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.

Reader Discussion

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on May 27, 2013 at 06:29:01 am

Dear Mr. Reinsch:
Thank you for this review on Memorial Day. Reading "With The Old Breed" on this of all days is a perfect way to put the reader into the frame of mind and heart to better understand both the horror and honor of war. Every one who reads his book profits from his disobedience to the rules that forbade keeping notes and from his eloquence in compiling them into what I consider to be the best report ever written of what war is "really" like. Thanks for moving back into my 'frontal lobes' on this day we are given to remember all the Sledges who came before and who have served after those horrific days he endured and memorialized in "With The Old Breed."

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Derek Simmons
on May 29, 2016 at 09:56:45 am

Freedom isn't free. We enjoy comfort and peace only because of the countless sacrifices of courageous warriors who endured unimaginable horror on the battle field, many of whom perished. Great post.

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Mark Pulliam
on May 29, 2016 at 11:03:33 am

So how about we ALL go and fly the Flag this weekend. It is a minor, but important act - especially when one considers this past weekends vandalism of Veterans Memorials - more than likely by little brats who spend their time at the "app store" engaging in video combat.

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on May 29, 2016 at 12:22:40 pm

Great article, but it should be noted that even though Sledge physically survived his battles and became a respected professor, he still sacrificed the life he had before the war. He was featured in Ken Burns' documentary "The War," and his story tugs one's heartstrings. And he was only one of hundreds of thousands. On Memorial Day, remember that those honored headstones are only part of the reckoning.

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Image of Ron
on May 31, 2016 at 08:14:15 am

A very nice review

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Image of paul
on May 29, 2017 at 20:38:18 pm

Sledge's account of Okinawa along with corroborating accounts by William Manchester and others document why our invasion of Kyushu on Nov. 1 would have been hell magnified beyond belief. None of these men had doubts about the atomic bombs that saved them from that date with blood on blood.

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David Carter
on May 29, 2017 at 21:14:02 pm

Great article, but it should be noted that even though Sledge physically survived his battles and became a respected professor, he still sacrificed the life he had before the war.
Oh, BUT. Oh, dear. He sacrificed his prewar life.
Does the writer have any inkling that citizens participating in the defense of their civilization must now and then drop their old plans and pitch in to do the dirty work, no questions asked? With the survival of their neighbors, and if lucky themselves, a huge achievement. Doesn't seem like it.
A frightening percentage of our 'educated' classes seem to think that the do-nothing option in world politics is a viable choice, despite the increasingly obvious threats, and that if the US would just follow that option they won't have to sacrifice anything on the road to their subsidized sinecure.
I'm not sure those are the guys I'd want in the next foxhole.

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Insufficiently Sensitive
on May 29, 2017 at 22:47:09 pm

My Dad missed being one of the "Old Breed" by virtue of my Grandmother's refusal to sign his enlistment papers at age eighteen. When he was free to enlist the day after his 19th birthday, he duly enlisted and was sent to Camp Lejeune, where he was informed that the year of college he'd completed in the interim meant that he had been selected to be part of the V-12 program, which would turn him into a Second Lieutenant at the end a year.

Dad was commissioned and assigned to the newly created Third Marine Division, which took him to Guam and the waters around Okinawa The Third was never landed; it was used in an attempt to draw Japanese strength away from the Shuri Line. The Japanese refused to take the bait, and the Third was never landed.

They were slated to spearhead Operation Olympic, to establish a beachhead on Kyushu to start the invasion of mainland Japan. Fortunately, the carnage experienced by the Old Breed on Okinawa convinced Truman of the wisdom of dropping the atom bombs which ended the war, and allowed my Dad to return home to marry my Mom, whom he'd met during his V-12 training period.

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on May 29, 2017 at 23:59:56 pm

I had to pause about 2/3 through reading "The Old Breed". It became too depressing, and I'm a Marine. They sent Sledge and his fellow Marines ashore without water. When they finally sent water they sent it in barrels that had been used for oil and the water was too contaminated to drink. That is very typical of the failure of Marine logistics, especially the Marine senior leadership. They screw up basic tasks like having water in the summer in the south Pacific. Every Marine had better have his hair cut short and his boots shined, but their officers will screw up getting them water.

Marine officers can be incompetent idiots at times. But they never seem to be held accountable for letting their troops down.

The same idiocy prevailed at least into the 1990s. Maybe things have gotten better since then. I hope so. The Marines lose the funding battles that go on in Washington and it's the grunts who pay a very unfair price for that.

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Image of Dean
on May 30, 2017 at 07:16:12 am

All these sacrifices utterly betrayed by Obama and kin.

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on May 28, 2018 at 08:20:06 am

Ditto to the above. I served in the Marines during the era between Vietnam and Afghanistan, and had a couple buddies killed in Iraq. I had to stop reading "The Old Breed", and don't really like watching war movies, tbh.

It's something that annoys and frankly makes me angry about a lot of modern conservatism which glorifies War and has never met a country I didn't want to invade.

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Benjamin Glaser
on May 28, 2018 at 11:00:56 am

My Dad signed up and flunked his physical, IV-F'd into sitting out the war and raising me and my three siblings while his 3 brothers fought (Army, Navy and Army Air Corps) and lived not to talk about it. Best I could learn by prying it out of them in dribs and drabs was that they went to war for God and country but actually fought the war for their buddies and their manly honor and ended up looking back on the war as for love of country.

The veterans, those grunts who fight, die and suffer, and all of their families who suffer daily with them awe me with their selfless devotion to the code of duty, honor, country.

We would sink into the dirt without our bedrock.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on May 29, 2018 at 08:55:18 am

I've read this book 4 times and with each reading am drawn in more and more to stand in awe of men like these. I'm a Marine and I don't know that I could have conquered my fear and been able to do my duty. I've been under fire but not like this. Bravery unimaginable. Semper Fidelis...............

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Phillip Fears

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