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E B (Gene) Sledge's memoir of his time in the Pacific War has been an incredibly rich source for for television history. Ken Burns drew extensively upon his account for his brilliant series "The War" particularly in Episode 9 "FUBAR" and his words are read and quoted. Now it extensively figures again in the what will be one of the great series of modern television, HBOs "The Pacific" a 10-part mini-series from the creators of "Band of Brothers" telling the intertwined stories of three Marines during America's battle with the Japanese in the Pacific during World War II. "Helmet for My Pillow" by Robert Leckie is the other key primary source and you may wish to read the reviews elsewhere of that excellent book. It is Sledge's memoir however that in my subjective opinion is the definitive account of this terrible conflict.

Gene Sledge was no backseat General or causal observer, he gave up a graduation course leading to a commissioned officer's position to serve as a Private First Class in the Pacific Theater and saw combat at the raging infernos of Peleliu with its controversial airfield and Okinawa. He played others roles such as a stretcher bearer and constantly throughout his service, Sledge kept extensive "unauthorised notes" of what happened in his pocket sized New Testament. If you go over to the US Amazon site you will see that this book has nearly 300 reviews and Sledge is rightly compared to Robert Graves as a war author. This is no American hyperbole. Gene Sledge aside from his military feats is a great writer and remembrancer.

This is by no means a "jolly romp" war memoir it is a brutal and often terrifyingly honest account of a soldiers experience and the deep fear and boredom that underpins this. Slegdes account of the first man he kills throws into sharp relief the the unimaginable dread of taking another life. His deep reflections and anxiety about whether he might turn out "yella" are brilliantly articulated. His sheer dismay at the "terror compounded" of being out in the open in an artillery barrage is almost heart rending and you wish he wasn't there. Indeed Joseph Conrad's immortal phrase "Oh the horror" in the Heart of Darkness could be subtitle for this book. Sledge in one sense also prefigures the some of the disillusionment that would be rampant in the later Vietnam War. He talks of the "awesome reality that we were training to be canon fodder", the word "expendable" is used and the sheer ruthlessness of the combat and treatment of soldiers is set out in raw detail. Sledge was deeply religious but combined his faith with sharp intellectual analysis of his own and his comrades precarious situation. "Something of me died at Peleliu" he states in capturing an island which was deemed by the military planners to be a four day "in and out" exercise that eventually took 2 months and thousands of lives. The Japanese were blasted and burned out of these Islands but in turn gave new meaning to the term "never give an inch". The battle rolled onto the mainland but not before the "two scorpions in a bottle" to use Sledge's term went from island to island slugging it out in increasingly brutal combat. Sledge ended up in the the apocalypse at Okinawa in a mortar section which went into battle singing "Little Brown Jug" at the top of their lungs.

When you write a review of America's role in World War 11 some British reviewers get upset about the fact that our soldiers are often ignored or written out of history. The failure of British television in particular to undertake contemporary and exhaustive historical TV series of both World Wars and properly recognise the sheer effort/contribution of the British people is a travesty. The Thames production "World at War" is now nearly 40 years old and "The Great War" produced by the BBC in the early sixties. HBO should therefore be thanked alongside with recent American documentary makers for the important role they are playing. The same is true of Gene Sledge's brilliant book "With the old breed" since the messages it contains are timeless and universal, and we ignore them at our peril.
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on 16 June 2010
This book is something strange for me. It's a good description of the late battles of the Marines in the Pacific islands, Peleliu and Okinawa, but It lacks the naturalness of the language of much novels about the same theme as "The naked and the dead" or "The Red Thin Line".
Good, this is a biography, not fiction. In that sense I feel some cold and distance in the telling of the story, no doubt terrible, but the author perhaps deliberately doesn't trespass a degree of strange correction in his language, perhaps because he lived the war, but he doesn't seems to be a so professional writer as some novelists. So, for me the descriptions are some tasteless and there resides the terrible truth of the book, because one can see the cruelty of war no matter that obstacle.
And perhaps one can see slightly the USA Army thought the Japanese should be a feeble enemy as Indians, Apaches or Sioux. I think one of the main errors of the Americans was these, as the author practically tell us at beginning he didn't knew what to expect.
And every country in the World older tan the USA knows well what to expect from any war from centuries; these are the things the protagonist ignore at beginning: hate, horror, diseases and death, because nobody told him about all these. Sledge has to discover all that as a novelty. Japanese Army was a hard, intelligent and modern enemy imposing constant surveillance including prolonged lack of sleep, hunger, dirt and extreme mental and physical fatigue. Japan wasn't so powerful as the USA, but still so, I think was wrongly underestimated. American soldiers had all class of weaponry, but mentally it seems the Japanese were stronger. This fact was probably the cause of many errors and sufferance of the American Marines in a very hostile area owing not only to the enemy soldiers, but for the tropical scenario, diseases, dangerous fauna and extreme heath.
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on 26 April 2012
As a young man, Eugene Sledge joined the US Marines "to do his bit" in World War 2 and because of his choice of arm, he was sent to fight in the Pacific War against the mighty and tenacious Imperial Japanese Army. "With the Old Breed" describes his experiences in two of the nastier campaigns in that theatre, Pelelieu and Okinawa (and was one of the references for the HBO mini-series "The Pacific").

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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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.
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VINE VOICETOP 500 REVIEWERon 3 February 2013
I wouldnt be at all surprised if many who come to read this now, like me, got here via HBO's incredibly powerful and moving Pacific mini-series.

Eugene 'Sledgehammer' Sledge served with K platoon of the 3rd battalion, 5th regt in the USMC, K/3/5 for short. As a pfc (private first class) he was, as he says himself, 'cannon fodder', and as a member of a 60mm mortar team he saw action as rifleman, gunner, stretcher bearer and runner/carrier. Serving in two extremely ferocious and bloody campaigns, the lesser-known Pelelieu and the more famous Okinawa, Sledge sees a lot of action on the front line, and relates what he saw and lived through in a humble and matter of fact manner.

The Pacific TV series gets over the visceral impact and constant nervous stress incredibly well, something that books about the same kinds of events rarely manage. This does as good a job as any, but still falls short of the shock and adrenaline the TV production can arouse. I guess the differences just reflect different strengths or propensities of the differing media. Nevertheless, this is still harrowing stuff.

Sledge went on to become a biology professor, passing on a love of nature that very occasionally makes itself felt in small observations of his environment, even amidst the hell of war. And Sledge, to his enormous credit, is unequivocal in his condemnation of the brutality and inhumanity of war, as when he says, on p. 261, that 'to me the war was insanity.' Shortly after this he reflects on the contrast between war and peacetime civilian life poignantly (p. 268): 'We just wished that people back home could understand how lucky they were and stop complaining about trivial inconveniences.' A recurrent theme.

Further reinforcing the anti-war element of his writing are such passages as the following (p. 311), where, having narrated a grim episode concerning the dispatch of two Japanese officers, Sledge says 'Replete with violence, shock, blood, gore, and suffering, this was the type of incident that should be witnessed by anyone who has any delusions about the glory of war. It was as savage and brutal as though the enemy and we were primitive barbarians rather than civilised men.'

In his 'End Of The Agony' summation Sledge remarks that 'War is brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waste. Combat leaves an indelible mark on those who are forced to endure it.' He does go on to say that bravery, loyalty and esprit de corps were also factors, and that until 'countries cease trying to enslave others' war will be necessary. But overall one senses that he hopes for a day when we might stop the senseless brutal waste.

I really enjoyed reading both Leckie's and Sledge's accounts of this mind-numbingly ferocious and wasteful conflict, but the more overtly anti-war note, and the quiet dignity, if you will, of Sledge's account give it the edge for this reader.

PS - As I noted in my review of Robert Leckie's Helmet for my Pillow, I find it somewhat odd that swearing is taboo: s*** becomes 'stuff' ('when the stuff hits the fan'), and SNAFU is rendered as 'situation normal all fouled up'! Considering the horror and squalor so vividly described, this nicety seems a little jarring (bordering on the hypocritical, perhaps?).
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on 6 April 2011
There are many other great reviews of this excellent book already in place, but having finished it, I felt moved to write my own. I can only imagine how horrific it must be to serve on the frontline in any war. Some books convey that horror better than others. Guy Sajer's iconic account of WW2 German army life on the Russian front, The Forgotten Soldier, is without doubt one of the best. But this book can stand proudly, four square alongside it.

The author, Eugene Sledge, kept illicit notes of his experiences on the islands of Pelelieu and Okinawa, and later used them to write this book. Written in an unassuming but compelling way, it lays out in horrifying detail the depravities of modern war, and the depths to which man can stoop when surrounded by utter carnage. Those with weak stomachs, stay away. I still have some of the images that I read about engraved in my mind's eye. Yet the book is not just about violence. It's also about the comradeship and love that the soldiers felt for each other, and the humour they used to help them survive.

It's an incredible read. I heard about the book because of the HBO miniseries The Pacific. I'm currently reading another book, written by a contemporary of Sledge's, Robert Leckie. Helmet for my Pillow is another absorbing read, although it's written in an entirely different style. Like other reviewers, I've also wondered why there aren't more accounts of WW2 by British soldiers. I've read the brilliant The Railway Man by Eric Lomax, but not seen much else. Thanks to Amazon's lists, I've recently come across First Light, an account of the Battle of Britain, by a former fighter pilot. I aim to read it soon, and hope and expect that it will live up to the American books.

Ben Kane, author of The Forgotten Legion.
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on 5 May 2013
Respected historian Stephen Ambrose wrote (in To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian) that E. B. Sledge's account was the most faithful description he had ever read of fighting on the front line. Sledge describes his training, his deployment to the WWII Pacific theater, and his personal experiences fighting the Japanese on Peleliu and Okinawa. His descriptions are unescapably honest and detailed.

Readers are immersed in the life of the Marine infantry. Sledge describes the rigors of basic training and his surprise at being offered a choice about what advanced weapons training he would receive. His choice of the mortar influenced the type of fighting he did during the rest of the war. We learn how a combat unit functions; how ammunition and supplies move forward and how stretchers of wounded move backward. He also tells us what it is like when the bodies of fallen comrades cannot be retrieved and lay for days or weeks on the ground. Soldiers endure the smell, presence of maggots, and constant reminder of their own mortality.

Sledge describes, he claims inadequately, the deep hatred between the American and Japanese soldiers. Neither side took prisoners; soldiers on both sides fought to the end. Bodies were mutilated to intimidate the enemy and cut open to retrieve gold fillings. They were not always dead when this was done. These actions intensified the hatred on both sides. Sledge offers no apologies for the overall hatred of his enemies, but does deplore some of the excesses of his fellow soldiers.

Some of the most intense stories are about the night battles with enemy infiltrators. Although the Americans used passwords and dug foxholes close to one another, there was still great uncertainty about who was who once the sun went down. Sledge describes one silent struggle down the line that left a soldier loudly crying and calling out as he took most of the rest of the night to die. He could not be retrieved and Sledge admits to wishing the noise would stop so he could sleep. Eventually it did. The next day he discovered the dying soldier had been one of his best friends. He relates a number of equally scarring personal experiences.

I recommend this book for the greater understanding it gives of what it is like to fight in a war. There is little about high-level strategy and much about living in the mud, with too little sleep and too little hope of surviving the night. It may be of interest that a segment of Ken Burns' The War contains a segment about Sledge's war experiences based on this book.
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VINE VOICEon 13 April 2010
The decision of HBO to use `With the Old Breed' as one the key sources for their $ 200 million mini-series ` The Pacific' has brought Eugene Sledge's war memoirs has a whole new global readership. First published in 1981 but using notes taken at the time of the battles in 1944/5, this is an account of the author's recruitment and training in the US Marine Corps and his participation in two of World War Two's most brutal and horrific battles . The original working title of was `Into the Abyss' and nothing comes closer to describing the particular forms of hell that were the battles of Peleliu and Okinawa. Whilst the author refers to the wider strategic picture, that is only reference events and this remains a very personal account.

Sledge doesn't shy away from describing in detail the horror of the battlefield with its rotting corpses, mangled body parts and human excrement. Too often in other literature comparisons with the First World War's trenches are drawn, yet on Okinawa the combination of multiple assaults against a well entrenched enemy and a rain saturated battlefield lead to a repeat of those conditions. It was only the lack of Japanese re-enforcements that ensured this campaign did not develop into the same stalemate.

Despite all the horror around him and the killing he had to do, Sledge's own humanity, whilst tested, survives and shines through. There is no sense of blood lust for the death of the Japanese, even though their conduct is often appalling, and Sledge finds no glory in war even in the eventual US victory.

The writing is one of the great strengths of this book. The author was well educated and after the war went on to become a Professor of biology. The narrative is always clear, events are easy to follow and there is the avoidance of poetic prose and unnecessarily over descriptive passages but still you are carried along by the events.

I have no doubt that Spielberg, Hanks and HBO will try to do justice to this book and Sledge's story. However, they can never cover all the events and detail it contains. This is highly recommended for anyone interested in the frontline combat experience of war.
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on 28 February 2015
I have not finished the book yet,but I find it a fine read mr Sledge had a hard time but I think he and his buddy's where very courages to go through a horrible time I salute them all--- Anthony J Byrne
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on 20 November 2011
I am very interested in military history and have read extensively about all wars and campaigns but my knowledge of the American conquest of the Pacific in WW2 was sketchy, apart from the strategy employed and the major battles, but this is the first time I have read such an account, I would put this above that other great autobiographical novel Norman Mailers ''Naked and the Dead'....... This marvellous thoughtful book which concerns the 1st Marine Division is by no means Gung Ho like the usual John Wayne effort, but puts into perspective what it was really like..... In the words of our own great fighting general Field Marshal William Slim conquerer of the Japanese in Burma...
''Every army in the world, talks about fighting to the last man, and the last bullet..in reality it is only the Japanese that do it''..
Peleliu was awful and tragic and it proved to be totally unnecessary and was based on a decision by Macarthur so he could carry out his photo opportunity in the Philippines, without fear of interruption.......Okinawa was a huge and costly battle, with not only an implacable enemy, who were well prepared and supplied but appalling conditions, reminiscent of the first World war.... Eugene Sledge who no doubt would have been a Confederate soldier at Gettysburg or Bull Run here is a very young, unworldy, intelligent Marine, and tells it exactly as it was..... The terror, the squalid conditions, the privations, the heroism, the cowardice, the despair.... If you have not read this book and you are interested in military history then do so
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