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Eugene Sledge’s visceral recollections of the Pacific campaign
on 29 April 2017
Eugene Sledge's book of his personal experiences as an enlisted man in the US Marine Corps during WW2 is one of the most honest, visceral accounts of close-up infantry combat ever written. Sledge’s style is not that of a practiced professional writer but is simple, straightforward and direct, and this endows the book with its unusual power.
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.