With the Old Breed (at Peleliu and Okinawa)
by E.B. Sledge
Summary: Sledge provides graphic detail on his experiences as a World War II Marine. The book generally draws raves from online reviewers, but I thought that it was slow moving in places. I’m glad that I read With the Old Breed, but I’d rate it only as “pretty good.”
Review: Studs Terkel’s 1984 oral history of World War II, The Good War, helped introduce E.B. Sledge (1923-2001) to a wider audience. In 1981, Sledge had published With the Old Breed, a horrifying account of his experiences as a World War II Marine. Terkel interviewed Sledge for The Good War, which – in turn – helped promote With the Old Breed.
In With the Old Breed, Sledge recounts his time in the Marines from his initial enlistment up until the end of World War II. The book focuses on Sledge’s combat experiences. After returning from WWII, Sledge suffered nightmares and his family suggested that he begin writing as a way to come to grips with the past. Years later he published With the Old Breed, again at the urging of his family.
Sledge grew up in Mobile, Alabama (where I live) and that made me especially excited to read this book. He was sent to Atlanta to train as an officer, but grew restless because he felt that he was missing his chance to serve in WWII. The Marine Corps obliged Sledge by shipping him to San Diego to train as an enlisted man. He was then sent to the Pacific, where he fought in two of the most-savage battles of World War II: Peleliu and Okinawa.
No Punches Pulled
Unsurprisingly, With the Old Breed spares the reader few of war’s horrors. Sledge recounts the horrifying waste of lives on both sides. For me, the most-memorable scenes describe putrid-smelling battlefields full of decomposing corpses that are infested with maggots. This material by itself should be enough to make anyone pray for peace.
The book includes dozens of black-and-white USMC photos of Marines at Peleliu and Okinawa. The photos add a lot to the story; many of the Marines that Sledge mentions in the book also appear in the photos. As with the text itself, the photos are graphic and include many images of death.
Sledge also describes how war dehumanizes people. He makes no bones about the fact that the Marines hated the Japanese they fought. (The Japanese, for their part, also hated the Marines). In one scene, Sledge recounts how the Marines destroyed a Japanese machine gun nest; in doing so, the top of the Japanese gunner’s skull was blown off. After the shooting ended, it rained and water pooled inside the bottom of the the gunner’s skull (which was still attached the rest of his body); later still, a bored Marine tossed rocks into the opened skull. Again, the reader prays for peace.
What good did Sledge find in the Marines? He had a great respect for “the old breed” mentioned in the book’s title. The old breed were the career Marines who served before World War II and maintained the Corp’s discipline and traditions. Sledge maintains that it was these men who prepared the new recruits for the horrors of war. Also, Sledge recounts that the Marines – the vast majority of whom were volunteers – had tremendous espirit de corps and a belief in the Allies’ cause, even if they hated combat.
While With the Old Breed has legions of fans, I do not share all of their enthusiasm. One consistent problem is the amount of the text devoted to describing the deployment of troops during the two battles; the descriptions are long, confusing, and only mildly interesting. (Diagrams would have helped). For me, the power in Sledge’s story is describing one person’s experiences and how he came to grips with the war.
Also, Sledge never explains the Marine Corps’ appeal. Though the Marines were very effective in battle, their victories were incredibly costly. For instance, at Peleliu alone, the 1st Marine Division (of about 9000 troops) suffered 6526 casualties. Of the casualties, 1252 were killed. And yet, today the Marine Corps regularly meets its recruiting goals. I suppose if you don’t understand the Corps’ appeal, then it’s just not for you.
(It’s worth noting that Sledge had an interesting life after WWII. He served in China after WWII and, after his discharge from the Marines, he earned his Ph.D. and became a professor at the University of Montevallo near Birmingham, Alabama. Sledge’s book China Marine – which I have not read – recounts his later life).
In the end, I suspect that the slight disappointment I feel in the book stems from a combination of two factors – 1) my expectations were too high and 2) I’m probably the wrong audience. Based on the online reviews, I predict that devoted fans of military books will love With the Old Breed. Other readers will still enjoy it, but it might not be their favorite book.