, if modern readers are amazed at the courageous breed of young Marines who surround Sledge, he advises us that we are even more removed than we think from these earlier Americans, since the real “old breed” antedated and was even superior to his own.

Sledge shares a hatred for the brutality of the Japanese, but it never blinds him to their shared horrible fate of being joined together in death at awful places such as Peleliu and Okinawa. So he is furious when he sees a fellow Marine yanking the gold teeth out of a mortally wounded, but very much alive, Japanese soldier on Okinawa: “It was uncivilized, as is all war, and was carried out with the particular savagery that characterized the struggle between the Marines and the Japanese. It wasn’t simply souvenir hunting or looting the enemy dead; it was more like Indian warriors taking scalps. Such was the incredible cruelty that decent men could commit when reduced to a brutish existence in their fight for survival amid the violent death, terror, tension, fatigue, and filth that was the infantryman’s war.”

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 its bloodletting, without denying that there is often a reason for it, and a deep love that results for those who share its burdens.

War is brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waster. Combat leaves an inedible mark on those who are forced to endure it. 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 esprit de corps sustained us.

There is a renewed timeliness to Sledge’s memoir. With the Old Breed has never been more relevant than after September 11 — war being the domain of an unchanging human nature and thus subject to predictable lessons that transcend time and space. It is not just that American Marines of the new millennium also face a novel strain of suicide bombers, or fanatic enemies emboldened by a frightening anti-Western creed, or once again the similar terror of Sledge’s mines, mortars, and hand-to-hand battle in places like Iraqi’s Haditha or Ramadi.

Rather, Sledge reminds us of the lethality of what we might call the normal American adolescent in uniform, a grim determinism that we also recognized in the Hindu Kush and Kirkuk. Raised amid bounty and freedom, the American soldier seems a poor candidate to learn ex nihilo the craft of killing. How can a suburban teenager suddenly be asked to face and defeat the likes of zealots, whether on Okinawa’s Shuri Line or at Fallujah in the Sunni Triangle? “Would I do my duty or be a coward?” Sledge wonders on his initial voyage to the Pacific. “Could I kill?”

But read With the Old Breed to be reminded how a certain American reluctance to kill and the accompanying unease with militarism have the odd effect of magnifying courage, as free men prove capable of almost any sacrifice to preserve their liberty. Or as E. B. Sledge once more reminds us thirty-six years after surviving Okinawa:

In writing I am fulfilling an obligation I have long felt to my comrades in the 1st Marine Division, all of whom suffered so much for our country. None came out unscathed. Many gave their lives, many their health, and some their sanity. All who survived will long remember the horror they would rather forget. But they suffered and they did their duty so a sheltered homeland can enjoy the peace that was purchased at such high cost. We owe those Marines a profound debt of gratitude.

We owe the same to the late E. B. Sledge. He reminds us in a “sheltered homeland” that America is never immune from the “insanity” of war. So he brings alive again the names, faces, and thoughts of those who left us at Okinawa and Peleliu, but who passed on what we must in turn bequeath to others to follow.

©2007 Victor Davis Hanson

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