© 1981 Eugene B. Sledge
I’ve been at my university for two and a half years now, and have heard much about Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed, largely because he taught biology at this same university for several decades. History majors in particular hear about Sledge, as our professors are quick to recommend it. They do so with good reason. With the Old Breed is titled as such because Sledge, an Alabama native, fought two major battles of the Pacific War in the oldest and most experienced division and battalion in the Marines: pride in his company and its history marks Sledge throughout the book.
Everywhere lay Japanese corpses killed in heavy fighting. Infantry equipment of every type, U.S. and Japanese, was scattered about. Helmets, rifles, BARs, packs, cartridge belts, canteens, shoes, ammo boxes, shell cases, machine-gun ammo belts, all were strewn about us up to and over Half Moon.
The mud was knee-deep in some places, probably deeper in others if one ventured there. For several feet around every corpse, maggots crawled about in the muck and then were washed away by the runoff of the rain. There wasn’t a tree or bush left. All was open country. Shells had torn up the turf so completly tht ground cover was nonexistent. The scene was nothing but mud; shell fire; flooded craters with their silent, pathetic, rotting occupants; knocked-out tanks and ambtracs; and discarded equipment — utter desolation.
The stench of death was overpowering.[…] I existed from moment to moment, thinking death would have been preferable. We were in the depths of the abyss, the ultimate horrors of war. […] [I]n the mud and driving rain before Shuri, we were surrounded by maggots and decay. Men struggled and fought in an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell’s own cesspool.
Soon after, he is ordered to dig a foxhole — but stumbles into the shallow grave of a Japanese soldier, not that the NCO who ordered foxholes to be dug five feet apart from one another cared. Sledge doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about combat itself, although it does happen as very active background. Only in a few instances does actual combat enter into the picture, as it does when he describes his first time shooting a Japanese intruder at close range. It seemed to me that a lot of attention was paid to the absolute hellishness of the conditions. Slege also railed against the stupidity of war in general, but ended on the grudging note that sometimes hell has to be endured for a righteous cause. The book is an invaluable resource for historians, offering dismal details on the physical and emotional conditions and suffering of Pacific War soldiers.