“The fighting will be extremely tough but short. It will be over in four days, maybe three.”
That had been the word from the general of the 1st Marine Division as his men prepared to take the tiny island of Peleliu from the Japanese.
But the fight had not gone as planned. The Japanese had changed their strategy. In previous Pacific battles, they had attacked the Americans in mass kamikaze charges, and been mowed down by the thousands. On Peleliu, they switched tactics, retreating into a vast network of caves and pillboxes carved under the island’s rocky coral landscape. When American planes, ships, and ground artillery pounded their positions, they simply bunkered down, waited for the barrage to finish, and then reemerged for a ferocious counterattack. The enemy had become lethally elusive and was prepared to fight savagely to the death. Thus each yard the Marines took required a high price in blood, and sanity.
So it was that 15 days into the battle, there still appeared to be no end in sight. And one member of Company K, 3d Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment had reached his breaking point. Turning away from his fellow Marines, Private Eugene Bondurant Sledge sat down on his helmet, put his head in his hands and cried. The more he tried to stop his tears, the harder the sobs came. The horror and physical exhaustion of the previous two weeks had finally caught up to him.
E.B.’s nickname — “Sledgehammer” — belied his slight 135-lb build and demeanor. The son of a prominent physician back in Alabama, the shy, intelligent 20-year-old might have been mistaken for a poor young man who had been drafted into the military and found himself in over his head as a grunt. But Sledge had in fact chosen this path for himself. Though his family had urged him to stay in college as long as possible in order to angle for a safe, technical position in the Army, he had not only decided to join the Marines, but when he was put into officer training, he intentionally flunked out in order to enlist as a private. He wanted to see combat before the war was over. This desire was more than fulfilled, under circumstances he could not have conceived of then, and which today strain the limits of the modern imagination.
Since landing on the beaches of Peleliu on September 15, 1944, Sledge and his company had continually been under either actual attack, or the threat of it. Both conditions taxed the mental and physical capacities of the men to their limits.
During the day, the Japanese poured mortars, grenades, and machine gun fire into the Marines’ positions. As Sledge remembers, it was the heavy shelling which was “by far the most unbearable”:
“There was nothing subtle or intimate about the approach and explosion of an artillery shell. When I heard the whistle of an approaching one in the distance, every muscle in my body contracted. I braced myself in a puny effort to keep from being swept away. I felt utterly helpless.
As the fiendish whistle grew louder, my teeth ground against each other, my heart pounded, my mouth dried, my eyes narrowed, sweat poured over me, my breath came in short irregular gasps, and I was afraid to swallow lest I choke. I always prayed, sometimes out loud.
Under certain conditions of range and terrain, I could hear the shell approaching from a considerable distance, thus prolonging the suspense into seemingly unending torture. At the instant the voice of the shell grew the loudest, it terminated in a flash and a deafening explosion similar to the crash of a loud clap of thunder. The ground shook and the concussion hurt my ears. Shell fragments tore the air apart as they rushed out, whirring and ripping. Rocks and dirt clattered onto the deck as smoke of the exploded shell dissipated.
To be under a barrage of prolonged shelling simply magnified all the terrible physical and emotional effects of one shell. To me, artillery was an invention of hell. The onrushing whistle and scream of the big steel package of destruction was the pinnacle of violent fury and the embodiment of pent-up evil. It was the essence of violence and of man’s inhumanity to man. I developed a passionate hatred for shells. To be killed by a bullet seemed so clean and surgical. But shells would not only tear and rip the body, they tortured one’s mind almost beyond the brink of sanity. After each shell I was wrung out, limp and exhausted.”
Compounding this manmade assault was a climate and landscape that proved equally inhospitable. During the day, a blazing hot sun constantly “bore down like a giant heat lamp” as the men patrolled, took cover, and spent hours hauling giant crates of ammo and supplies from drop points to their positions. Temperatures soared to 115 degrees, and the unrelenting heat brought even the strongest Marines to their knees. The men were perpetually soaked with sweat, and Sledge’s pack “felt like a steaming-hot wet compress on my shoulders and upper back.” When the perspiration dried, it left behind swatches of fine white salt that stiffened his uniform. One part of the body, the feet, unfortunately never dried. Because Sledge never knew when he would have to scramble over the rugged terrain, he could rarely remove his boots, though they grew so full of sweat that if he lifted his foot in the air while lying on his back, water literally poured out of each shoe. With every step, his soggy feet squished inside their casings.
A hot muggy wind blew gray coral dust onto everything, which further coated one’s clothes and hair, and turned into a thick plaster when the island received brief bursts of rain. The men became covered in this sweaty, dusty patina, onto which was added gun grease and sticky, oily insect repellent. There was no chance to shave, shower, or brush one’s teeth. Stubble-covered faces and dirty scalps itched. Bodies stunk. Huge swarms of giant blowflies constantly harassed the men, descending first on corpses and then landing on their food. The abject filth, Sledge recalled, was far more miserable and demoralizing than most anyone can realize.
The night brought no relief. It was impossible to dig a proper foxhole into the hard coral surface of the island, and the men had to make do by creating shallow depressions that left them exposed to the Japanese barrages. Here they hunkered down in twos, with one man keeping watch, while the other laid upon jagged rock and attempted to catch a few fitful snatches of sleep. When it was Sledge’s turn to stay up, he kept a .45 automatic pistol in one hand and his trusty Ka-Bar knife in the other. For when the sun set and inky blackness settled over the island, a new danger and dread set in: the Japanese took advantage of the darkness to infiltrate the Americans’ positions. They were masters at silently sneaking through the landscape, and the Marine on watch had to strain his eyes and ears in an attempt to detect the raiders moving about. Was that rustling in the leaves a Japanese soldier, or one of the thousands of crabs that covered the island? Was the figure slinking along in the darkness the enemy or a fellow Marine? There was no room for error. If you lost focus, if you fell asleep, even for a minute, a Japanese soldier might throw a grenade into your hole, or jump in and slit your throat. It happened. At any moment, you might find yourself in a brutal, ferocious hand-to-hand fight for your life.
Or you might slip up and accidently shoot your brother. Tragically, that happened too.
You could never let your guard down, or let your attention wander. The stakes, and the unrelenting stress, were enormous.
Given these circumstances, it was hardly surprising or remarkable that Sledge found himself sobbing on his helmet 15 days into the ordeal. Breaking down psychologically would prove to be common part of the experience of Peleliu, and some men never recovered and had to be pulled off the line. But, characteristic to the resilience Sledge would demonstrate throughout the war, he soon pulled himself together and returned to his position as a 60mm mortarman.
He didn’t know it, but he was in fact only at the halfway point of his time on the island. For two more weeks, Sledge would struggle through the same brutalizing, harrowing pattern of combat: “a constant movement of one weary, depleted Marine company being relieved by another slightly less weary, depleted company. We seemed to rotate from one particularly dangerous part of the line to one slightly less so and back again continuously.”
More and more of his fellow Marines fell beside him, wounded and killed in often gruesome ways. The sight of death, of seeing a man’s insides on his outsides, became as common as the flies that rapidly descended on the human carrion. Good friends were cut down beside him. The faces of the survivors increasingly hardened into a tight, weary mask, out of which stared vacant, bloodshot eyes. Sledge soon found himself thinking fatalistically, feeling it was only a matter of time before he was killed, and wishing for a “million dollar wound” (a wound that sent you home but didn’t kill or maim you). Becoming a casualty began to seem like the only way out of hell.
As the month wore on, the deprivations, hardships, and horrors only mounted and magnified, and the island’s landscape became a silent witness to the insanity that had descended upon it. Peleliu was just 2 miles wide and 6 miles long, and the tiny hunk of coral quickly became blanketed with the detritus of war. Discarded gear and equipment littered the island’s ridges and ravines. So did endless piles of human excrement. Though tropic diseases left many men with diarrhea, Peleliu’s rocky surface prevented the practice of basic field sanitation. One’s waste was put in a used grenade canister or ammo carton and thrown by the way.
And everywhere there remained the dead. The Marines, devoted to each other even in death, always covered the faces and bodies of their brothers with ponchos as soon as they could and tried their hardest to move their fallen brothers as quickly as possible to the rear, where the graves registration staff would take care of them. The American forces desperately strived to tend to their dead as soon as they could, because if the enemy found them first, they would mutilate the corpses. One of the most shocking experiences Sledge had on Peleliu happened when he came upon several dead Marines the Japanese had already gotten to. One had been decapitated; one had had his hands severed and placed on his chest; and one had had his penis sliced off and stuffed into his mouth.
The killed Japanese, however, were left to rot where they fell, their faces frozen in the expressions made at the moment of death. Lacking soil with which to cover the bodies even partially, they were completely exposed to the elements. Because the Marines rotated in and out of the same positions, the corpses then became a kind of macabre landmark. As Sledge remembers: “It was gruesome to see the stages of decay proceed from just killed, to bloated, to maggot-infested rotting, to partially exposed bones — like some biological clock marking the inexorable passage of time.”
As one can imagine, the smell of rotting rations, corpses, and excrement combined to form an inconceivably putrid stench. “At every breath one inhaled hot, humid air heavy with countless repulsive odors,” Sledge recalled. “I felt as though my lungs would never be cleansed of all those foul vapors.”
Taken in its entirety, the environment of Peleliu constituted an unbelievable “scene of destruction and desolation that no fiction could invent.” Sledge describes the view from an area in which “ferocious fighting had gone on since the second day of battle”:
“The wind blew hard. A drizzling rain fell out of a leaden sky that seemed to hang just above the ridge crest. Shattered trees and jagged rocks along the crest looked like stubble on a dirty chin. Most green trees and bushes had long since been shattered and pulverized by shell fire. Only the grotesque stumps and branches remained. A film of fine coral dust covered everything. It had been dust before the rain, but afterward it was a grimy coating of thin plaster.
The overwhelming grayness of everything in sight caused sky, ridge, rocks, stumps, men, and equipment to blend into a grimy oneness. Weird, jagged contours of Peleliu’s ridges and canyons gave the area an unearthly alien appearance. The shattered vegetation and the dirty-white splotches peppering the rocks where countless bullets and shell fragments had struck off the weathered gray surfaces contributed to the unreality of the harsh landscape.
Cans of C rations and K ration boxes, opened and un-opened, lay around our gun pit along with discarded grenade and mortar shell canisters. Scattered about the area were discarded U.S. helmets, packs, ponchos, dungaree jackets, web cartridge belts, leggings, boondockers, ammo boxes of every type, and crates. The discarded articles of clothing and the inevitable bottle of blood plasma bore mute testimony that a Marine had been hit there…
Particularly at night by the light of flares or on a cloudy day, it was like no other battlefield described on earth. It was an alien, unearthly, surrealistic nightmare like the surface of another planet.”
Sledge finally got his ticket off this hellscape on October 15, when his regiment was relieved by Army troops. His unit retreated to a beach area at the rear, where he was finally allowed to clean up. The month-long combat had been a “savage, brutal, inhumane, exhausting, and dirty business” and Sledge certainly looked it. He was stooped and bent with fatigue; his hair was matted with coral dust and grease; the one-inch heel of his boots had completely worn away; his dungaree trousers and socks were so torn up and filthy, he had to burn them in a campfire. And “it took both edges of two razor blades and a complete tube of shaving soap to shave off the itching, greasy tangle of coral-encrusted beard.”
At the end of the month, Sledge and what was left of Company K boarded a ship for a stint of rest and rehabilitation on the small island of Pavuvu. The unit had gone into battle with 235 men, and suffered a 64% casualty rate during the fight.
The struggle for Peleliu would continue on without Sledge and last until the end of November. It is considered by many to have been the Marines’ toughest, bitterest fight of the war. All told, 8,769 Americans would be killed, wounded, or go missing during the 10 weeks of savage combat.
Yet Sledge’s own war was far from over.
After several weeks of rest, his unit began training for the next operation: the taking of Okinawa. The last Japanese stronghold, and the last stepping stone to the potential invasion of Japan itself, the enemy was even more grimly determined to defend every inch of the island, inflict maximum losses on the Americans, and fight ferociously to the death.
Operation Iceberg began in April 1945, and Sledge found himself thrust back into “the abyss” for 50 more nightmarish days of combat. The battle would prove to be just as bloody and horrific as that of Peleliu, just with its own misery-inducing, mind-melting variations. Torrential rain that lasted for weeks on end. Waterlogged foxholes. Knee-deep mud. Fields of Marines dead, for which constant Japanese mortar and artillery fire prevented burial. Rotting comrades floating in flooded craters. Shells that exploded previously buried Japanese soldiers, flinging chunks of their corpses through the air. Maggot-riddled muck into which a man who fell emerged covered with their fat, writhing bodies. “Men struggled and fought and bled in an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell’s own cesspool.”
Worst of all, for Sledge, was the cycle of combat, and the need to continually steel himself when moving from a brief respite in a rear position, back again into “the meat grinder”:
“I found it more difficult to go back each time we squared away our gear to move forward into the zone of terror. My buddies’ joking ceased as we trudged grim-faced back into that chasm where time had no meaning and one’s chances of emerging unhurt dwindled with each encounter. With each step toward the distant rattle and rumble of that hellish region where fear and horror tortured us like a cat tormenting a mouse, I experienced greater and greater dread. And it wasn’t just dread of death or pain, because most men felt somehow they wouldn’t be killed. But each time we went up, I felt the sickening dread of fear itself and the revulsion at the ghastly scenes of pain and suffering among comrades that a survivor must witness.
The increasing dread of going back into action obsessed me. It became the subject of the most tortuous and persistent of all the ghastly war nightmares that have haunted me for many, many years. The dream is always the same, going back up to the lines during the bloody, muddy month of May on Okinawa. It remains blurred and vague, but occasionally still comes, even after the nightmares about the shock and violence of Peleliu have faded and been lifted from me like a curse.”
By the end of the Battle of Okinawa, nearly half of Sledge’s 1st Marine Division had been wounded or killed. All told 7,613 Americans were killed or missing and 31,807 were wounded in action.
A Debt of Gratitude
“On 8 August we heard that the first atomic bomb had been dropped on Japan. Reports abounded for a week about a possible surrender. Then on 15 August 1945 the war ended.
We received the news with quiet disbelief coupled with an indescribable sense of relief. We thought the Japanese would never surrender. Many refused to believe it. Sitting in stunned silence, we remembered our dead. So many dead. 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. Except for a few widely scattered shouts of joy, the survivors of the abyss sat hollow-eyed and silent, trying to comprehend a world without war.”
Eugene B. Sledge beat the odds. He managed to make it through two of the Big One’s bloodiest battles without becoming a physical casualty. After serving on occupation duty in North China, he returned to the States, got married, started a family, earned a Ph.D in zoology, and became a university professor.
His reintegration into civilian life, however, was far from easy. He was haunted by his experiences, which returned to him in vivid nightmares. He didn’t miss the fighting, but he missed the intense camaraderie that develops only between men who face death together. And he often found it frustrating to witness the gulf between those who had experienced the bloody abyss of war firsthand, and “the folks back home [who] didn’t, and in retrospect couldn’t have been expected to, understand what we had experienced, what in our minds seemed to set us apart forever from anyone who hadn’t been in combat.”
In Okinawa, Sledge spent two straight weeks marching with sore, slimy feet trapped inside soaking wet socks. When he finally got a chance to dry out and remove them, pieces of dead skin peeled off with his socks. Yet he couldn’t have been more appreciative of the reprieve: “It was the kind of experience that would make a man sincerely grateful for the rest of his life for clean, dry socks. As simple a condition as dry socks seemed a luxury.”
Understandably then, once back home, he struggled to “comprehend people who griped because America wasn’t perfect, or their coffee wasn’t hot enough, or they had to stand in line and wait for a train or bus.”
After all he and his buddies had sacrificed, “We just wished that people back home could understand how lucky they were and stop complaining about trivial inconveniences.”
That’s part of why he ultimately decided to publish his classic wartime memoir: With the Old Breed:
“In writing it I’m fulfilling an obligation I have long felt to my comrades in the 1st Marine Division, all of whom suffered so much for our country. None came out unscathed. Many gave their lives, many their health, and some their sanity. All who survived will long remember the horror they would rather forget. But they suffered and they did their duty so a sheltered homeland can enjoy the peace that was purchased at such a high cost. We owe those Marines a profound debt of gratitude.”
On this 70th anniversary of VJ Day, if you can wiggle your toes inside a pair of dry socks, give thanks to the Marines of Peleliu and Okinawa, and all those who purchased our freedom at an impossibly high price.
With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge — no reteller can possibly do justice to Sledge’s own account. A true must-read.