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With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

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In his own book, Wartime, Paul Fussell called With the Old Breed "one of the finest memoirs to emerge from any war." John Keegan referred to it in The Second World War as "one of the most arresting documents in war literature." And Studs Terkel was so fascinated with the story he interviewed its author for his book, "The Good War." What has made E.B. Sledge's memoir of his experience fighting in the South Pacific during World War II so devastatingly powerful is its sheer honest simplicity and compassion.

Now including a new introduction by Paul Fussell, With the Old Breed presents a stirring, personal account of the vitality and bravery of the Marines in the battles at Peleliu and Okinawa. Born in Mobile, Alabama in 1923 and raised on riding, hunting, fishing, and a respect for history and legendary heroes such as George Washington and Daniel Boone, Eugene Bondurant Sledge (later called "Sledgehammer" by his Marine Corps buddies) joined the Marines the year after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and from 1943 to 1946 endured the events recorded in this book. In those years, he passed, often painfully, from innocence to experience.

Sledge enlisted out of patriotism, idealism, and youthful courage, but once he landed on the beach at Peleliu, it was purely a struggle for survival. Based on the notes he kept on slips of paper tucked secretly away in his New Testament, he simply and directly recalls those long months, mincing no words and sparing no pain. The reality of battle meant unbearable heat, deafening gunfire, unimaginable brutality and cruelty, the stench of death, and, above all, constant fear. Sledge still has nightmares about "the bloody, muddy month of May on Okinawa." But, as he also tellingly reveals, the bonds of friendship formed then will never be severed.

Sledge's honesty and compassion for the other marines, even complete strangers, sets him apart as a memoirist of war. Read as sobering history or as high adventure, With the Old Breed is a moving chronicle of action and courage.

326 pages, Paperback

First published November 1, 1981

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E.B. Sledge

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,160 reviews
Profile Image for J..
Author 24 books47 followers
November 16, 2008
With the Old Breed should be required reading in our classrooms, for this is the brutal reality of war at its most horrific. No sensationalism here; E. B. Sledge merely tells it the way it was. There is no glory in war, in the shedding of another man's blood; in digging a foxhole in a torrential downpour only to uncover the badly decomposing body of a Japanese soldier crawling with maggots; in watching helplessly as four of your comrades retrieve, on a stretcher, a wounded Marine amid machinegun fire ("If it were me out there," Sledge recounts, "I would want to know I wouldn't be left behind."); in enduring a night while being shelled by enemy artillery; in stumbling upon fellow Marines that have been tortured, decapitated and butchered in the worst way imaginable; in suffering sleep deprivation, from malaria and jungle rot, and from hunger, thirst, and, alternately, heat and cold. This is why war should be avoided at all costs, and this is why no one man should ever be given the authority, with a flourish of his signature, to risk the lives of young men and women.

My dad fought on Okinawa, receiving a citation from the office of the president for his participation in the taking of Shuri Ridge. I never knew my dad as a Marine, as he retired from the Corps before getting married and starting a family. I asked him once, when I was a boy, to tell me about his service, but he refused. I asked him again, about six and a half years ago, during the final year of his life, and he again refused. I had hoped that by sharing his pain a healing could take place. Unfortunately, what he saw, what he endured, died with him.

Sledge, in this memoir of his service on Peleliu and Okinawa, told me everything my dad withheld from me. This incredible account, told with frank detachment, is hailed as the best World War II memoir of an enlisted man, and with good reason. Part adventure, part history, "Sledgehammer" not only relates many of the clichés every Hollywood movie depicted on the subject, but also everything they left out.

Thanks, Sledgehammer, for sharing your story, and my dad's, with me. He perhaps felt I couldn't understand what he endured. Perhaps no civilian can. Yet after having read With the Old Breed, I understand a little better why he was the way he was.

Your generation is truly the greatest generation.
Profile Image for Lawyer.
384 reviews841 followers
May 22, 2011
Eugene Sledge would seem an unlikely author of what I consider the most powerful memoir of war in the Pacific theater. The son of a Mobile, Alabama, doctor, Eugene began his military career as a candidate in an academic college program that would have made him an officer. However, he deliberately failed to become a Marine assigned to infantry in the Pacific. Sledge's account is told in frank, straight forward and understated language. The Pacific war was a fierce world of barbaric conduct by troops on both sides. Sledge understood the ease with which a man could lose his sense of humanity and recognized how close he came to that outcome.

Sledge quietly states the futility of war and the unnecessary sacrifice of life in the Peleliu campaign. The battle had no strategic effect on the outcome of the war. The island could have easily been hopped over as other pockets of Japanese resistance were.

He wrote,"To the non-combatants and those on the periphery of action, the war meant only boredom or occasional excitement, but to those who entered the meat grinder itself the war was a netherworld of horror from which escape seemed less and less likely as casualties mounted and the fighting dragged on and on. 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."

Sledge adjusted to his return to civilian life with great difficulty. He wrote "With the Old Breed" over a number of years, originally intending it to be a memoir to be read by his family. Following the war he became a professor of botany and zoology at the University of Montevallo in Alabama. His students would have been hard pressed to understand the horrific memories that lay beneath his gentle exterior as he led them on field trips identifying native botanical plants.

Sledge's story was published in 1981. His story was later central to Ken Burns' series, "The War." His memoir later served as one of the key sources for Spielberg and Hanks HBO series, "The Pacific."

Eugene Sledge died in 2001 after a lengthy battle with cancer. His memoir of men at war should be read throughout the coming generations by anyone ever inclined to take the matter of war with an attitude of indifference.

Do not think that Sledge should ever be considered a pacifist. He should not. Nor should his work ever be considered a polemic against any war. These are his concluding words: "Until the millennium arrives and countries cease trying to enslave others, it will be necessary to accept one's responsibilities and be willing to make sacrifices for one's country - as my comrades did. As the troops used to say, "If the country is good enough to live in, it's good enough to fight for." With privilege goes responsibility."

Profile Image for Gloria.
294 reviews26 followers
March 12, 2020

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

~Sigrfried Sassoon

William Tecumseh Sherman said it. "War is hell."
As a veteran of the Mexican War and the Civil War, he should know.

What is it about war which makes us glorify it?
Little boys tear around with swords and guns fighting off imaginary enemies.
Larger boys now sit glued before gaming devices doing essentially the same thing, complete with pixellated blood and gore.

I will admit to holding a longstanding fascination with "The Greatest Generation." I've always said if I could time travel back to a specific era, the 1940's would be at the top of the list.
The patriotism, the sense the country pulling together, the neighborhoods where people still knew one another, the clothes, the cars, the music...
Eugene Sledge's book didn't lessen my love for that time period, nor my awe and gratitude for the men who served ... but, by God, did it slap me in the face.

As graphic and as detailed as some more recent movies focusing on WWII have gotten, there always still seemed to be gaps (at least in my mind). I always wondered about goofy specifics of battlefront life and fox hole warfare.
Sledge's memoir hit every one of those questions-- and then some. The horrific sights, the deafening noises, the putrid odors, the physical maladies running from annoying to disabling. All encircled by the overarching twist of fear which never quite left their guts while they were on their missions. (I won't even try and relay so much of what he saw and experienced because without it being in the context of the rest of his thoughts, it would come off as a) gratuitous and b) unbelievable. Trust me ... if you read it, you'll never again take for granted things like: eating out of the rain, regular-sized house flies, running water, a bed, a change of clothes, dry socks and shoes, warm food, letters from loved ones, clean water, fresh air).

Eugene Sledge takes you with him every step of the way. From basic training, to the pre-launch nervous intestinal visits to the head, to landing in the fray of battle and wondering which bullet was going to kill you.

Along the way, he interposes his deeper thoughts. His wonderings at how men can be so cruel and can become animalistic so quickly within the confines of a battlefield.
But he laments more for those whose core runs toward tenderness and sensitivity.

As I crawled out of the abyss of combat and over the rail of the Sea Runner, I realized that compassion for the suffering of others is a burden to those who have it. As Wilfred Owen's poem "Insensibility" puts it so well, those who feel most for others suffer most in war.

As horrific as his experiences were, as often as he had to watch his friends and comrades die, he summed up his thoughts thusly:

War is brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waste. Combat leaves an endelible mark on those who are forced to endure it. The only redeeming factors were my comrades' incredible bravery and their devotion to each other.

Until the millenium arrives and countries cease trying to enslave others, it will be necessary to accept one's responsibilities and to be willing to make sacrifices for one's country-- as my comrades did. As the troops used to say, "If the country is good enough to live in, it's good enough to fight for." With privilege goes responsibility.

To Eugene Sledge, and to the many others who have fought (and many who have died) to preserve for us so many things we take for granted ...

thank you seems so not enough.
Profile Image for JD.
718 reviews339 followers
November 12, 2019
Absolutely great book, hands down the best memoir of a rifleman. Sledge takes you deep into the horrors of being a Marine rifleman in the Pacific campaigns of Pelilu and Okinawa. He does not hide any of the grim details that faced thses men daily, both physically and mentally. After reading this I will not look at European battlefield memoirs in the same way, as these men fighting against the fanatical Japanese really went to hell and back. Highly recommended to any history buff.
Profile Image for Dmitri.
202 reviews158 followers
September 10, 2023
“It gave us infantrymen so convenient a measuring stick for discomfort, grief, pain, fear and horror that nothing since has greatly daunted us. It brought new meanings of courage, patience, loyalty, greatness of spirit; incommunicable, we found to later times.” - Robert Graves

“The young Marines at Camp Elliott didn't have the remotest idea that in nine months they would participate as part of the 1st Marine Division in the assault on Peleliu. That battle would prove to be so vicious and costly the division's losses would double those of the 2nd Marine Division at Tarawa. To add tragedy to horror, hindsight would show that the seizure of Peleliu was of questionable necessity.”

“The attitudes towards the Japanese by noncombatants and even sailors or airmen often did not reflect the deep personal resentment felt by infantry men. The histories and memoirs written after the war rarely reflect that hatred, but at the time of battle Marines felt it deeply, as bitterly and certainly as the danger itself. To deny this hatred or make light of it would be as much a lie to as to deny intense patriotism of marines that fought in the Pacific. My experiences made me feel Japanese held mutual feelings. They were a fanatical enemy who believed in their cause with an intensity little understood by many post-war Americans and Japanese as well. It resulted in a savage ferocious fighting, with no holds barred. This was not the dispassionate killing seen on other fronts, it was a brutish primitive hatred, as characteristic of war in the Pacific as the palm trees and islands.”

“To those who entered the meat grinder itself, the war was a netherworld of horror from which escape seemed less and less likely as casualties mounted and the fighting dragged on and on. Time had no meaning; life had no meaning. The fierce struggle for survival in the abyss of Peleliu eroded the veneer of civilization and made savages of us all.”

“We received briefings on the upcoming battle for Okinawa. This time there was no promise of a short operation. "This is expected to be the costliest amphibious campaign of the war," a lieutenant said. “We will be hitting an island about 350 miles from the Japs home islands, so you can expect them to fight with more determination than ever. We can expect 80 to 85 percent casualties on the beach." A buddy next to me leaned over and whispered “How’s that for boosting morale?”

“Okinawans tilled their soil with ancient and crude farming methods but war came bringing the latest and most refined technology for killing. It seemed insane and I realized the war was like a disease afflicting man. I had come to associate combat with the stifling heat, fire swept beaches, steaming mangrove choked swamps and harsh, jagged coral ridges. On Okinawa the disease was disrupting a place as pretty as a pastoral painting.”

“None of us would be the same after what we had endured. To some degree that is true of all human experience. But something in me died at Peleliu. Perhaps it was a childish innocence that accepted as faith the claim man is basically good. I lost faith that politicians in high places who do not have to endure war's savagery will ever stop blundering and sending others to endure it.”


E. B. Sledge published this memoir of Peleliu and Okinawa in 1981, thirty six years after the 1944-5, battles he was part of. Military historian Victor Davis Hanson introduces Sledge as a retired biology professor whose wife had encouraged him to write about his experiences to help with the ongoing issues adjusting to civilian life. He methodically tells of his decision to drop out of officer’s school in 1942, enlist in the Marines and what happened later. After his boot camp and artillery training in San Diego California he shipped out for the Pacific Islands as a replacement Marine for those who had been lost in Guam and Guadalcanal. Out of 28,000 troops in four Marine divisions 16,500 officers and men would fight at Peleliu, the balance being support specialists. On Sept. 15, 1944 amphibious track vehicles transported the troops onto the beachhead landing.

After an opening barrage of artillery from ships and planes Sledge and four Marine divisions were pinned down on an airfield by mortar and machine gun fire from pillboxes and cave positions on a ridge for two days without water or rest. Fighting their way through mangrove swamps, coral barrens and jungle, the division ahead of Sledge’s lost 70% of its Marines trying to take the ridge before they were relieved. He describes clearing the bunkers with grenades and flame throwers, Marines looting gold teeth from wounded enemy soldiers and of hand to hand combat in foxholes. The battle of Peleliu lasted three months longer than the commanding general’s estimate it would be over in three days. It had the highest casualty rate of any amphibious operation in Pacific theater. After thirty days of fighting Sledge and the Marines were relieved by the Army.

Following exercises at Guadalcanal Sledge was shipped to Okinawa with the biggest invasion fleet ever assembled in the Pacific. An unopposed landing offered his reserve division a peaceful period on the island before being sent into the meat grinder to replace Army troops. Through driving rain and knee deep mud the Marines encountered some of the fiercest resistance in a last ditch effort to stop American advance towards the Japanese homeland. There is a growing ambivalence in Sledge with the daily imperative to survive. Many of his descriptions are too gruesome to quote, rotting corpses with flies and maggots, Japanese mutilation and American desecration of the dead, of filth and disease. The action becomes a repetitious series of artillery barrages and infantry assaults in order to take the next ridge and enemy position.

‘With the Old Breed’ was written as a private memoir for his family members, but once published it gathered a following and became a classic over the years. The writing is stiff at times compared to George MacDonald Fraser’s ‘Quartered Safe Out Here’ about his year in the Burma campaign. Fraser was a gifted writer following his infantry role and Sledge a scientist, so perhaps the comparison is unfair. Fraser was unambivalent about his service but Sledge to his credit has criticized the human costs of war. An irony of the action at Peleliu, where 2,000 Marines and 12,000 Japanese soldiers died, is that it may have been unnecessary. MacArthur had insisted the island be taken before invading the Philippines for an airfield that was never used. In Okinawa more than 7,600 Americans, 107,000 Japanese and 42,000 civilians died during 82 days of battle.
Profile Image for 'Aussie Rick'.
423 reviews215 followers
August 5, 2017
Not much can be added to the previous reviews of this excellent book. I have read many fine books covering the Pacific campaign during WW2 and so many referred to this book that I had to find a copy for myself. It was well worth the time and effort. I have since bought a copy for a friend here in Australia and he also ranks it in his top 10 military history books.

The author offers an insight into what its like to be in combat rarely found in most books nowadays. This is an honest, at times sad and occassionaly funny, look at the life of a combat Marine during the final battles in the Pacific. This book cannot be recommended highly enough!

This has to be one of the best first-hand accounts of the fighting in the Pacific during WW2. Anyone serious about military history should have a copy in their library. Well done to these brave men who fought and served, may they never be forgotten.
Profile Image for Sweetwilliam.
158 reviews57 followers
December 14, 2017
I would give it six stars if I could. This was gripping. I have been reading military history all my life but I have never read anything quite like PVT Sledge’s first-hand account of his war experience as a member of a front-line infantry unit in the 3rd battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division. I couldn’t believe what I was listening to (It was an audio book.) This book is considered by many as the best first-hand account, battlefield memoir ever written and I cannot disagree.

If you have ever wondered what it was like to be a member of a rifle platoon in the Marines or Army, fighting the Japanese in the Pacific theatre, you need to read this book. If you ever wondered why the men of the greatest generation – the survivors of the Pacific theater – are going to their graves with a deep-seated hatred in their hearts for all things that are Japanese, you need to read this book. The Old Breed is full of stories about Nippon infiltration in the pitch black of night, routing out a fanatical cave-dwelling enemy, being fired at by hidden snipers and machine guns, the accidental killing of fellow Marines, incompetent replacement officers that deserve to be “fragged,” the frustration of dealing with rear echelon troops that do not deserve the same accolades as the sleep deprived, malnourished men of the front line rifle platoons. These are men – mostly teenagers - that literally live for months on end, wet and dirty, in filth and gore surrounded by the smell, sight, and sometimes feel of rotting, maggot infested corpses of both friend and foe.

All hail the men of the Marine Corp and Army infantry that fought that ghastly campaign. O-hail, o-hail, o-infantry, the queen of battle....
Profile Image for Tony.
158 reviews34 followers
August 4, 2017
You've read the other reviews, so you already know how good this is. Written by a young Marine, this is a straight forward, no-nonsense, gritty account of life (and frequently death) on the front line in the Pacific in WW2. It's well written, with plenty of insights into military life - the friendships, the stink & grime, the horror & occasional humour. But what really sets this apart are the author's honest descriptions of how he felt and his motivations in combat - comradeship, bravery, anger, fear.
Profile Image for Marquise.
1,751 reviews615 followers
May 16, 2020
This has become my favourite WWII memoir from the Allied side, and ironically it's all about the battlefront I know the least about: the island-hopping war in the Pacific.

Being more familiar with the European theatre, I kept thinking that this memoir gives vibes of the Pacific as the United States's Eastern Front, because of the savagery, the suicide charges, the ignoring of basic combat conventions and decency, the futile targets, the shitty weather and shittier terrain, the long distances, the ever-present mud, the hostile civilian population, etc., etc. Not to diminish the Western front's importance, but that one looks way too "gentlemanly" in comparison to what you'll find in this memoir (or in any other memoir set in the Russian front, for that matter).

What I liked most about Eugene B. Sledge's account is how candidly it's written. He is rather matter-of-fact, but not dull. Innocent and hopeful at times, bitter and biting at other times. And he doesn't go for self-aggrandising or glorifies his experience. There's points here in which the Marines aren't portrayed kindly and come off as the bad apples in the basket. It's nothing like the we're gonna fight Nazis and save the world all by outselves, har! mentality of the American troops engaging the Germans. It's a moral mud puddle. Precisely why it brought to mind the Eastern Front: no easy answers.

Also, I liked it because With the Old Breed is that rare book that describes war trauma as it's happening. The HBO show "The Pacific," which used Sledge's alongside others Marines' memoirs for its plot, addresses PTSD after the war is over, having Sledge break down during a hunting trip with his father. But in the book, Sledge breaks down thrice. We can see his trauma in "real time," and not as a post-script little note like in the show. If I am not misremembering, the actor playing Sledge said in an interview that Sledge's widow had told him not to portray her late husband as a wimp because of his traumatic breakdown, so that may have informed the showrunners. But moving it to the end of the story wasn't the best idea either, war trauma isn't something that waits until the guns go silent. Other Marines in Sledge's outfit break down during combat, too. At least the show kept the iconic scene in which Sledge is stopped from losing his humanity and becoming entirely brutalised by war, only that in the book it isn't Snafu but Doc Caswell who does it.

It's a memoir worth reading. Since it's a "grunt's eye view," you won't find grand strategy and discussion of tactics and logistics here; go read the generals' memoirs for that if you're looking for the big picture, you won't find it here. Instead, you'll be put in a grunt's boondockers and live it through his eyes in the rain and the mud.
Profile Image for Boudewijn.
681 reviews92 followers
September 19, 2020
A memoir of a soldier of one of the finest and most famous elite fighting divisions of the second World War, the Marine 1st Division, during the Peleliu and Okinawa campaigns. They forged a bond that time would never erase. They were brothers.

I don't need to add anything to the other reviews of my fellow Goodreads members. This book should be on everybody's list.

Instead, I want to highlight a few sentences from the book that in my mind capture the book as a whole:

On the chances of survival and knowing that you would probably not survice the war:
Soldiers like me, who never got hit, can claim with justification, that we survived the abyss of war as fugitives of the law of averages.

And on hearing of the surrender of Japan and the ending of the war:
Sitting in stunned silence, we remembered our death. So many death. So many maimed. So many bright futures consigned to the ashes of the past. So many dreams lost in the madness that had engulfed us. Trying to comprehend a world without war.

And on war as a whole:
War is brutish, inglorious and a terrible waste
Profile Image for fourtriplezed .
467 reviews100 followers
November 21, 2016
A wonderful read. I had trouble putting this brutal but heartfelt book down. It hides nothing about the inhumanity of the Pacific conflict that Sledge was part of but in the end his prose shows a retention of his own humanity.
Profile Image for Charles  van Buren.
1,769 reviews196 followers
October 27, 2019
Review of Kindle edition
Publication date: December 18, 2008
Publisher: Presidio Press
Language: English
Amazon.com Sales Rank: 10684
354 pages

It would be easy to say that this is one of the best, most moving war memoirs ever written but that is not enough. It is also one of the finest histories of marines and campaigns in the Pacific. Overall it is widely regarded as one of the best nonfiction books to come out of WW2. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for A.L. Sowards.
Author 20 books1,084 followers
February 16, 2018
This might be the best memoir I’ve ever read. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, because war is very, very ugly, and Sledge doesn’t sugarcoat it. The book follows him through training, then to the Pacific outpost of Pavuvu, then into the battlefields of Peleliu and Okinawa. Warning: this review includes some spoilers. But it’s a first-hand account, so obviously Sledge survived, or he wouldn’t have written the book. The review is also long because the book gave me lots to think about.

Imagine yourself stuck in a foxhole. It’s been raining for weeks, so there’s a puddle at the bottom, and you can’t remember the last time your feet were dry. You might get a warm cup of coffee or bullion, if you heat it yourself, but you’ll have to hunch over while you’re heating it so the rain doesn’t put the sterno can out. Everything smells awful, because maggot-infested corpses are everywhere. If you sleep, it’s by the light of the flares the navy keeps sending up so you’ll see the enemy if they try to infiltrate. When you have to get out of your foxhole to haul up more ammunition or to get food, you’ll be shelled and shot at. You’ll also be shot at if you’re carrying someone on a stretcher. If you’re the one who’s wounded, and the Japanese get you, they’ll torture you. And if you get killed, and if the Japanese end up with your body, they will mutilate it. Welcome to Okinawa. Peleliu isn’t much different—only it’s dry and hot and covered in flies, and there aren’t many foxholes, because the coral is too hard to dig into.

On one hand, With the Old Breed is a gritty account of island warfare. Sledge (nicknamed Sledgehammer by his fellow Marines) is completely honest. He admits he was scared, he doesn’t hide that fact that Marines often “field-stripped” the enemy dead and the enemy almost-dead (trust me—Marines ripping out gold teeth is mild compared to what the Japanese did to Marine dead), and shows both hatred for the enemy and love for his fellow Marines and their navy corpsmen (with one exception).

But With the Old Breed is more than a brutally honest account of Pacific warfare. It’s also the story of one man’s struggle to keep his humanity and his sanity in the face of horrible circumstances. Sledge is a Southern, Christian boy. He doesn’t smoke until he arrives in combat, and he’s the only person I’ve read who says SNAFU stands for situation normal, all fouled up. On some level, he realizes he’s being trained to be cannon fodder, but the shock of combat is still a difficult burden for him to bear: the horrible conditions, the slaughter, the constant fear. I was touched by one scene, when Sledge is about to pull a few gold teeth out of a Japanese corpse (something he had seen others do, but hadn’t done himself). A corpsman tries to talk him out of it. First he suggests that Sledge’s parents wouldn’t like it. When that doesn’t work, the corpsman says “Think of the germs.” Yeah, germs on a battlefield—laughable. But it’s enough to make Sledge reconsider, and keep a little of his humanity.

It’s not all dark and depressing. There were funny moments as well—the men reminding their green lieutenant of his earlier pledge to charge the Japanese with his knife and pistol and turn the tide of war all by himself, as said lieutenant is frantically digging a really deep foxhole after his first taste of combat. Or the part when Sledge decides to take a nap on a stretcher while the graves crews are working, and pulls his poncho over his head to keep the rain off. Not surprisingly, the graves crew almost carts him off with the corpses. (I totally saw that coming, but I’ve been sleeping in a dry, warm bed instead of a wet foxhole, and my sleep isn’t interrupted by shells and threats of Japanese paratroopers.)

Sledge sums up the book best in his own words: War is brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waste. Combat leaves an indelible mark on those who are forced to endure it. The only redeeming factors were my comrades’ incredible bravery and their devotion to each other. Marine Corps training taught us to kill efficiently and to try to survive. But it also taught us loyalty to each other—and love. That esprit de corps sustained us.

A remarkable book, and a vivid reminder that even those who are not killed or wounded in combat pay a terrible price.

***update February 2018***

Just read it for the second time. It's one of those books that is worth reading more than once, and I still consider it a favorite.
Profile Image for Stefania Dzhanamova.
529 reviews339 followers
October 3, 2020
E. B. Sledge's battle memoir is a no-holds-barred account of his experiences in the Pacific War.

Eugene Bondurant Sledge, called "Sledgehammer" by his fellow Marines, was a very unlikely combatant: when he, the shy, skinny son of a prominent physician from Alabama, enlisted in the Marine Corps on 3 December 1942, he was a freshman at Marion Military Institute. His parents and brother had urged him to stay in college as long as possible in order to qualify for a commission in some technical branch of the U.S Army. Yet, Sledge was afraid that the war will end before he could fight in it, and still signed for one of the Corps' new officer training programs.
That's when he was introduced to the harsh reality of the Marine Corps for the first time:
The recruiting sergeant wore dress blue trousers, a khaki shirt, necktie, and white barracks hat. His shoes had a shine the likes of which I've never seen. He asked me lots of questions and filled out numerous official papers. When he asked, "Any scars, birthmarks, or other unusual features?" I described an inch-long scar on my right knee. I asked why such a question. He replied, "So they can identify you on some Pacific beach after the Japs blast off your dog tags.

Dropping out of Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Sledge enlisted in late 1943 in the U.S Marine Corps as a private, and left for Pavuvu Island, a coconut plantation for the natives, which served as a temporary home to the 1st U.S Marine Division after their actions on Cape Gloucester and subsequently Peleliu. Sledge vividly discribes the remoteness and desolation the Marines felt on the island, and the appaling conditions they endured there, from the bread infested with insects to the lack of bathing facilities to the "morning sick call".
The Gloucester veterans were in bad physical condition after "the wettest campaign in WWII"; they were emaciated, with jungle rot in their armpits and on their ankles. At "sick call" they painted each other's sores with gentian violet and cotton swabs, or sometimes even treated each other under a doctor's supervision. Pavuvu's torrid, humid climate didn't at all contribute to the healing process.

"I think the Marine Corps has forgotten where Pavuvu is," one man said.
"I think God has forgotten where Pavuvu is," came a reply.
"God couldn't forget because he made everything."
"Then I bet he wishes he could forget he made Pavuvu."

Sledgehammer's account of the battle of Peleliu is no less graphic and shocking. Some historians have argued that Peleliu was unnecessary and its contribution to the overall victory dubious, but there was nothing minor about it for the men who fought there. Although Sledge constantly emphasizes the impossibility of communicating the experience of combat to those who have not experienced it themselves ("To the non-combatants and those on the periphery of action war meant only boredom or occasional excitement; but to those who entered the meat grinder itself, the war was a nether world of horror from which escape seemed less and less likely as casualties mounted and the fighting dragged on and on."), he takes the reader as close to the horror as possible with countless descriptions of terror, insanity, disgust, and stupidity in unadorned prose. "His intestines were strung out among the branches like garland decorations on a Christmas tree," writes he vividly about a dead enemy.

At odds with the stark scenes of barbarity is Sledgehammer's empathy and sensitivity. He chronicles acts of friendship and kindness among his fellows as well as occasional humorous moments that made his nightmarish days a little bit brighter. For example, younger Okinawans, as he explains, were much quicker to lose their fear of the Marines than the older people, and they had some good laughs with them:
One of the funnier episodes I witnessed involved two Oki-nawan women and their small children.
We had been ordered to halt and “take ten” (a ten-minute rest) before resuming our rapid advance across the island. My squad stopped near a typical Okinawan well. ....We watched two women and their children getting a drink. They seemed a bit nervous and afraid of us, of course. But life had its demands with children about, so one woman sat on a rock, nonchalantly opened her kimono top, and began breast-feeding her small baby.
While the baby nursed, and we watched, the second child (about four years old) played with his mother's sandals. The little fellow quickly tired of this and kept pestering his mother for attention. The second woman had her hands full with a small child of her own, so she wasn't any help. The mother spoke sharply to her bored child, but he started climbing all over the baby and interfering with the nursing. As we looked on with keen interest, the exasperated mother removed her breast from the mouth of the nursing baby and pointed it at the face of the fractious brother. She squeezed her breast just as you would milk a cow and squirted a jet of milk into the child's face. The startled boy began bawling at the top of his lungs while rubbing the milk out of his eyes. We all roared with laughter, rolling around on the deck and holding our sides. The women looked up, not realizing why we were laughing, but began to grin because the tension was broken. The little recipient of the milk in the eyes stopped crying and started grinning, too.
“Get your gear on; we're moving out,” came the word down the column. As we shouldered our weapons and ammo and moved out amid continued laughter, the story traveled along to the amusement of all. We passed the two smiling mothers and the grinning toddler, his cute face still wet with his mother's milk.

The important part of Sledge's narrative, however, is exactly the harsh depictions of unrestrained savagery, a reminder for us that war is brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waste and that "combat leaves an indelible mark on those who are forced to endure it". Besides all the horrible scenes of Marines callously ripping golden teeth from dead Japanese soldiers or even preparing to take the shriveled hands of dead Japanese home, Sledgehammer unsparingly conveys to the reader the visions of his own disturbed – from the mud, the stench, the fear, and the inability to get out of his foxhole – mind:
I imagined Marine dead had risen up and were moving silently about the area. .... Possibly they were hallucinations, but they were strange and horrible. The pattern was always the same. The dead got up slowly out of their waterlogged craters or off the mud and, with stooped shoulders and dragging feet, wandered aimlessly, their lips moving as though trying to tell me something. They seemed agonized by pain and dispair.

If he had been a dramatic storyteller, he would have found a romantic way to end his memoir “while looking at the fine sunset off the cliffs at the Southern end of Okinawa”. However, E.B. Sledge remains relentless to the last chapter.

"By lawd, why the hell we gotta bury them stinkin' bastards after we killed 'em? Let them goddamn rear-echelon people git a whiff of 'em. They didn't hafta fight 'em."
The final choir of the infantry troops was to bury the enemy and clean the battlefield – the ultimate indignity to men who had fought so hard and so long and had won.

With the Old Breed is a poignant memory of the sacrifices men have made to allow others to live the life they do. A disturbing, evocatively written chronicle by a humble, honest, and courageous man. Highly recommendable.
Profile Image for Mike.
1,138 reviews151 followers
December 19, 2015
If you only read 1 book on fighting in the Pacific Theatre in WWII, this should be the one. With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa is the classic story of modern ground combat and amphibious warfare. It is so good because E.B. Sledge does not go in for drama, he tells a straightforward story of tragedy and bravery. He explains clearly where he knows what is going on and also explains what he was thinking when it was SNAFU. He covers his first campaign at Peleliu and then his second campaign in Okinawa. If you saw the mini-series "The Pacific" you will recognize some scenes. Belongs on the permanent war history shelf.
Profile Image for carl  theaker.
899 reviews42 followers
May 23, 2016
Readable! was my initial impression. On my way to the airport I selected ‘With the Old Breed’ from the to-read pile. Knowing history books can be chewy, I had a bit of apprehension till I began reading on the 2 hour flight to Atlanta. I couldn’t put it down. Sledge tells a flowing tale from an enlisted Infantryman’s perspective, a modest, down to earth, or perhaps I should say corral reef, view of the war.

I almost immediately took the return flight so I could finish the book, but since my sister was waiting for me I paused reading the tale, but got back to it as soon as I could.

Author Sledge, Sledgehammer, takes you from civilian life to the last days of the war in the Pacific. Occasionally he provides an overall view of the war, but it is primarily his memoir of day to day life, some routine, some in the middle of combat.

On another note - the good folks in the Goodreads WW2 group
recommended the book so I first gave it to my Dad to read and he loved it. It was also suggested by a friend who was with the Marine First Armored Amphibian Battalion -Marshalls-Guam-Okinawa, so I’d say this book has a good track record.
Profile Image for David.
Author 18 books348 followers
September 7, 2021
An appropriate read for Memorial Day weekend.

The Thousand Yard Stare

Since I became interested in World War II history, particularly in the Pacific Theater, largely through WWII wargames, I have been reading and playing a lot of books/games that cover the war from the grand strategic level. Most history books are written at a general's eye level, covering the fleets, the armies, the movement of troops across vast distances, major battles and their outcomes summarized in a few paragraphs. We know, abstractly, that "a fierce and bloody two-month battle for Pelelieu" means thousands of troops spending months in hellish conditions fighting for their lives, a level of discomfort and fear few of us can imagine. But in most history books, that's all waved away with a brief description of casualty figures - in a wargame, it's a roll of the dice and a flipped cardboard counter.

Eugene B. Sledge wrote what is now considered a classic among World War II memoirs, a description of Pacific fighting from an enlisted man's view. He was never an officer, or even an NCO, just a line troop with the 1st Marines. So while he is able to note the strategic significance of the battles he was in with historical hindsight, mostly what he is describing is what he perceived at the time (produced from notes he took as he was there), the view of an enlisted man who often had no idea why they were being told to go to this particular island or take that particular hill.

EB Sledge (called "Sledgehammer" by his comrades) was with the 1st Marines, "the Old Breed," through the campaigns of Peleliu and Okinawa.

Physical Discomfort

Think about the worst discomfort you've ever felt. Maybe some time when you were extremely hungry or thirsty and there was no food or water immediately at hand. Or maybe you were stuck in traffic and you really, really needed to pee. Or maybe (if you are into the outdoors) you have been on a miserable hike when you suddenly had a case of the runs. Use your imagination, but add "hungry, tired, exhausted to the limits of your endurance, need to shit and there is no toilet or TP or privacy or even a trench anywhere and several thousand men are all crowded together in the same situation and also you're under heavy shelling and your buddies are getting blown to bits right and left."

Let that sink in again - you're on a jungle beach being shot at, and you and everyone around you also has diarrhea and there is no TP.

Few books really convey how hellish war is like this one, and even in his years-later narration, EB Sledge can't really convey to his readers the visceral horror he felt, and still remembers. It wasn't just the danger they faced in all their many battles, but the physical deprivation and hellish conditions. On those Pacific islands no one had ever heard of before the war, there was malaria and vicious biting insects and no facilities at all, and he describes beaches that have become open cesspools, in which the Marines had to sleep and fight, with little cover. Peleliu was 120 degrees when the 1st Marines hit the beaches to take on an entrenched enemy that was waiting for them with withering mortar and machine gun fire.

Individual moments Sledge describes kind of get at what they endured every single day - it's not just the battles, but the truck that brought water to a remote unit, except the water was in a 55-gallon drum. Imagine a bunch of men standing around looking at a 55-gallon drum of water at the bottom of a truck bed, on a tilting coral slope, in 120-degree heat, thinking "How the fuck are we supposed to get this out of there?"

It's not surprising Sledge describes more than once how a brave, tough veteran marine will suddenly snap and lose it, behaving suicidally, hysterically, or just collapsing, unable to go on.

EB Sledge is one of ten men in his regiment who survived Peleliu and Okinawa without ever being wounded. He reports the moment, while on Peleliu, that he suddenly heard a voice saying "You will survive the war." He looked around and asked his buddies if they'd heard someone speaking. They hadn't. He believed it was God speaking to him, and like Private Ryan, decided this meant he had to make his life somehow worth his surviving.

Death Trap

The Final Yard

By Peleliu, the Marines were used to taking islands from the Japanese. They knew what to expect - they'd come ashore and the Japanese would try to swarm them in suicidal "Banzai charges" that were Japanese infantry doctrine up to that point, no matter that it had repeatedly proven ineffective against disciplined troops.

But Peleliu was different. The Japanese were finally (too late) realizing that they needed to change their tactics, and so they set up Peleliu as a death trap. The commander of Japanese forces spent weeks preparing the island beforehand. They dug a small city of tunnels and caves beneath the coral mountains of this island, and set up pillboxes and machine gun nests to cover every approach, so no matter where the Marines landed, they would immediately be exposed to withering fire. No Banzai charges this time.

The ironic thing is that Peleliu was made a strategic objective by the Americans because of its airfield, which was thought to be a possible threat to Allied shipping. So it was decided Peleliu needed to be taken as a first step in MacArthur's campaign to retake the Philippines. But the admiral in charge thought, based on previous experience, and overconfidence, that after softening the island up with heavy shelling (in fact, the Navy poured ordnance on Peleliu until they ran out of targets) the Marines could clear out the Japanese in a couple of days. He did not know about the underground fortifications, and the shelling, for all the noise and destruction, which should have practically scoured the island of Japanese, in fact barely touched them. So when the Marines landed, they found themselves in a death trap that eventually inflicted upwards of 65% casualties and took two months of heavy fighting before it was considered secured.

(Even Sledge did not know that in fact, some Japanese remained hidden beneath Peleliu until 1947...)

Afterwards, military historians generally were of the opinion that the Peleliu campaign was unnecessary - the Americans could have simply bypassed it and ignored the entrenched Japanese, who didn't have much air power left to threaten them with anyway.

Losing Your Humanity

Savagery was evident on both sides, though far more so on the Japanese. Sledge initially is able to feel some empathy for the Japanese troops who he knows are men like him, fighting in conditions just as miserable as his own. But the Japanese are suicidally brave and murderous. They do not surrender, they will lure American medics to their wounded and then blow themselves and the medics up with grenades. Their snipers will deliberately target men on stretchers and medical corpsmen, and Sledge describes finding the corpses of American Marines who'd had their penises cut off and stuffed into their mouths.

It doesn't take long before the Marines are incapable of pity for the enemy. They start collecting war trophies, and gold fillings out of the teeth of Japanese corpses. Sledge witnesses one young Marine cut open the face of a fatally wounded Japanese soldier to pry his gold teeth out of him. Sledge yells at the Marine to put the Jap out of his misery. The Marine just curses him, until someone else puts a bullet in the Japanese soldier's head.

Then one day Sledge himself starts pulling a gold tooth out of a corpse. A medical corpsman tells him "You shouldn't do that - he could be carrying diseases." Sledge says he hadn't thought of that. He only realizes afterwards that the corpsman wasn't really worried about disease - he recognized that Sledge was about to cross a moral threshold, and talked him out of it. Sledge sees another Marine start collecting severed hands, which is too much for him, and the ghoulish collector is finally forced to bury his prize when other Marines tell him they don't want it stinking up the place.

Men tumble to the bottom of ravines and have to climb out, covered with maggots because the bottom of the ravine was filled with rotting corpses.

Okinawa - digging in among the corpses

After Peleliu, the Old Breed went on to Okinawa. This was the final rolling up of the Empire of Japan - by now, the war was clearly lost for Japan, and yet the miserable, bloody fighting continued.

There are corpses everywhere, as on Peleliu, often left unburied and putrefying in the hot sun. At one point, Sledge is ordered to dig a foxhole at the specified five yards apart, and upon digging, pulls up swarms of maggots. Then there is a stench, and then he discovers he is literally digging through a Japanese corpse. He calls his NCO over and says he can't do it. The NCO orders him to keep digging. Sledge is on the verge of vomiting and cannot continue, until a senior NCO finally comes by, and tells him to dig a few feet over. He does so, but still smells the rotting Japanese soldier.

Sledge encounters an elderly Okinawan woman in a hut, who opens her kimono to reveal a hideously infected, gangrenous wound in her abdomen, no doubt from the shelling that happened during the initial invasion of the island. Then she grabs his rifle and points it at her forehead, begging him to pull the trigger. He doesn't, and goes to find a medic, only for another Marine to walk into the hut and calmly shoot her.

The book is full of small stories like this, decent men snapping, breaking, going feral, or just losing their will to live, and then afterwards having to live with what they have been through.

With the Old Breed is a gripping war memoir that won't tell you much about the war on a large scale, but a great deal about the war as it appeared to a grunt, and just how awful it was. The remarkable thing is that despite the horrors Sledge endures, he writes like someone who emerged basically intact, mentally and physically. He doesn't talk much about his own nightmares or PTSD, if he had any, only about the horrible loss he felt when his friends died, the horrible waste of life he perceived all around him, the regret that any of this had to happen at all. He does not analyze the causes of the war or why they were fighting, or evaluate the competence or planning of the general and admirals. The only officers who mattered to them were their unit commanders, who could make day to day living miserable or less miserable, as well as having enormous impact on their morale. When FDR dies, it's of little significance to the 1st Marines - all they care about is whether Truman will prolong the war or shorten it. Likewise, when they hear that Germany has surrendered, it has little meaning for them - they are still fighting the Japanese, and fully expect that they will have to invade Japan itself in what is sure to be the bloodiest battle yet.

With the Old Breed is highly recommended for anyone who is interested in World War II history, but especially for anyone who find war memoirs interesting and would like to know what war looks like to someone who's just another rifleman, not a general or a destroyer captain or a pilot, but a Marine whose job was to hack through jungles and shot and get shot at until the shooting is over. Read this book, and be grateful you will never have to go through that.
Profile Image for robin friedman.
1,815 reviews242 followers
May 22, 2023
Into The Abyss

"Into the Abyss" was the working title for E.B. Sledge's memoir "With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa" (1981) which chronicle the author's fighting experience as a private in the Marines during WW II, The son of an Alabama physician and a college dean of women students, Sledge served as an enlisted man with Company K, 3d Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division during the Peleliu Campaign of September 1944 and the Okinawa Campaign from April -- June, 1945. He acquired the nickname Sledgehammer. Sledge took notes of his experiences during his service and ultimately worked his notes into this book. The book was used as source material for a Ken Burns documentary on WW II, and for an HBO miniseries on the War in the Pacific. Following his return to civilian life, Sledge (1923 -- 2001) became a professor of biology. His memoir has gone through several editions, and I have read it in a Library of America volume World War II Memoirs: the Pacific Theater" (2021) edited by Elizabeth Samet. I was interested in Sledge's book because I had the good fortune to visit Palau, (but not Peleliu) and other Pacific Islands during my career. My knowledge of the Peleliu Campaign and of the War in the Pacific, alas, is minimal. I would have benefited from a broader knowledge during my working life.

"Sledgehamer" Sledge writes simply and clearly and with emotion. In the Preface, he writes that his memoir "is not a history and it is not my story alone. I have attempted, rather, to be the spokesman for my comrades who were swept with me into the abyss of war. I hope they will approve my efforts."

Thus, Sledge's account focuses on his own experiences in the War rather than on a larger strategical or tactical account. He describes his own activities and feelings and his relationship to his fellow marines and officers and his encounters with the enemy. It is not a pretty story as Sledge describes the brutality of combat on both Peleliu and Okinawa, the heat, the mud and rain, and the terrible loss of life both for the Americans and for the Japanese whose forces were annihilated on both islands. Sledge shows the reader the topography of the islands and how it contributed to the severity of the fighting. Sledge includes supplemental material, printed in italics, from published sources giving context to his individual account. The book also includes a large section of photographs. The tone of the book is bleak but it emphasizes Sledge's love for his comrades and his patriotism for the United States.

Part I of the memoir "Peleliu: A Neglected Battle" tells Sledgehammer's story from basic training through D-day on Peleliu through the conclusion of the campaign. Part II. "Okinawa: The Final Triumph" begins with a period of rest following Peleliu and continues through Sledge's experiences and travails on the southern part of Okinawa with the ultimate destruction of the large Japanese force and the loss of many American lives. Following Okinawa, the United States made the decision to use atomic bombs on Japan rather than to engage in a costly land invasion, a decision that remains controversial.

Sledge concludes his memoir with a discussion of the both the brutality of the war and of his love for his comrades and for America which is worth quoting in full. He writes

"War is brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waste. Combat leaves an indelible mark on those who are forced to endure it. The only redeeming factors were my comrades' incredible bravery and their devotion to each other. Marine Corps training taught us to kill efficiently and to try to survive. But it also taught us loyalty to each other -- and love. That esprit de corps sustained us. "

"Until the millennium arrives and countries cease trying to enslave others, it will be necessary to accept one's responsibilities and to be willing to make sacrifices for one's country -- as my comrades did. As the troops used to say, 'If the country is good enough to live in, it's good enough to fight for.' With privilege goes responsibility."

I was moved by Sledgehammer's Sledge's story in "With the Old Breed". I learned something about the War in the Pacific. More importantly, I was reminded about the nature of comradeship and about the precious, frail character of the American experiment.

Robin Friedman
Profile Image for Steve.
945 reviews141 followers
July 28, 2018
Probably not right place to begin, but, more than anything, this book was the perfect companion to Leckie's equally graphic, disturbing, compelling, shocking, gut-wrenching, and poignant, Helmet For My Pillow. These days (many years after they were published), I can't imagine that many military history readers consume one without the other (and, in retrospect, I wish I had read them closer together). Among other things, what's so remarkable is how different Leckie and Sledge were (as individuals, as observers, as survivors, as reporters) and how successful - in incredibly different ways - they both became after the war. Ultimately, I liked (or, I dunno, related to or sympathized with) Sledge more than Leckie, but that's neither here nor there. Both books are well worth reading (even if I probably enjoyed, and would recommend, this one more).

For better or worse, this is a micro, not a macro, view of one Marine's combat experience on the Pacific islands during WWII. (It's a lousy analogy, but, at times, it felt like watching Pixar's Bug's Life.) Frankly, it's almost unnerving how little perspective and context inform the tale. This is Sledge's experience, Sledge's observation, Sledge's community, Sledge's reality, and ... basically ... not much more. Indeed - this (apparently) cathartic retelling is at times almost weirdly, disconcertingly devoid of the larger, bigger picture. For me (as a former military officer), one of the most jaw-dropping and unnerving passages (minor spoiler here) was Sledge's depiction of a single, unique, memorable moment when a leader/officer actually explained (and showed) Sledge's company what their role was in the larger military exercise. (Alas, Sledge was so tired, he concedes he couldn't take it in ... but he remembered that it happened.) Sledge's story is what he saw, with his own eyes, ... what he experienced, ... describing months of vicious, costly, horrific fighting within an incredibly small sphere.

This is raw stuff ... entirely appropriate for the subject matter. Sledge is an astute observer, and his discipline shines through ... he's not glorifying, but simply describing. It's this largely (surprisingly) dispassionate, unvarnished recollection - often spun out in painstaking detail - that makes this book a classic that has (deservedly) stood the test of time.
Profile Image for Dj.
610 reviews25 followers
March 12, 2017
Let's start off by saying that in general, I do no care for low-level personal accounts of the war. They tend to be either poorly written (not surprising since most Infantry in the war were the least intelligent of the Branches.) or they tend to be so stylish that it is easy to tell that they were ghostwritten. For me, this tends to detract from my enjoyment of the book. Another loss for my reading enjoyment is they also have such a close order view of what is going on, that you loose any big picture overview. So at times, it is hard to decide where the action is taking place and how it fits in with what is going on around the individual who is writing the account. This is also a symptom of small unit reading, which I also tend to avoid.

Happily enough, this book does neither of those things. The author is very literate, more so than myself by any reckoning, but he doesn't have a style that makes it seem like it is being done by a professional writer. While he does pay attention to the day to day grind of the war, he also breaks it up with incidents that in general, he considers to be either humorous or haunting. Thus giving a good insight into the life of the lowest level of a combat soldier in the war. He was in the infantry but wasn't a rifleman, he was a support weapon team member. In his case 60mm Mortars, so he was fairly close to the front line, in some cases on it. So the details he provides are pretty grim on many occasions.

On the other hand, he provides an overview after each of his memory revelations that help keep things in context with what is going on around. This makes for a very interesting and informative read.

All in all, I would consider this a must read for anyone that is into the first person revelation of the war and for those how are interested in combat in the Pacific. For anyone else, it is still a very good, very enjoyable read.
Profile Image for RJ - Slayer of Trolls.
824 reviews192 followers
December 31, 2022
“War is brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waste... The only redeeming factors were my comrades' incredible bravery and their devotion to each other. Marine Corps training taught us to kill efficiently and to try to survive. But it also taught us loyalty to each other - and love. That espirit de corps sustained us.”

This first-hand account of WWII's Pacific Theater, spotlighting the battles to take Peleliu and Okinawa near the end of the war, was used as a partial basis for the HBO Series "The Pacific," and author Sledge was interviewed by Studs Terkel as part of his The Good War: An Oral History of World War II. Rather than a mindless rah-rah account or boring details about troop movements, Sledge - who turned down a chance to experience the war as an officer and instead enlisted - provides a ground-level view of the horrors of war at the frontline in some of the toughest battles experienced by the Marines. Sledge gives a very human air to the events he recalls and doesn't pull any punches in the retelling, unafraid to criticize where he sees fit, but he also - generously - doesn't name names of the participants in some of the uglier happenings.
Profile Image for Susan.
397 reviews94 followers
January 9, 2009
This is a great memoir if you want to understand what it was like to fight in the Pacific in WWII. It affected me very much as my reading of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead did when I first read that. I could feel the pain—the dirt or worse yet on Peleliu the coral one couldn’t dig into—the bad food and dirty water, dirty and wet clothes, the fear. It’s painful to read though and if you won’t want to know the gory details faced by young men barely out of school and inexperienced with the world, then you don’t want to read this book.

I hate war, but I feel compelled to know what it’s like so I don’t take for granted what we ask young people to experience in war. Eugene Sledge (who became Sledgehammer to his buddies) had had one year of college when he joined up—as did most of his generation (few in fact staying to finish college which is one reason why we needed the GI Bill). He joined the Marines (the “old breed” of the title).

This book is different from other memoirs because of the detail. It’s not brilliantly written or “literary”. That’s its genius says Paul Fussell who reviewed it for a 1990 edition (Fussell has written about both WWI and WWII and was a soldier in the Pacific himself). Sledge explains how comradeship worked with soldiers to form lifelong bonds. He talks about officers they admired and those they hated and feared. He details the hardships and how hatred of the Japanese developed and hardened even the most sensitive among them. He explains how everything happened, from the human waste in foxholes they couldn’t leave, to stripping a Japanese corpse for souvenirs, to descriptions of wounds and dead Americans lying covered up on the battlefield until they could be retrieved, to water that was dirty because those in the rear had put it in insufficiently cleaned oil drums, to how the mortar he used worked and the problems placing it in the muddy ground of Okinawa. He explains how everyone was afraid and how some handled it differently from others. He explains how Japanese soldiers who spoke English tried to move in on their foxholes at night and how occasionally a buddy was mistakenly shot for an enemy.

Sledge never romanticizes war. The only good was the friendship and interdependency men developed, but he doesn’t romanticize that either.

Profile Image for Ctgt.
1,490 reviews84 followers
March 3, 2016
When E.B. Sledge wrote down thoughts, feelings and notes and tucked them in his small copy of The New Testament that he carried, he didn't intend them for the public at large, only for his family. Fortunately for us, this memoir was made public and I found it to be an moving account of one mans journey through his time as a Marine and his experiences of two brutal battles, Peleliu and Okinawa.

Just a bit of background, I have read quite a few books on WWII but they have been mostly historical, political or strategic in nature not memoirs. Except in a general sense, I am woefully unfamiliar with the war in the Pacific Theater. I'm not sure if this was the best book to start expanding my knowledge from a strategic point of view but it is certainly a book I will not forget.

Sledge was a freshman at Marion Military Institute when he enlisted in the Marine Corps. His family urged him to stay in school to qualify for a commission but he, like many others, felt that the war would end before he had a chance to enter combat overseas. We travel with Sledge as he works his way through basic training, combat training and becomes a 60mm mortarman in K Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment of the 1st Marine Division. We follow his path through Bloody Nose Ridge in Peleliu to the Shuri Line in Okinawa; from the oppressive 110 degree heat and coral rock on Peleliu to the almost constant rain and mud of Okinawa.

The heart of this book is the honesty of Sledge concening himself, his fellow Marines, the enemy and his God.

It was hard to sleep that night. I thought of home, my parents, my friends-and whether I would do my duty, be wounded and disabled, or be killed. I concluded that it was impossible for me to be killed, because God loved me. Then I told myself that God loved us all and that many would die or be ruined physically or mentally or both by the next morning and in the days following. My heart pounded, and I broke out in a cold sweat. Finally, I called myself a damned coward and eventually fell asleep saying the Lord's Prayer to myself.

As I passed a shallow foxhole where Robert B. Oswalt had been dug in, I asked a man nearby if the word were true about Oswalt being killed. Sadly, he said yes. Oswalt had been fatally wounded in the head. A bright young mind that aspired to delve into the mysteries of the human brain to alleviate human suffering had itself been destroyed by a tiny chunk of metal. What a waste, I thought. War is such self-defeating, organized madness the way it destroys a nation's best.

On 8 May Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally. We were told this momentous news, but considering our own peril and misery, no one cared much. "So what" was typical of the remarks I heard around me. We were resigned only to the fact that the Japanese would fight to total extinction on Okinawa, as they had elsewhere, and that Japan would have to be invaded with the same gruesome prospects. Nazi Germany might as well have been on the moon.

He watched the chaplain with an expression of skepticism that seemed to ask, "What's the use of all that? Is it gonna keep them guys from gettin' hit?" That face was so weary but so expressive that I knew he, like all of us, couldn't help but have doubts about his God in the presence of constant shock and suffering. Why did it go on and on?

There are so many passages I highlighted, too many to include.

If you have even a passing interest in WWII or just enjoy reading about the human spirit as it is tested in the worst of circumstance, you have to read this book.

Profile Image for Peter Jones.
567 reviews87 followers
May 26, 2014
A great read. Straight forward, not overly sentimental or harsh. Just a man who survived two of the worst battles in the Pacific telling us what happened. As I read it two things struck me. First, the invasion of Japan would have been the most costly battle in the history of mankind. There are problems with dropping the atomic bomb. After Nagasaki and Hiroshima the world was never the same. And as a Christian I am adamantly opposed to civilian deaths. But reading this book one begins to realize that the Japanese had no intention of surrending. The toll on American soldiers, Japanese soldiers and Japanese civilians would have been astronomic if America had been forced to invade. So all the armchair generals who think we messed up by dropping the A-Bomb need to read this book and remember that it took more than 80 days and over 110,000 dead Japanese to get a six mile island named Okinawa. Second, I realized that if our generation (I am thirty-three)was called upon to do what these men had to do there is little doubt we would fail. As a culture we do not have the backbone or courage to fight like these men did.
Profile Image for Adrian.
106 reviews28 followers
November 20, 2017
This is without doubt one of the best first-hand-accounts i've ever read about the war in the pacific during world war two.

A book that you just can't put down. It will stop in your memory long after you have read it. If you want to read about the true horror's of war then this book is a must read.

A truly epic read.

P.s I don't go into much details about what is contained under it's covers(so-to-speak) as I don't want to give anything away.
Profile Image for Kate.
337 reviews10 followers
August 19, 2016
The best books I have read have been found through the bibliographies of other writers I have appreciated....this book is no exception. It is a humble story of a Marine and his battle experiences, told without self censure and speaking to the awesome horror that is war.
I always look with wonder at the young faces, these virtual boys who struggled in horrid conditions and sacrificed so much. It is with the same amazement I look at my own father's face smiling at the camera from someplace in the Philippines, lanky and skinny with his barely shaving 20 year old face looking at me, years before he met my Mom, before he returned stateside in 1941 to train in the Army Air Corps. I am always stunned that these young men fought so hard for us, and most stayed so silent, barely sharing what they had seen with anyone.
So it is with a sense of indebtedness to Eugene B. Sledge that he left us with this chronicle of his preparation for war, and his memories of the Battle at Peleliu and Okinawa.. I think of the young men and woman of today that have served in country and how some do not understand the trauma they experience...and wonder if they had read this book would they have been kinder on themselves as they struggle with memories.
I think sometimes that as civilians we always keep in mind images of war that come from film, that romanticized view of battle, where rather clean and always handsome men in their late 20s or 30s who play young soldiers or Marines in sterile battlefields with no suffering from the silent wounded, made war look like an awesome adventure. Sledge brings us to the brutal reality of the grime of war that no one speaks of. He speaks of how hard it is to hold onto your humanity when surrounded by such inhumanity, and to extend patience and understanding in his words to those who at times loose their sense of self.
I am so glad that I picked up this book and will appreciate that Eugene B. Sledge left us this legacy and small glimpse into the world experienced by himself and the men of K/3/5. They really were extraordinary young men.
Profile Image for em_wemily.
114 reviews20 followers
December 28, 2020

Overall Impression
Fascinating. Understatedly horrifying.
This is an incredible first-hand account of what it was like to fight in the Pacific theater during WW2. It's grim, black and white, and factual. It's quite a sobering read.

Style Comments
Sledge recounts the horror of war with such a matter-of-fact-ness. No matter how grim, or how horrible his experience, he writes about them all. It's incredibly detailed and well-researched. Though there are small instances where it reads like a story, it's mostly very dry, with the author's feelings on events that happened scattered here and there. There is very little dialogue.

It's a great read for reference material or purely educational purposes. I would not recommend this for readers that are looking for a "war book," or something particularly "entertaining."
In Sledge's own words: "If this were a novel about war, or if I were a dramatic storyteller, I would find a romantic way to end this account while looking at that fine sunset off the cliffs at the southern end of Okinawa. But that wasn't the reality of what we faced."
Profile Image for Jesper Jorgensen.
168 reviews15 followers
February 19, 2018
Much praise has - rightfully - been given to this book. And I can't add more to what has already been said and written about it.

What I can say is that it is one of those books that leaves me with a lasting impression

I can only recommend it as a 'must read' to any who study the Pacific War - any war, for that matter - as a reminder that 'War is brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waste' (Page 317) and to carry out most of the overall land war strategy was the 'boots on the ground', the rifleman.
Profile Image for Lee.
249 reviews
March 25, 2009
Firsthand account of a Marine in the Pacific during World War II, Sledge's book is devastatingly unflinching in its examination of close quarters combat against a fearless and dedicated enemy. What did I learn from this book? Using nuclear weapons on Japan was not wrong but overdue.
Profile Image for Lady Jane.
185 reviews15 followers
September 5, 2014
Prompted to read With the Old Breed by watching HBO's The Pacific, I was unprepared for Sledge's unflinching, simple honesty in reporting and processing his WWII experiences as a Marine infantryman. Sledge discusses not only the battles of Peleliu and Okinawa, but the transition from being a sensitive young man to becoming a hardened, battle-weary veteran. His descriptions provide insight into these battles, and war in general, that have so far escaped more graphic, visual mediums--including The Pacific.

The Pacific showed us that on Okinawa, Marine casualties were left to decompose around their live, foxhole-entrapped replacements. It never before occurred to me that under those conditions, there is no way to dispense of human waste. So, under constant shelling, threat of infiltrating, nighttime attacks, surrounded by decomposing bodies--some of whom were friends--with rotting feet, hungry, constantly wet from relentless rain, these poor babies also had to stew in their own poop.

Sledge's memoirs also depict a fanatical, military enemy--much like today's fanatical "Islamsists"--that is difficult for post WWII generations to connect with Japan, our current friend, ally and trading partner. I am convinced that Truman's decision to use atomic weapons on Japan must be evaluated in its historical context and not within a contemporary framework.

I'm a history buff, but not a military history buff. Consequently, I'm glad that I watched The Pacific before reading With the Old Breed, because the images I retained from the miniseries helped me to visualize the technical details and battle scenes that Sledge describes in his memoirs.

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