April 30, 2008
With the Old Breed: At Pelelieu and Okinawa
By David E. Petzal and Phil Bourjaily
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.