Every Sunday here at Permanent Press we'll be reviewing a book that embodies, relates, or captures the "Permanent Press Lifestyle". Today, it's With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa by E. B. Sledge.
There have been countless pages written about WWII, and I've read some of them. For the most part, my interest was initially with the European theater. All the larger than life characters strode across Europe in this time: Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Eisenhower, Patton, Rommel, Montgomery, and so on. The battles were famous, and they were in familiar places to us. However, I have recently turned my eye to the Pacific Theater.
E.B. Sledge was born in 1923 in Mobile, Alabama, as the son of a country doctor. He grew up in an idyllic Southern life, learning to hunt and fish in the surrounding countryside. Following the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Sledge volunteered with the United States Marine Corps. This book covers his time in the Marines and his tour through the Pacific.
The most striking part of With the Old Breed is the point of view. You're not getting an objective, detached, and dry review of battles. These aren't lines on a map, or the bird's eye view of grand strategy. With Sledge, you get the "foxhole" point of view. You feel the cramped quarters on the ship, the foul air of hundreds of men in a confined space, the intense tropical heat, and you shudder at the fanatical desperation of the Japanese army resisting the Marines to the very last man.
Sledge describes the two battles of Peleliu and Okinawa, which were some of the most brutal and bloodiest battles of the entire war. Written from his notes, Sledge is a master of bringing the reader into the slaughter of the battle on the front lines. Although he was not a trained or professional writer, his account is haunting.
This book should be required reading for a great many people. First and foremost, anyone who believes that dropping the atomic bomb on Japan was a morally questionable decision should read this book. It will change your mind. After seeing the entire 1st Marine Division essentially shatter itself in taking Peleliu and Okinawa, the ghastly prospect of invading the Japanese home islands (and the resultant casualties our leaders expected) is clear.
Overall, Sledge shows the reader the tragedy of war, the unimaginable conditions, its dehumanization of the young men who are thrown into it, the terrible cost paid by so many, and the personal courage Sledge discovers. There is no great glory attained in the battles; there are only those who survive what Sledge calls the "meat grinder". In the end, Sledge is proud of his service, but it wasn't something he reveled in. I wouldn't say he was the "reluctant warrior" because he volunteered, but he certainly wasn't the "happy warrior". He viewed service in the USMC as his duty. Many people could benefit from his point of view, especially every politician who calls himself a "public servant". I think Sledge would get a wry chuckle from that phrase coming from a politician. He concludes with a statement that is iconic of the generation who served in WWII:
"If the country is good enough to live in, it's good enough to fight for. With privilege goes responsibility".
Corporal E. B. Sledge
3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division