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April 30, 2008

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With the Old Breed: At Pelelieu and Okinawa

To put this book in perspective, I've been reading about World War II since a couple of years after the war ended, and I've never seen anything like it. I was put onto Old Breed by Paul Fussell, himself a World War II combat vet and a literary critic of the severest kind. Fussell called it "one of the finest memoirs to emerge from any war," and it is. It is also appalling.

Prior to reading Old Breed, the best book I had seen on the Marines' World War II campaigns was Robert Leckie's Helmet for My Pillow, which was published in 1957. Leckie was a gifted professional writer, and had more than a little of the poet to him. Old Breed was written by Eugene Sledge, a genteel Alabama boy who served as a mortarman with K Company, 3rd Batallion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division. Sledge served through the campaigns on Pelelieu (obscure) and Okinawa (famous) and lived to write about it, working from notes he kept in a Bible during the fighting.

It is the most unsparing look at the horrors of combat I've ever seen any where in any form. Sledge describes incompetent (some obviously unhinged) officers, casual cruelty by Marines equal to anything the Japanese did, untrained replacements, death, grief, unending filth, mud, rain, and constant terror. He and his steadily dwindling company were reduced to a state where they were one step from madness, and a great many of them did cross over that line--far more than was ever admitted to the public.

"Luck" does not begin to describe what protected Sledge. On Okinawa, of the 230 men in Company K who made the landing, only 20 some were left standing when the island was declared secured. And yet, through it all, he remained tremendously proud to be a Marine, and proud of what his comrades did.

Eugene Sledge went on to become a biologist and a teacher, and lived with his nightmares as best he could. Old Breed was published in 1981, and has been reprinted three times. In 2001, its author went to join his fallen friends, but what he wrote will long survive him. It is both a tribute and a warning. This is what happens when you let the genie out of the bottle.

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Comments

DINFOS

I read it in college, and would also recommend it to anyone interested in WWII history. You wouldn't soon forget this read.

YooperJack

How old are you? I was born in 1949, read "Helmet for my pillow" in high school. I have an uncle still alive who served in those campaigns. He didn't talk about it much at all.

From a pragmatic standpoint, it would be very difficult to try to kill someone without hating that person. When you hate someone, its difficult to control your conduct. It would be very easy to let your emotions flow, especially after seeing people that you've grown to love being killed and maimed. That's why I never judge anyone who has been charged, like the Marines at Hadifa. I would tend not to judge the officials at the court martial either because they have an especially difficult task. To do a good job, they need the wisdom of Solomon.
YooperJack

DocBill

If you want to really know the lineage of human violence just observe a baboon tribe for a while. Mans depravity in combat hasn't changed over the centuries just his lethality rate. I wonder what the phsychies of Hannabels troopers were like after they killed at short sword distance several Roman legions on several occasions. If memory serves correctly something like 40K in one day.

And we wonder why human families are so weird; and it won't change. We are a violent ape or we, as a species, wouldn't have survived for untold eons. One can't be a pasafacist species and survive long in the world!

Thomas

Thanks Dave,
I will be sure to look for it in my local library. I needed some new reading material today anyway. I just finished reading Hannibal Rising. It was not as gruesome as I expected.

Tom The Troll.

DocBill

If you want to really know the lineage of human violence just observe a baboon tribe for a while. Mans depravity in combat hasn't changed over the centuries just his lethality rate. I wonder what the phsychies of Hannabels troopers were like after they killed at short sword distance several Roman legions on several occasions. If memory serves correctly something like 40K in one day.

And we wonder why human families are so weird; and it won't change. We are a violent ape or we, as a species, wouldn't have survived for untold eons. One can't be a pasafacist species and survive long in the world!

Thomas

YooperJack and Peter,
I just heard that our illustrious Governor just had to have emergency Bowel surgery. Apparently she was backed up pretty bad. I always knew she was full of S***.

Tom the troll.

Clay Cooper

I have a picture of a Soldier kneeling on his left knee, right elbow on right knee and his helmet is on the ground with his left hand on it and his head bowed,
The caption above reads,
THE TASK AHEAD OF YOU, IS NEVER AS GREAT AS THE POWER BEHIND YOU.
The caption on the bottom reads,
BE STRONG IN THE LORD, AND IN HIS MIGHTY POWER
EPHESIANS 6:10

Here is the link to the following and don’t forget to turn the volume up!
http://www.poofcat.com/july.html
The following words were spoken by the late Red Skelton on his television program as he related the story of his teacher, Mr. Laswell, who felt his students had come to think of the Pledge of Allegiance as merely something to recite in class each day.
Now, more than ever, listen to the meaning of these words.


"I've been listening to you boys and girls recite the Pledge of Allegiance all semester
and it seems as though it is becoming monotonous to you.
If I may, may I recite it and try to explain to you the meaning of each word?"
I
me, an individual, a committee of one.
Pledge
dedicate all of my worldly goods to give without self pity.
Allegiance
my love and my devotion.
To the flag
our standard, Old Glory, a symbol of freedom. Wherever
she waves, there's respect because your loyalty has given
her a dignity that shouts freedom is everybody's job!
United
that means that we have all come together.
States
individual communities that have united into 48 great states.
Forty-eight individual communities with pride and dignity and
purpose; all divided with imaginary boundaries, yet united to
a common purpose, and that's love for country.
And to the republic
a state in which sovereign power is
invested in representatives chosen by the
people to govern. And government is the people
and it's from the people to the leaders, not from
the leaders to the people.
For which it stands, one nation
one nation, meaning "so
blessed by God"
Indivisible
incapable of being divided.
With liberty
which is freedom -- the right of power to live one's
own life without threats, fear or some sort of
retaliation.
And Justice
the principle or quality of dealing fairly with others.
For all
which means, boys and girls, it's as much your
country as it is mine.
***~~**~~***

Since I was a small boy, two states have been added to our country
and two words have been added to the pledge of Allegiance...
UNDER GOD
Wouldn't it be a pity if someone said
that is a prayer
and that would be eliminated from schools too?


God Bless America!

YooperJack

Thomas:
Never used the LMAO before. Now I have!
Never remember a springtime like this before. I'm still wearing longjohns. If this global warming keeps going, I'll need another furnace.
YooperJack

Clay Cooper

We talk about books of times of strife, war and what is good. Yet the lessons to be learned are as quickly forgotten as quickly as it is to close the book!

Thomas

Yooperjack,
It is mild down here also. It is in the mid 40 currently with a predicted high of around 55 degrees today. Last week it was in the 60's and 70's and hit 80 one day. The temp varies strongly with the wind direction. If the wind comes out of the north or east we get some pretty cool weather from Lake Huron. I am sure you get it off of Lake Michigan and Superior where you are at.

Tom the Troll
(I live under da Mackinac Bridge)

DINFOS

YooperJack- I'm younger. We were assigned to read the book for a WWII history class I took in undergrad in the late 90's. One of the more memorable academic reading assignments I've ever had.

Thomas

Clay,
How true your words are. I hated American History when I was in High School. Poor History books and poor teacher. It never held my interest no mater how much I tried. But then again when you skim subjects it is hard to get a grasp on what really happened. We learned more on early politics then we did on anything else. What I mean is we learned about Carnegy, and taminy hall, and all the robber barrens and people like that. But very little about WHY we fought wars like the French Indian war, and the Spanish American war, and stuff like that. I have learned more since I have gotten out of school then I was ever taught in it. It helps when there is programing like the History Chanel and the miltary channel on Paid TV. PBS has good stuff too occasionally.

Tom the Troll

bigfoot

Slight correction, the name of the book is WIth The Old Breed: at Peleliu and Okinawa, not Tarawa.

Darrell Smith

You might also like to read Sledge's second book, "China Marine," which takes up where "Old Breed" left off. He discusses how he learned to deal with his memories of combat.

Former Marine

One of those fyi moments and one of my favorite quotes:

Old breed? New breed? There's not a damn bit of difference so long as it's the Marine breed.

Lieutenant General Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, USMC

Michael

Here's a link to a recording of Red Skelton's Pledge of Allegiance mentioned by Clay Cooper. You'll never forget it.

http://www.spiritisup.com/pledgeofallegiance.html

Michael

Here's a link to a recording of Red Skelton's Pledge of Allegiance mentioned by Clay Cooper. You'll never forget it.

http://www.spiritisup.com/pledgeofallegiance.html

Mike Diehl

@Dave -

"With the Old Breed" is a classic and I still read it occasionally.

Have you read "Lt. Ramsey's War"? Another very good WW2 bio.

jim in nc

Sledge is indeed good--a current Marine and ex-student of mine said it was required reading when he was stationed in Okinawa. I also highly recommend both of Rick Atkinson's books on WWII in Europe: AN ARMY AT DAWN (on Africa--won the Pulitzer) and DAY OF BATTLE (on Sicily and Italy), for those of you who go that way.

Mike Diehl

Hey Jim in NC thanks for that. I've been awaiting Atkinson's next installment in his invasion series and didn't realize it had come out.

Beekeeper

Dr. Sledge who's nickname in the Marines was "Sledgehammer" was a wonderful teacher and story teller. He had the ability to engage any audience from the most jaded college students to ardent historians. Auburn University from which he received his BS and MS degrees hosts the Eugene B. Sledge Collection. This collection of photos, memorabilia and artifacts can be accessed at the following web address:

http://diglib.auburn.edu/collections/ebsledge/

It is well worth a look.

Bernie Kuntz

Sledge's "Old Breed" book is part of my collection of military books, and it is without a doubt one of the best.

Beekeeper

Punched out too soon. Concerning the Sledge Collection, check out the letters home in the "War" section. Very interesting reading.

Pete Roberts

Thanks Dave for alerting us to this fine book and for your respect towards those who fight in that grittiest of all human endeavors:infantry combat. Sledge's memoir is stunning indeed. Your recommendation is seconded.

Trae B.

I think ive said this on this blog before but its worth repeating.
The lead singer to my favorite band just came out with his own album after getting back from the war and one of his songs is "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" and thats exactly what happens every morning in the war.




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