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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.
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E.B. Sledge, who served in the First Marine Division in World War II, is now Professor of Biology at the University of Montevallo in Alabama.
Paul Fussell, Donald T. Regan Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of many books, including The Great War and Modern Memory and Wartime.
Making of a Marine
I enlisted in the Marine Corps on 3 December 1942 at Marion, Alabama. At the time I was a freshman at Marion
Military Institute. My parents and brother Edward had urged
me to stay in college as long as possible in order to qualify for
a commission in some technical branch of the U.S. Army.
But, prompted by a deep feeling of uneasiness that the war
might end before I could get overseas into combat, I wanted
to enlist in the Marine Corps as soon as possible. Ed, a
Citadel graduate and a second lieutenant in the army, suggested
life would be more beautiful for me as an officer.
Mother and Father were mildly distraught at the thought of
me in the Marines as an enlisted man–that is, “cannon fodder.”
So when a Marine recruiting team came to Marion Institute,
I compromised and signed up for one of the Corps’ new
officer training programs. It was called V-12.
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’d 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.” This was
my introduction to the stark realism that characterized the
Marine Corps I later came to know.
The college year ended the last week of May 1943. I had
the month of June at home in Mobile before I had to report 1
July for duty at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
I enjoyed the train trip from Mobile to Atlanta because the
train had a steam engine. The smoke smelled good, and the
whistle added a plaintive note reminiscent of an unhurried
life. The porters were impressed and most solicitous when I
told them, with no little pride, that I was on my way to becoming
a Marine. My official Marine Corps meal ticket got me a
large, delicious shrimp salad in the dining car and the admiring
glances of the steward in attendance.
On my arrival in Atlanta, a taxi deposited me at Georgia
Tech, where the 180-man Marine detachment lived in Harrison
Dormitory. Recruits were scheduled to attend classes
year round (in my case, about two years), graduate, and then
go to the Marine base at Quantico, Virginia, for officers’
A Marine regular, Capt. Donald Payzant, was in charge.
He had served with the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal.
Seeming to glory in his duty and his job as our commander,
he loved the Corps and was salty and full of swagger. Looking
back, I realize now that he had survived the meat grinder
of combat and was simply glad to be in one piece with the
good fortune of being stationed at a peaceful college campus.
Life at Georgia Tech was easy and comfortable. In short,
we didn’t know there was a war going on. Most of the college
courses were dull and uninspiring. Many of the professors
openly resented our presence. It was all but impossible to
concentrate on academics. Most of us felt we had joined the
Marines to fight, but here we were college boys again. The
situation was more than many of us could stand. At the end of
the first semester, ninety of us–half of the detachment–
flunked out of school so we could go into the Corps as enlisted
When the navy officer in charge of academic affairs called
me in to question me about my poor academic performance, I
told him I hadn’t joined the Marine Corps to sit out the war in
college. He was sympathetic to the point of being fatherly
and said he would feel the same way if he were in my place.
Captain Payzant gave the ninety of us a pep talk in front of
the dormitory the morning we were to board the train for boot
camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, California.
He told us we were the best men and the best Marines in
the detachment. He said he admired our spirit for wanting to
get into the war. I think he was sincere.
After the pep talk, buses took us to the railway station. We
sang and cheered the whole way. We were on our way to war
at last. If we had only known what lay ahead of us!
Approximately two and a half years later, I came back
through the Atlanta railway station on my way home. Shortly
after I stepped off the car for a stroll, a young army infantryman
walked up to me and shook hands. He said he had noticed
my 1st Marine Division patch and the campaign ribbons
on my chest and wondered if I had fought at Peleliu. When I
said I had, he told me he just wanted to express his undying
admiration for men of the 1st Marine Division.
He had fought with the 81st Infantry Division (Wildcats),
which had come in to help us at Peleliu.* He was a machine
gunner, had been hit by Japanese fire on Bloody Nose Ridge,
and was abandoned by his army comrades. He knew he
would either die of his wounds or be cut up by the Japanese
when darkness fell. Risking their lives, some Marines had
moved in and carried him to safety. The soldier said he was so
impressed by the bravery, efficiency, and esprit of the
Marines he saw on Peleliu that he swore to thank every veteran
of the 1st Marine Division he ever ran across.
The “Dago people”–as those of us bound for San Diego
were called–boarded a troop train in a big railroad terminal
in Atlanta. Everyone was in high spirits, as though we were
headed for a picnic instead of boot camp–and a war. The trip
across the country took several days and was uneventful but
interesting. Most of us had never been west, and we enjoyed
the scenery. The monotony of the trip was broken with card
games, playing jokes on each other, and waving, yelling, and
whistling at any and all women visible. We ate some meals in
dining cars on the train; but at certain places the train pulled
onto a siding, and we ate in the restaurant in the railroad terminal.
Nearly all of the rail traffic we passed was military. We saw
long trains composed almost entirely of flatcars loaded with
tanks, halftracks, artillery pieces, trucks, and other military
equipment. Many troop trains passed us going both ways.
Most of them carried army troops. This rail traffic impressed
on us the enormousness of the nation’s war effort.
*Together with the 1st Marine Division, the U.S. Army’s 81st Infantry Division
comprised the III Amphibious Corps commanded by Maj. Gen. Roy S.
Geiger, USMC. For the Palau operation, the 1st Marine Division assaulted
Peleliu on 15 September 1944 while the 81st Division took Angaur Island
and provided a regiment as corps reserve. The 81st Division relieved the 1st
Marine Division on Peleliu on 20 October and secured the island on 27 November.
We arrived in San Diego early one morning. Collecting our
gear, we fell into ranks outside our cars as a first sergeant
came along and told the NCOs on our train which buses to get
us aboard. This first sergeant looked old to us teenagers. Like
ourselves, he was dressed in a green wool Marine uniform,
but he had campaign ribbons on his chest. He also wore the
green French fourragère on his left shoulder. (Later, as a
member of the 5th Marine Regiment, I would wear the
braided cord around my left arm with pride.) But this man
sported, in addition, two single loops outside his arm. That
meant he had served with a regiment (either the 5th or 6th
Marines) that had received the award from France for distinguished
combat service in World War I.
The sergeant made a few brief remarks to us about the
tough training we faced. He seemed friendly and compassionate,
almost fatherly. His manner threw us into a false
sense of well-being and left us totally unprepared for the
shock that awaited us when we got off those buses.
“Fall out, and board your assigned buses!” ordered the first
“All right, you people. Get aboard them buses!” the NCOs
yelled. They seemed to have become more authoritarian as
we approached San Diego.
After a ride of only a few miles, the buses rolled to a stop in
the big Marine Corps Recruit Depot–boot camp. As I
looked anxiously out the window, I saw many platoons of recruits
marching along the streets. Each drill instructor (DI)
bellowed his highly individual cadence. The recruits looked
as rigid as sardines in a can. I grew nervous at seeing how
serious–or rather, scared–they seemed.
“All right, you people, off them damned buses!”
We scrambled out, lined up with men from the other buses,
and were counted off into groups of about sixty. Several
trucks rolled by carrying work parties of men still in boot
camp or who had finished recently. All looked at us with
knowing grins and jeered, “You’ll be sorreee.” This was the
standard, unofficial greeting extended to all recruits.
Shortly after we debused, a corporal walked over to my
group. He yelled, “Patoon, teehut. Right hace, forwart huah.
Double time, huah.”
He ran us up and down the streets for what seemed hours
and finally to a double line of huts that would house us for a
time. We were breathless. He didn’t even seem to be breathing
“Patoon halt, right hace!” He put his hands on his hips and
looked us over contemptuously. “You people are stupid,” he
bellowed. From then on he tried to prove it every moment of
every day. “My name is Corporal Doherty. I’m your drill instructor.
This is Platoon 984. If any of you idiots think you
don’t need to follow my orders, just step right out here and I’ll
beat your ass right now. Your soul may belong to Jesus, but
your ass belongs to the Marines. You people are recruits.
You’ re not Marines. You may not have what it takes to be
No one dared move, hardly even to breathe. We were all
humbled, because there was no doubt the DI meant exactly
what he said.
Corporal Doherty wasn’t a large man by any standard. He
stood about five feet ten inches, probably weighed around
160 pounds, and was muscular with a protruding chest and
flat stomach. He had thin lips, a ruddy complexion, and was
probably as Irish as his name. From his accent I judged him to
be a New Englander, maybe from Boston. His eyes were the
coldest, meanest green I ever saw. He glared at us like a wolf
whose first and foremost desire was to tear us limb from limb.
He gave me the impression that the only reason he didn’t do
so was that the Marine Corps wanted to use us for cannon
fodder to absorb Japanese bullets and shrapnel so genuine
Marines could be spared to capture Japanese positions.
That Corporal Doherty was tough and hard as nails none of
us ever doubted. Most Marines recall how loudly their DIs
yelled at them, but Doherty didn’t yell very loudly. Instead he
shouted in an icy, menacing manner that sent cold chills
through us. We believed that if he didn’t scare us to death, the
Japs couldn’t kill us. He was always immaculate, and his uniform
fitted him as if the finest tailor had made it for him. His
posture was erect, and his bearing reflected military precision.
The public pictures a DI wearing sergeant stripes. Doherty
commanded our respect and put such fear into us that he
couldn’t have been more effective if he had had the six stripes
of a first sergeant instead of the two of a corporal. One fact
emerged immediately with stark clarity: this man would be
the master of our fates in the weeks to come.
Doherty rarely drilled us on the main parade ground, but
marched or double-timed us to an area near the beach of San
Diego Bay. There the deep, soft sand made walking exhausting,
just what he wanted. For hours on end, for days on end,
we drilled back and forth across the soft sand. My legs ached
terribly for the first few days, as did those of everyone else in
the platoon. I found that when I concentrated on a fold of the
collar or cap of the man in front of me or tried to count the
ships in the bay, my muscles didn’t ache as badly. To drop out
of ranks because of tired legs was unthinkable. The standard
remedy for such shirking was to “double-time in place to get
the legs in shape”–before being humiliated and berated in
front of the whole platoon by the DI. I preferred the pain to
Before heading back to the hut area at the end of each drill
session, Doherty would halt us, ask a man for his rifle, and
tell us he would demonstrate the proper technique for holding
the rifle while creeping and crawling. First, though, he would
place the butt of the rifle on the sand, release the weapon, and
let it drop, saying that anyone who did that would have a
miserable day of it. With so many men in the platoon, it was
uncanny how often he asked to use my rifle in this demonstration. Then, after demonstrating how to cradle the rifle, he ordered
us to creep and crawl. Naturally, the men in front
kicked sand onto the rifle of the one behind him. With this
and several other techniques, the DI made it necessary for us
to clean our rifles several times each day. But we learned
quickly and well an old Marine Corps truism, “The rifle is a
Marine’s best friend.” We always treated it as just that.
During the first few days, Doherty once asked one of the
recruits a question about his rifle. In answering, the hapless
recruit referred to his rifle as “my gun.” The DI muttered
some instructions to him, and the recruit blushed. He began
trotting up and down in front of the huts holding his rifle in
one hand and his penis in the other, chanting, “This is my rifle,”
as he held up his M1, “and this is my gun,” as he moved
his other arm. “This is for Japs,” he again held aloft his M1;
“and this is for fun,” he held up his other arm. Needless to say,
none of us ever again used the word “gun” unless referring to
a shotgun, mortar, artillery piece, or naval gun.
A typical day in boot camp began with reveille at 0400
hours. We tumbled out of our sacks in the chilly dark and hurried
through shaves, dressing, and chow. The grueling day
ended with taps at 2200. At any time between taps and
reveille, however, the DI might break us out for rifle inspection,
close-order drill, or for a run around the parade ground
or over the sand by the bay. This seemingly cruel and senseless
harassment stood me in good stead later when I found
that war allowed sleep to no man, particularly the infantryman.
Combat guaranteed sleep of the permanent type only.
We moved to two or three different hut areas during the
first few weeks, each time on a moment’s notice. The order
was “Platoon 984, fall out on the double with rifles, full individual
equipment, and seabags with all gear properly stowed,
and prepare to move out in ten minutes.” A mad scramble
would follow as men gathered up and packed their equipment.
Each man had one or two close buddies who pitched in
to help each other don packs and hoist heavy seabags onto
sagging shoulders. Several men from each hut would stay behind
to clean up the huts and surrounding area as the other
men of the platoon struggled under their heavy loads to the
new hut area.
Upon arrival at the new area, the platoon halted, received
hut assignments, fell out, and stowed gear. Just as we got into
the huts we would get orders to fall in for drill with rifles,
cartridge belts, a...
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