With The Old Breed At Peleliu and Okinawa, E. B. Sledge, Presidio Press; 352 pages, paperback, $16.00.
With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa is a United States Marine's World War II Pacific Theater memoir. Eugene Sledge first published his memorior in 1981. With the Old Breed along with A Helmut For My Pillow by Robert Leckie, has been recognized as being among the best first-hand accounts of combat in the Pacific. Sledge, in a pocket-sized New Testament he carried with him during battles, kept a diary. In 1944 Sledge began making personal notes after Peleliu while in a rest camp on Pavuvu Island. As a 60 millimeter mortar man in K Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division Sledge experienced combat during the battles of Peleliu and Okinawa. After completing a re-working of his diary, With the Old Breed was published in 1981 and has gone through ten other printings in the U.S., U.K., Japan and Thailand.
Sledge presents details of the utterly exhausting struggle of fighting and living living in a tropical battlefield: perpetual fear, fatigue, and filth. Marines could not stay dry, could not dig latrines in Okinawa's mud or Peleliu's coral, could not sleep. While digging a fox hole, Sledge found graves; he protested to the sergeant who ordered him to continue. Sledge continued to complain until a captain ordered him to move the hole three feet to one side. Instances of mutilations on the battlefields are a part of Sledge's memories. With a buddy, he discovered the mutilated bodies of three Marines, one of which had been sexually mutilated. He does not neglect the behavior of some Marines towards dead Japanese, such as the removal of gold teeth from Japanese corpses.
The descriptions of receiving several night time "banzai" or frontal assaults are horrific. The brutality displayed by American and Japanese soldiers and the hatred that each for each other is described on the personal level. This is contrasted with Sledge's childhood and youth. Born in 1923 in Mobile, Alabama Eugene Sledge was the descendant of Confederate officers. A frail child and avid reader, his physician father brought him up in the out-of-doors. Fishing and hunting, he came to love adventures the woods. Rheumatic fever and then a rheumatic heart murmur kept him out of the Marines until he graduated from high school in May 1942 and entered Marion Military Institute in the fall. In December 1942, he left the academy for the Marine Corps. The Alabamian entered officer training program and was sent to Georgia Tech.
He intentionally failed his exams in order to become an enlisted Marine. Sledge survived the islands and was stationed in China until 1946. He returned to Alabama and attended Auburn University where he began his career in helminthology, which is the study parasitic worms. At the behest of his wife and children he dealt with his PSTD by reviewing his New Testament diary and producing With The Old Breed. Rich in the details of combat, weapons, buddies, the enemy and Marine life, Sledge's memoir leaves the reader with indelible images of the horrors of combat in the Pacific. It is ironic that Sledge's diary was kept along side the words of Jesus and Paul. CWL would love to study the original diary and see what Sledge wrote beside the Gospel of John, Chapters 15 through 17 in which Jesus teaches his disciples the night before his crucifixion.