With the Old Breed At Peleliu and Okinawa: Review

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

“War is hell” is a familiar saying to most of us. We give lip service to our veterans on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. But beyond that, how much do we think about war? What do we really know about it?

With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa

With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa gives you a close (maybe too close) look at how war really is, from a soldier’s perspective. The author is E. B. Sledge, or “Sledgehammer” as he was known when he served as a private in the Marines during WWII. This book is his account of his training as a marine, and then focuses on his service at Peleliu and Okinawa in the south Pacific during WWII.

I really am not into war books in general — I am totally uninterested in battle strategy, etc. But this book is the real personal side of war. I feel like it’s something each of us as Americans should be exposed to. So many men have fought in similar situations for our country. Do we have even a bit of understanding of what they sacrificed for our nation?

Ken Burns, of PBS documentary fame, endorses the book as well, writing

In all the literature on the Second World War, there is not a more honest, realistic or moving memoir than Eugene Sledge’s. This is the real deal, the real war: unvarnished, brutal, without a shred of sentimentality or false patriotism, a profound primer on what it actually was like to be in that war. It is a classic that will outlive all the armchair generals’ safe accounts of — not the ‘good war’ — but the worst war ever.

Sledge relates his experiences matter-of-factly. Sometimes this delivery makes the thought of what he went through even more poignant. He discusses the sorrow of seeing four men carrying a wounded fellow soldier off the field (marines never left their wounded or dead behind), only to be shot at by the Japanese. The two back men were hit, but then the front two linked arms with them to help all five off the field together.

No sentimentality here:

“Combat guaranteed sleep of the permanent type only.”

He recalls a conversation with a fellow marine, who told him he watned to be a brain surgeon. “The human brain is an incredible thing; it fascinates me,” the soldier said. “But he didn’t survive Peleliu to realize his ambition,” Sledge writes.

He recalls his thoughts on the night prior to the invasion at Peleliu:

I told myself that God loved us all and that many would die or be ruined physically or mentally or both by the next morning and in the days following. My heart pounded, and I broke out in a cold sweat. Finally, I called myself a damned coward and eventually fell asleep saying the Lord’s Prayer to myself.

Sledge speaks of the marines’ intense hatred of Japanese, and gives reasons that make this quite understandable: he mentions Japanese soldiers pretending to be dead or wounded, and then when a Marine approached, the Japanese would revive and knife him. This led the Marines to take few prisoners. The Japanese they encountered usually ended up dead. It was kill or be killed. And if that sounds harsh — this was war.

Peleliu

The first major battle for Sledge was at Peleliu, which I’d never heard of. It’s an island made largely of coral, and Sledge describes how difficult it was in this landscape to march, dig, etc. In addition, during the weeks (yes, weeks) of fighting, temperatures were humid and often over 100 degrees. Imagine fighting in such circumstances in full uniform, carrying about 40 pounds of weapons and ammunition.

There were some good aspects of Sledge’s time as a Marine. He mentions enjoying a visit to the troops by Bob Hope. He also speaks highly of the “esprit de corps” of the Marines and the relationships formed. But that’s about the only positives there were.

Both campaigns Sledge fought in were lengthy — measured in weeks and months. “Our morale was excellent, and we were trained for anything no matter how rough. But we prayed that we could get it over with in a hurry,” he writes.

1944 Peleliu Invasion. Marines

Peleliu Invasion. Marines wait in their foxholes as others blast a Japanese held cave in the nearby hill. Late September early October 1944 (public domain)

Sledge speaks of marines hoping for the “million dollar wound” ie, one that would take them out of combat and send them home. Many soldiers hoped for such an injury. As the Peleliu campaign ended, he peered at flies on the dead bodies everywhere — “looked at the stains on the coral, (recalling) some of the eloquent phrases of politicians and newsman about how ‘gallant’ it is for a man to ‘shed his blood for his country,’ and ‘to give his life’s blood as a sacrifice,’ and so on. The words seemed so ridiculous. Only the flies benefited.”

Later the marines learned that the entire battle for Peleliu was questioned. Its conquest didn’t really do anything to advance the US war effort. The island could have been bypassed with no real effect on the war effort.

Okinawa

The marines went to fight at Okinawa with foreboding. This was actual Japanese territory and they knew the fighting would be fierce. The 80-some days of fighting there included weeks of rain on end, and the miseries of living and fighting in mud. Sledge describes how his feet were constantly wet, and how wonderful it was after the war to experience dry socks and dry feet.

As the marines headed out to Okinawa, their commander told them they could expect 80-85% casualties on the beach. A buddy next to him learned over and whispered, “How’s that for boosting the troops’ morale?

As Okinawa ended, there was talk that the US would hit Japan next, with a million US casualties expected. “No one wanted to talk about that.” In August, when the atomic bombs fell, the marines finally learned of Japan’s surrender. “We received the news with quiet disbelief coupled with an indescribable sense of relief. 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. So many dreams lost in the madness that had engulfed us.”

Okinawa WWII marine

The photo above is my Papaw, my dad’s dad. Dad told me he fought in WWII at Guam and Okinawa as a Marine. So as I read, I wondered how much of what was described he experienced. I wish he was still around to share his tales.

With the Old Breed At Peleliu and Okinawa

Sledge closed his book:

War is brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waste. Combat leaves an indelible 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.

I highly recommend With the Old Breed At Peleliu and Okinawa.

4 thoughts on “With the Old Breed At Peleliu and Okinawa: Review

  1. I love the tie-in with your Grandfather. When I first saw “Saving Private Ryan” I thought “Good lord, this IS what Grandpa and his truck saw on D-Day” and for the first time I realized [silly as that sounds] that he wasn’t just driving over a road…..

  2. Sounds like a hard one to read. I just can’t imagine doing all they had to do in those conditions. My husband and his brother bought Saving Private Ryan when we were at their folks for a visit, thinking his dad would enjoy it since he had fought in WWII. But he couldn’t watch it. Later he told them for the first time about some of his experiences, particularly making a crucial sniper shot and killing two Japanese, and when they checked their pockets afterward, he found they had pictures of their families with them. It was such a conflicting thing, knowing you had to save your guys, the enemy would kill if given half a chance, and yet realizing they were human, had families back at home just like our guys did.

  3. I heard your Papaw share some of his stories of the war. I thought of those stories the entire time I was reading your review. I wish you could have heard his stories.

  4. What a wonderful review! But I just don’t know if I want to read it. War is just so horrible and it truly is “hell.” I sometimes can’t sleep thinking about what our servicemen go through. I am a civilian retiree from the Department of Army and worked closely with so many military personnel. I heard many first-hand experiences and I never got used to it. My son-in-law is a retired Air Force officer who had two tours in Yemen during the Iraq War. Certainly different from WWII, but war nonetheless. One of my uncles was a Marine during WWII. He didn’t like to discuss any of it but kept a lot of pictures and memorabilia.

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