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With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa Mass Market Paperback – September 25, 2007
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“Eugene Sledge became more than a legend with his memoir, With The Old Breed. He became a chronicler, a historian, a storyteller who turns the extremes of the war in the Pacific—the terror, the camaraderie, the banal and the extraordinary—into terms we mortals can grasp.”—Tom Hanks
“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.”—Ken Burns
From the Trade Paperback edition.
About the Author
E. B. “Sledgehammer” Sledge was born and grew up in Mobile. In late 1943 he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. After basic training, he was sent to the Pacific Theater where he fought at Peleliu and Okinawa, two of the fiercest battles of World War II. Following the Japanese surrender, Sledge served in China as part of the occupation force. Upon his return home, he obtained a Ph.D. in biology and joined the faculty of Alabama College (later the University of Montevallo), where he taught until retirement. Sledge initially wrote about his war experiences to explain them to his family, but he was persuaded by his wife to seek publication. Sledge died on March 3, 2001.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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I read this after watching the HBO miniseries that was partially based on this book. I was really surprised at how faithful they were to this account.
This is very well written, and as a grown man who is also a veteran, I am not afraid to admit that it made me cry a few times.
I am disgusted by a lot of fictional media that uses WWII as a plot setting (Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor is the worst offender). A lot of documentaries I have seen and books i have read have looked at things from an almost sterile, strategic perspective.
A detailed account from a first-hand source is probably a better way to understand the horrors of the island campaigns. I won't say this is a fun book to read (war is terrifying), but I'd recommend it to anyone in the armed forces.
Also, if you are in the military, don't let your mom read this. She'll worry.
Imagine yourself stuck in a foxhole. It’s been raining for weeks, so there’s a puddle at the bottom, and you can’t remember the last time your feet were dry. You might get a warm cup of coffee or bullion, if you heat it yourself, but you’ll have to hunch over while you’re heating it so the rain doesn’t put the sterno can out. Everything smells awful, because maggot-infested corpses are everywhere. If you sleep, it’s by the light of the flares the navy keeps sending up so you’ll see the enemy if they try to infiltrate. When you have to get out of your foxhole to haul up more ammunition or to get food, you’ll be shelled and shot at. You’ll also be shot at if you’re carrying someone on a stretcher. If you’re the one who’s wounded, and the Japanese get you, they’ll torture you. And if you get killed, and if the Japanese end up with your body, they will mutilate it. Welcome to Okinawa. Peleliu isn’t much different—only it’s dry and hot and covered in flies, and there aren’t many foxholes, because the coral is too hard to dig into.
On one hand, With the Old Breed is a gritty account of island warfare. Sledge (nicknamed Sledgehammer by his fellow Marines) is completely honest. He admits he was scared, he doesn’t hide that fact that Marines often “field-stripped” the enemy dead and the enemy almost-dead (trust me—Marines ripping out gold teeth is mild compared to what the Japanese did to Marine dead), and shows both hatred for the enemy and love for his fellow Marines and their navy corpsmen (with one exception).
But With the Old Breed is more than a brutally honest account of Pacific warfare. It’s also the story of one man’s struggle to keep his humanity and his sanity in the face of horrible circumstances. Sledge is a Southern, Christian boy. He doesn’t smoke until he arrives in combat, and he’s the only person I’ve read who says SNAFU stands for situation normal, all fouled up. On some level, he realizes he’s being trained to be cannon fodder, but the shock of combat is still a difficult burden for him to bear: the horrible conditions, the slaughter, the constant fear. I was touched by one scene, when Sledge is about to pull a few gold teeth out of a Japanese corpse (something he had seen others do, but hadn’t done himself). A corpsman tries to talk him out of it. First he suggests that Sledge’s parents wouldn’t like it. When that doesn’t work, the corpsman says “Think of the germs.” Yeah, germs on a battlefield—laughable. But it’s enough to make Sledge reconsider, and keep a little of his humanity.
It’s not all dark and depressing. There were funny moments as well—the men reminding their green lieutenant of his earlier pledge to charge the Japanese with his knife and pistol and turn the tide of war all by himself, as said lieutenant is frantically digging a really deep foxhole after his first taste of combat. Or the part when Sledge decides to take a nap on a stretcher while the graves crews are working, and pulls his poncho over his head to keep the rain off. Not surprisingly, the graves crew almost carts him off with the corpses. (I totally saw that coming, but I’ve been sleeping in a dry, warm bed instead of a wet foxhole, and my sleep isn’t interrupted by shells and threats of Japanese paratroopers.)
Sledge sums up the book best in his own words: 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.
A remarkable book, and a vivid reminder that even those who are not killed or wounded in combat pay a terrible price.
I was stunned by how the basic experiences of a front line soldier, spread over 150 years, and whether facing an enemy of one's own culture or of a foreign culture are the same. I have always had tremendous respect for our military men, but after reading this book my viewpoint is forever changed to something deeper than words can convey. My father-in-law was an officer in the army in Europe during WWII. I can understand now why he very seldom spoke of his wartime experience, and when he did, he only told funny stories.
I'm recommending this book to my adult children for insight into what their grandfather, and friends who currently serve, have experienced.