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With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa Paperback – 13 Feb 1992
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A personal account of the vitality and bravery of the US Marines in the battles at Peleliu and Okinawa.
About the Author
E.B. Sledge, who served in the First Marine Division in World War II, is now Professor of Biology at the University of Montevallo in Alabama. Paul Fussell, Donald T. Regan Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of many books, including The Great War and Modern Memory and Wartime.
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Sledge recounts his struggle to get accepted into the Marine Corps, as he felt a patriotic duty to fight for his country against the Japanese. Offered an officer’s commission, Sledge turned it down (twice) to be an enlisted man on the front line. The tough but thorough training in boot camp and then in southern California prior to being shipped overseas sets the scene. Then he recounts his part in two long campaigns to take the islands of Peleliu and Okinawa, the first in boiling tropical heat in late 1944 and the second in a sea of rain-drenched mud during May and June 1945.
The fanatical Japanese resistance and the high toll the entrenched Japanese army exacted on the Marines relentlessly ground down the morale of Sledge and his dwindling number of buddies. Two aspects in particular stand out in memory: the terror of being helpless in an artillery barrage, and the continuous horror of being surrounded by the decaying corpses of Japanese soldiers which couldn’t be moved due to the danger of snipers, so they had to remain there while the Marines ate, slept and fought next to them. Sledge pulls no punches for the reader, yet retains his humanity throughout as he continues to perform his duties and obey orders.
The narrative is spiced with acid comments about poor junior officers (as well as highly respected ones such as Ack Ack Haldane, killed on Peleliu) and contempt for “rear echelon types” who rarely get near the fighting but pester the front-line marines for Japanese weapons as trophies to take home, during the marines’ brief periods of rest in the rear areas.
Sledge was one of a minority in his regiment who somehow, miraculously, survived these campaigns, and one of an even smaller minority who suffered no battlefield injuries despite being in constant danger. He kept his religious faith throughout - though does not dwell on this in the book - and used his New Testament to record his battlefield experiences and inner thoughts in the margins (combat troops were not supposed to keep diaries in case they were captured by the enemy and inadvertently revealed information useful to them). Remarkably, he didn’t write his book until 1980, 35 years after the events. We should be thankful he did, as it’s one of the true classics of the 20th century.
‘The Old Breed’ BTW are those full-time professional Marines in the Corps prior to the influx of thousands of young volunteers and conscripts following the outbreak of WW2.
This is the story of one man's survival from some of the most brutal and dehumanising fighting in modern history.
You begin to get a real feeling for the horror that men can inflict on one another.
How this man survived uninjured is astonishing.
This story is told warts and all and is not pleasant reading but if you want an honest opinion of the fighting against the Japanese in the Pacific then read this book.
This book, if read in the context of how the WWII war in the Pacific was actually fought, gives a good insight into the savagery facing those who were involved, and as to why the Geneva Convention was often ignored by those who wished to live.
We are perhaps more used to hearing of the European war, in which the combatants treated each other (for the most part) with a good deal of respect, even chivalry. Admittedly the truth may differ somewhat and the non-combatants were dealt with with rather less regard, but we generally consider the European war to have been a "civilised war". There was nothing civilised about the Pacific war. Lives were thrown away on both sides for posession of tiny coral atolls with a reckless abandon that matches the waste of the Great War. It was fought with a savagery and hate that beggars belief and Sledge pulls no punches in describing the horror; witness the scene is where a fellow marine removes the gold teeth of an injured Japanese soldier. This is not a comfortable book to read.
Neither is this a military history. There are notes at the end of each chapter that add a little context, but Sledge wrote the account from the point of view of a private soldier, working from a battle diary that he kept in his pocket bible. He had little or no idea of the big picture and in most cases he had no idea of what was going on, full stop. His perspective comes from over the sights of his carbine; all he can see is the wall of his dugout, the bodies of friends and foe scattered around him. All he can hear is the rattle of rifle fire, the screech and crash of artillery and the screams of the dying. Sledge fully understood his position in all of this - as cannon fodder and no more - but he also understood the horror and waste of what was happening around him and he conveys the brutality and futility very well indeed.
Reading some of the other reviews, however, you will see him described as a great writer, even to the extent that he is compared with Robert Graves. I have not read Graves but I am certainly not convinced that "With the Old Breed" counts as great writing. I don't want to dwell on the point, but the prose is awkward, unpolished, even clumsy in places. It was clearly not written by a professional, or even particularly experienced writer. Does this detract from the story? No, not at all* (or at least, not much), but unfulfilled expectations of literature do detract. However, these shortcomings do lend the story a certain honesty that you won't find in Dispatches (a book that I have come to detest for its smug self-importance), a naiivety that you wont find in All Quiet on the Western Front and it is, perhaps, better for it.
Despite this lack of eloquence, Sledge successfully conveys the filth and stench of a tropical combat zone and the fear and fatigue of a battle where it was understood by all that the victor was (almost literally) the last man left alive. This is an eye-opening, gut-churning and deeply humbling account and it is well worth a read.
* Perhaps, when we remember wars, we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory... Kurt Vonnegut
The review title is from Frank Herbert's Dune series
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Very informative and very realistic with the old breed brings the full horror of the Pacific to the...Read more