With the Old Breed

I’ve been reading With the Old Breed, Eugene Sledge’s classic account of his experiences in the battles of Peleliu and Okinawa. Many have come to know his story from the successful 2010 HBO Series The Pacific that relied in part on his diary of these two battles. Sledge enlisted for the duration of the war +6 months in 1943 and, owing to his intelligence, was part of a military training program at Georgia Tech. There he could have earned his degree and joined the war effort in a highly skilled position of some kind, remote perhaps from actual fighting. However, he withdrew from the program, as many of his fellow classmates did, and joined the Marines to fight as a rifleman. And so he did.  The narrative “Sledgehammer” provides is compelling, horrific, and fascinating. A member of the famous 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, he describes the landing on Peleliu:

Huge geysers of water rose around the amtracs ahead of us as they approached the reef. The beach was now marked along its length by a continuous sheet of flame backed by a thick wall of smoke. It seemed as though a huge volcano had erupted from the sea, and rather than heading for an island, we were being drawn into the vortex of a flaming abyss. For many it was to be oblivion.

The accounts of the island battles are appalling. There is little redeeming value, Sledge concludes, from these sojourns into hell. But the “Old Breed” must abide, he says.

And who are the Old Breed for Sledge? At one level, this was simply the nickname given to the First Marine Division that had served in the earliest engagements of the Pacific campaign at Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester. That much is true. Their lineage is great, stretching back to World War I.  Sledge is proud of being a part of this unit of men, and it comes blaring through the text. No punches are pulled in his description of the fighting.

In particular, the chapter “Of Mud and Maggots,” that details the final push on Okinawa amidst driving rains, knee-deep mud, maggots on rotting Japanese and American corpses, is brutal to read. Sledge recounts that on one occasion the rain fell viciously, and he saw a dead Marine, half-submerged in water. Rain drops danced around him (it being too dangerous to remove corpses from the field as Japanese soldiers would shoot stretcher-bearers, among other tricks.) In that moment, Sledge recalls his boyhood in Mobile, AL. There he remembered watching the bullfrogs jump with the splashes of water from the falling showers. Every man, he tells us, had to survive with his imagination or face insanity.

The Old Breed for Sledge is a paean to what has gone before him, to that which exceeds him. He is there to play his part, to serve with courage. One could have been swallowed up in the “chamber of horrors,” but he places himself within a web of honor that he did not make, even though his service seems utterly damned. The notion is exemplified in “Haney” who fought in WWI and reenlisted, serving in a preparation phase with Sledge. Here, he made a lasting impression on our protagonist because he refused to compromise on any matter of training. After serving with incredible bravery at Guadalcanal, Haney had to be carried from fighting at Peleliu. He had endured too much and could fight no more. No one questions Haney’s retreat, even the Old Breed are “born of a woman,” Sledge tells us.

Sledge is at turns bitter at his training officers in boot camp and in later preparatory phases. Camp was humiliating and physically exhaustive. Failure at a task led to a visit from the screaming instructor. You operated without requisite sleep. However, in a footnote he criticizes those who now critique the Marines for being too extreme, too inhumane in their training. Sledge knows that in the mud of combat, the discipline and the supports such training gives your will are all that a Marine possesses. It comforted him, he reports, that the man in his foxhole, and in surrounding foxholes, had received the same treatment.

So, we have a display of gratitude, piety even for a tradition that allowed men from a democratic society to best the Imperial Japanese forces on a field of their own choosing. Indeed, it was the Japanese refusal to surrender that made each battle a war of attrition. Failure was not an option; and, Sledge reports that prisoners were rarely taken, by the Marines, that is.

Sledge, I think, is the classic Southerner, he is a Christian Stoic in the War. Born in the early 20s, obviously he sits between two eras of South. He would return from the War and be a part of the rising new South. However, Sledge’s account of war is divorced from civic theology or any boosterism for the “Good War.” Rather, he was a young man who knew that America needed men like him to fight. He was merely responding to the crush of reality as it fell on his country. Sledge played his part, greatly sacrificial, and he did not seek vindication, only to tell the story of the Old Breed, of duty and holding on to something truer and more beautiful than war, even though fighting and killing had to be done. This Memorial Day 2013, after two inconclusive wars, we might recall Sledge and his Old Breed, the men he loved, as an example of those America must be able to call upon when then are no good options left.

Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted on Memorial Day 2013.