With The Old Breed is the intense biography of a Marine infantryman who fought against Japan in World War II. A doctor’s son from Alabama, the 135-pound Eugene B. Sledge was an intelligent and modest young man who evolved into a ruthless killing machine that survived the hellish Pacific War. Fellow Marines would nickname the mortarman “Sledgehammer.” This moving and graphic book follows his nightmare journey through the meat grinder battles of Peleliu and Okinawa.
The Battle Of Peleliu
After he completed basic training, PFC Sledge went to the Pacific. He tasted combat at the amphibious landing on Peleliu. The battle to win this tiny island was supposed to take several days. It lasted over two months. Peleliu consisted of jagged coral that shredded flesh, shoes, and clothing. The coral made it almost impossible to dig defensive positions. The Marines faced flies, maggots, filth, giant land crabs, jungle rot, and baking heat. Of course, they also experienced near constant gunfire, shelling, and explosions.
Peleliu had almost no soil. It was impossible to bury the dead or bodily waste. Thousands of corpses and body parts in various stages of decay piled up and lay rotting in the sun. Human excrement covered the island. The Marines drank foul, contaminated water from used oil barrels. Sledge found many dead Americans badly desecrated by the Japanese. He described a Marine who culled trophies from a mortally wounded soldier:
The Japanese’s mouth glowed with huge gold-crowned teeth, and his captor wanted them. He put the point of his kabar on the base of a tooth and hit the handle with the palm of his hand. Because the Japanese was kicking his feet and thrashing about, the knife point glanced off the tooth and sank deeply into the victim’s mouth. The Marine cursed him and with a slash cut his cheeks open to each ear. He put his foot on the sufferer’s lower jaw and tried again. Blood poured out of the soldier’s mouth. He made a gurgling noise and thrashed wildly.
Later, Sledge came close to collecting teeth before a corpsman talked him down. He barely survived Peleliu with his humanity intact:
Time had no meaning, life had no meaning. The fierce struggle for survival in the abyss of Peleliu had eroded the veneer of civilization and made savages of us all.
The Battle Of Okinawa
Sledge then participated in the brutal assault on Okinawa. By this time, he was a combat hardened veteran. This battle lasted almost three months and over 12,500 Allied forces died. The Allies killed 95,000 Japanese soldiers. Some estimate that up to 140,000 civilians perished as well.
The misery continued. Sledge witnessed a Marine casually murder an old, unarmed Okinawan woman. He saw another man lose his mind; a sobbing comrade who repeatedly smashed a rifle butt into the destroyed skull of a dead Japanese soldier until gently led away. The Marines did not sleep because at night the enemy silently crept past their lines and knifed them in the dark.
Unlike Peleliu, Okinawa had mud, which dragged the Allies down but at least allowed them to dig defensive fortifications. Even this small blessing would come at a cost:
In disgust, I drove the spade into the soil, scooped out the insects, and threw them down the front of the ridge. The next stroke of the spade unearthed buttons and scraps of cloth from a Japanese army jacket in the mud—and another mass of maggots. I kept on doggedly. With the next thrust, metal hit the breastbone of a rotting Japanese corpse. I gazed down in horror and disbelief as the metal scraped a clean track through the mud along the dirty whitish bone and cartilage with ribs attached. The shovel skidded into the rotting abdomen with a squishing sound. The odor nearly overwhelmed me as I rocked back on my heels. I began choking and gagging as I yelled in desperation, ‘I can’t dig in here! There’s a dead Nip here!’ The NCO came over, looked down at my problem and at me, and growled, ‘You heard him; he said put the holes five yards apart.’
The Allies prevailed, and Sledge lived through Okinawa. They began to prepare for the inevitable invasion of the Japanese homeland. The troops were obviously ecstatic when the atomic bomb attack ended WWII, eliminating the need for another bloody offensive.
After The War
Sledge witnessed the rise of the Chinese Communists while stationed in Beijing post war. He documented those experiences in China Marine. After his discharge, he retired to a quiet civilian life in Alabama. He got a PhD, had a family, and became a biology professor at the University of Montevallo. E.B. Sledge passed away in 2001.
Military history books typically offer an impersonal, big-picture perspective. With The Old Breed presents the compelling and very personal narrative of a combat soldier. This man lived through some of the most vicious battles in recorded history. It is hard to fathom the horrors that Sledge endured. The book stuck in my mind for weeks after I read it. It reminded me not to take things for granted. When life gets tough, I remember this story and put things in perspective. I am thankful for men like him, and all those who sacrificed their lives to destroy tyranny. They are part of the reason we are free to pursue our own selfish goals. We owe them all a debt of gratitude.
Read More: “With The Old Breed” on Amazon