Eugene B. Sledge, With The Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, (Novato, California: Presidio Press, 1981)
With The Old Breed is an amazing narrative about the triumphs and defeats of the Kilo Company, Third Battalion, Fifth Marines in which Private First Class (PFC) Eugene B. Sledge is apart of while on the islands of Peleliu and Okinawa during World War II. Both of these battles were known for their bloody and brutal fights. Sledge gives incredible descriptions of his personal experiences dealing with the climate and conditions of which he and his unit dealt with along with describing in great detail the actions of the Marines as they fought the Japanese. December 3rd 1942 Sledge enlists into the Marine Corps at Marion, Alabama where he was in school, but not for long. Sledge gets a feeling of uneasiness that the war might be over before he could get overseas and in combat if he stays in school. So along with 90 other fellow students Sledge flunks out of school and is sent off to boot camp in San Diego, CA. This is where Sledge learns everything there is to know about how to be a Marine. His life for a short time is made a living hell by his drill instructor Corporal Doherty, but all his drill instructor wants to do is make sure that his recruits including Sledge learn how to be professional and be a true Marine by demonstrating good attitude, character, strength, endurance, enthusiasm, and determination.
Boot camp is also where Sledge and the rest of his unit learns the basics of being a Marine including, Weapons handling, Shooting, Marching and basic discipline. After boot camp Sledge goes on to Camp Elliot where he will learn basics of combat and where he also chooses which weaponry he wants to learn and be assigned to. Sledge chooses the 60mm mortars and is taught the in’s and out’s, how to assemble and disassemble and how to effectively operate his weapon of choice. It wasn’t much longer before Sledge got what he ultimately wanted, his first taste of war. On September 15th 1944 Sledge and the 1st Marine Division land on the island of Peleliu. The island of Peleliu is what you would call at that time a living hell and K/3/5 would soon learn this. The Japanese who at first seemed to have the upper hand were ready and waiting while hiding in caves or entrenched with a clear shot at the arriving soldiers. The Japanese who had over 10,000 soldiers on the island of Peleliu covered every inch of the island and unlike in previous battles the Japanese had a new defensive style of fighting that would be used to cover more area and inflict more casualties. In previous battles the Japanese would use a common tactic called a Bonsai Attack where when soldiers were landing the Japanese would charge with a frontal strike and charge the oncoming soldiers compared to what they use here “The defense in depth tactic”.
Sledge’s descriptions of the attacks are very well put in words so that you can imagine what it was like on the battlefield with him. They allow the reader to feel the adrenaline and fear that he and the men he fought with experienced. As you read on he describes the sounds of the explosions, the screams of the rounds shooting down range and the cries of his dying and wounded comrades and description of every footstep that is taken. You notice that Sledge begins to realize that war changes a man forever. An example of this is when he witnesses another soldier going through a dead Japanese soldier’s bag and personal items without any hesitation. Sledge is taken aback by what he sees and this in turn hardens his feelings and would actually help Sledge later on in the war when dealing with bloodier battles and the loss of comrades. After Peleliu, the Men of Kilo Company, prepared for their next campaign on the Japanese island of Okinawa. As the day of the assault drew closer, fear and worry came over them as they contemplated the difficult fight ahead. Okinawa was to become an even more difficult fight for the Marines. It was even tougher than previous campaigns in that it lasted longer and involved larger numbers of men fighting, more ordinances expended, resulting in more death and destruction than any other battle of the Pacific. The battle for Okinawa was the ultimate test of the fortitude of men in combat. Their resolve was tested daily as the fight consumed men and energy at a rate never experienced in fighting in the Pacific. For the infantry units, the losses were hard to comprehend, when compared to what are considered heavy losses by today’s standards. Sledge describes the challenges of climate as the Marines deal with cold, rain and heat, all the while engaging the enemy in fierce combat. The sustained exposure to the stresses of combat, push the men to their limits and beyond as they fight for control of the island. Almost when he thinks he can’t take anymore fighting or any more deaths of his friends. They get news on June 21st 1945 that the island is finally secured and they will soon be leaving the island.
You can tell this immediately gives hope and reassures Sledge that he wont lose it psychologically like he had seen happen to many of his fellow comrades. Sledge stops and breathes for a moment and eats some fresh fruit, smokes his pipe and looks out over the beautiful open sea. Throughout all the turmoil that Sledge went through during the war, he was able to keep his sanity along with a compassionate optimism for humanity and that to me tells you that he truly was a great Marine. People including myself take for granted our freedom that we have and don’t give second thoughts about why we have such freedom. Sledges account on Pelelilu and Okinawa not only opened my eyes but also made me realize that I am lucky to have what I do and that I didn’t have to go through that to keep my freedom. One thing I have learned from this book is that no one truly knows how he or she will handle combat until they actually experience it.