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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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"Goodbye Darkness" by William Manchester is one of my favorites (actually started re-reading it again a few days ago).

I'll have to pick this book up next.

WA Mtnhunter



Thanks for the book review David. And, thanks to the others for their comments and other references. Sledge's book is one that I just have not gotten to, yet. But, now, I certainly will move it up on my current reading list. I served in the same outfit as Sledge (K/3/5), but about 15 years later. In the Marines, we addressed each other by last name or nickname, so no disrespect is intended by the use of his last name only.

Next to my wife and my yellow Labrador Retriever, Darby (order of importance unspecified due to my survival instincts), my time in the Corps was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, in many ways. A poor student in high school, I came out of my "four in the Corps" with the gumption to go to college. A few years back, I retired as a fisheries biologist.

However, over the years, I have often thought that I should have gone into the field of history, not that I would have been good at it, but it intrigues me so much. Long since joining the Marines, history has been my favorite pastime, next to hunting and shooting.

One thing sticks out at me, from my reading and amateur study of history (regardless of the time period). I find that often, today's readers and some writers tend to apply contemporary beliefs, political correctness, and their own opinions to the judging of the decisions and actions of those in the past. Yet, they sometimes make little attempt to consider the overall situations and driving forces from the perspective of those times. But, that is nothing new, just an opinion to which I subscribe, and therein lies (at least for me), the great joy and satisfaction derived from the "sorting out" process in the study of history.

As to sorting out, it was in the Corps that I first heard that "Opinions are like certain parts of our anatomy, we all have them ... some are just more tolerable than others."

So, thanks guys, now in part, from your collective review of this book, I am looking forward to reading it.

Semper Fi

Clay Cooper

The best all year scuba diving is Okinawa Japan! Stationed there for a year and man, did I have a great time!! Just stay off BC Street and out of Whisper Ally!


"Under God" means we view no other Nation as above us, only a Supreme Being, God, whatever flavor you want to call it as above the USA. It is NOT meant to be that we are a Christian nation and only Christians should matter as some like to think.


I can relate to you last entry, very well. I too was stationed on Okinawa (early 60s), at Camp Schwab (when not on floating battalion), and did some skindiving there in Buckner Bay. Later, back home, I was a NAUI Instructor and NOAA Diving Officer/Supervisor for a number of years. Point well taken about certain streets and alleys of Okinawa.

george bodden

You might also find interesting a more current version,"The New Breed", by Andrew Beer; it is a factual account of the Marine Corps experience in the first part of the Korean war, from Inchon thru the Battle out of the Chosin Reservoir.

george bodden

Re: earlier posting about :"The New Breed";the author's name is GEER, not Beer. Sorry

Bill Norwood

My father-in-law was a Navy Corpsman who served with E/2/5 and G/2/5 during these same campaigns and knew Mr. Sledge well. They attended reunions together. Jake speaks highly of the author and says it is pretty much the way it was. Like Sledge, Jake came back, became successful and raised a great family.

One of his grandchildren, my son Sgt Byron Norwood, fell in the battle for Fallujah as he attempted to rescue seven brother Marines trapped in a house. They were both proud to serve in the Corps. Current conflict required reading for Marines is My Men Are My Heroes by Byron's senior NCO, SgtMaj Brad Kasal.


Thanks for your posting. My Dad was also in the 3/5th, apparently doing the same tour as Sledge, as he had almost distractedly mentioned over the years being at those same places, including China after the war. But he would never discuss any details with me -- his voice would just trail off and he would go quiet, shake his head and look away. He died with his unspoken memories. Now that I've read Sledge's book (including his 2nd book about his China experience), I'm starting to understand.


Bought this book last week, it's very good. I am also partial to "Goodbye Darkness" by Manchester. Also suggest "Dear Mom", it is a very matter-of-fact and unromantic account by a Marine sniper of his Vietnam service. It is so low-key (unlike other such books) that you almost have to read between the lines to grasp how bad conditions could be.

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