Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Book Look: With the Old Breed

Book Look: With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge: You will be spared nothing in this startling WW2 memoir. Eugene Sledge, "Sledgehammer" to his compatriots, served with the Marine Corps in the Pacific and saw action at Peleiu and Okinawa. Sledge's memoir begins when he forgoes officer training and enlists so he won't "miss the war". In the early chapters we are treated to boot camp and other training experiences then, suddenly, as if descending into a nightmare, we are following him on to the beaches at Peleiu, lost in the fog of war -- the chaos and the paralyzing fear. The overwhelming sensations of the beach landing would stay with him his entire life. As he states,

Everything my life had been before and has been after pales in the light of that awesome moment when my amtrac started in amid a thunderous bombardment toward the flaming, smoke-shrouded beach for the assault on Peleiu.

The Peleiu battle turned out to be particularly deadly, having the highest casualty rate of any WW2 battle. Sledge doesn't hold back in giving a full account of the horrible inhumanities the Japanese committed and how the Corps built up a deep hatred of them. Nor does he gloss over the occasional shameful acts of his fellow servicemen, including the removal of the gold caps from the teeth of dead (and in one instance, not yet dead) enemy. In fact, the memoir is especially conspicuous in that Sledge, while hitting on many historic or political hot buttons, does not seem to have any axe to grind. The point of view is purely personal which makes the book hit all that much harder. And there is zero sense of ego or arrogance. Sledge was a simple mortar man, rank: Private First Class, throughout the battles. I don't think he received any battle commendations, not even a Purple Heart. He was there, did his duty, suffered and exulted, and is now telling the story.

And the story is complete, even beyond the fighting. There is the horrendous sanitation; the relentless pestilence of the tropics; the drudgery of hauling barrels of water and crates of ammo around; the inescapable, stifling stench of the dead everywhere; the dealings with officers good and bad; the terror in the black of a moonless night, hearing a Japanese raiding party assaulting his friends in the next foxhole over. Riveting and mortifying.

After a brief respite following Peleiu, he was again shipped off for another island landing at Okinawa, this time as a combat veteran with both greater confidence and greater trepidation. He tells sad tales of the new recruits who had clearly been rushed to the line, lacking training and receiving little sympathy from the vets. Okinawa, while not as deadly percentage-wise, went on for a very long time almost pushing Sledge to the breaking point. He had observed men who snapped under the pressure -- it was not uncommon. Fearing that may be his fate, he silently makes a vow to himself. "The Japanese might kill or wound me, but they wouldn't make me crack-up." After having read along with his descriptions of his experiences to that point, that simple statement resounds with boundless courage.

Throughout the ordeal, Sledge finds sources of strength: in God, in himself, in his training, but most of all he feels the source of victory was the esprit d'corps -- the brotherhood and bond between him and his fellow Marines is what kept him and the fight going in the heart of darkness. One suspects that after years of reflection, and acknowledgment of the cost, Sledge feels something akin to gratitude: gratitude for surviving, and for finding faith in his comrades-in-arms and strength in himself that he could carry throughout his life.

The HBO crew behind the astounding Band of Brothers mini-series is preparing a counterpart about the Pacific battles based in part on With the Old Breed. If they get it remotely close to right, they'll be swimming in awards.