With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, by E.B. Sledge (1981)

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Eugene B. Sledge, the son of a doctor from Alabama, enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1942 and fought with the 1st Marine Division on Peleliu and Okinawa. His wartime memoir, With the Old Breed, chronicles his experiences in some of the bloodiest fighting of the Pacific war against Japan. It is a story about the humanity, and utter lack thereof, in war. Sledge recreates the people, places, and battles with which he was involved during his time as a mortarman with Company K, 3d Battalion, 5th Marines. His descriptions of his fellow Marines makes the reader grow attached to them until we are reminded of their often tragic fates. The deaths of men like Captain Andrew “Ack Ack” Haldane, whom the reader has come to respect and admire almost as much as Sledge himself, come quickly, unexpectedly, and tragically. The descriptions of the battles are intense. Sledge does not shy away from describing the gruesome details of what he witnessed, but neither does he exaggerate them.

With the Old Breed is not a gory glorification of war, but the author’s attempt to come to terms with his experiences. Sledge writes of his desire to retain his humanity as best he could amidst the unrestrained violence surrounding him. He tells of other Marines brutalizing Japanese bodies and though he is disgusted by their actions, he realizes that they are borne out of a hate created by “their fight for survival amid the violent death, terror, tension, fatigue, and filth that was the infantryman’s war.” Rather than dwell on his own hatred of the enemy, Sledge writes about how his comrades’ acts of courage and loyalty helped him keep his faith in mankind. With the Old Breed is a classic of American military history, a glimpse inside the mind of a combat veteran who has experienced, and survived, the sharp end of combat in some of the most brutal conditions imaginable.