When this book was first published in 1981 it became an instant classic. Eugene Sledge, then a professor of biology in Alabama, had produced a searing account of his war in the Pacific as a US Marine infantryman. Critically acclaimed, With the Old Breed has run through several editions – complete with introductions by such luminaries as Paul Fussell and Victor Davis Hanson – and has recently become one of the narrative mainstays of the recently published The Pacific.
Sledge quit his officer training course in late 1943 in order to see combat more swiftly by joining the Marines as a private soldier. He was assigned as a mortar crewman to K/3/5 (K Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment) of the 1st Marine Division. The designation K/3/5 became a virtual talisman for Sledge: he experienced the war within the confines of that infantry company, developing a fierce pride in the men with whom he shared so many hardships and dangers.
The book’s title is a tribute to the veteran Marines (mainly pre-war enlistees) who held the line in the early stages of the war in such pivotal battles as Guadalcanal and provided the nucleus of men for the subsequent Pacific campaigns. Sledge’s baptism of fire came with the attack on the coral island of Peleliu during September-November 1944, one of the least-known but most intensely vicious of the ‘island-hopping’ battles. K/3/5 went into the battle with 235 soldiers and came out with 85 men unhurt. Once the 1st Marine Division had recovered its strength it was thrown into the conquest of Okinawa, the largest and bloodiest of the Pacific battles.
What makes Sledge’s story so unforgettable is the dispassionate honesty of his descriptions of unrelenting infantry combat, whether on the exposed coral wilderness of Peleliu or in the mud of Okinawa. He pays tribute to the bravery of both his comrades and to the Japanese, although he acknowledges his hatred of the enemy in a war without prisoners, where anyone captured by either side was usually tortured to death or, at best, casually killed. He does not spare the reader, piling on the horrors of close-order combat, day-after-day; on Okinawa he recalled how the putrefying bodies of the dead produced an explosion of maggots that crawled over the living in their fox-holes and shell scrapes.
Amazingly Sledge came through the two campaigns physically unhurt. He concluded his book with a summary of his time in the Pacific war that will find echoes with all combat veterans: ‘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. The Marine Corps training taught us to kill efficiently and to try to survive. But it also taught us loyalty to each other – and love. The esprit de corps sustained us.’ With an engaging modesty the author takes a back seat to the actions of his fellow Marines, but by the end of this book the reader will realise that Sledge too had become one of the Old Breed.
Ebury Press, 350 pages, £12.99 (p/b)
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