With the Old Breed


E.B. Sledge

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With the Old Breed Study Guide

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Brief Biography of E.B. Sledge

After growing up in Mobile, Alabama, Eugene Sledge attended a military college but soon volunteered to enter the Marine Corps in December 1942. As a Marine infantryman, he took part in the battle of Peleliu in September 1944 and the battle of Okinawa in April 1945. These experiences marked him for life. Although he survived the war without a single wound, it took him years to recover from the psychological trauma of combat. Following the Japanese surrender in August 1945, Sledge served for four months in Beijing, China, as part of the American occupation force. Sledge was then honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in 1946 with the rank of corporal, but struggled to readjust to civilian life. He ultimately decided to transform a lifelong passion for bird-watching into a profession, graduating from the University of Florida with a doctorate in zoology. He then became a professor at Alabama College, where he taught biology. Sledge is best known for his literary memoirs recounting his experience during World War II: With the Old Breed (published forty years after the war, in 1981) and China Marine: An Infantryman’s Life After World War II (2002), which relates his post-combat return to civilian life.
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Historical Context of With the Old Breed

World War II (1939-1945) was a global war, fought on various geographic theaters, which opposed two military blocs: the Allies (whose main leaders were the U.S., the Soviet Union, the U.K., and China) and the Axis powers (Nazi Germany, Japan, and Italy). The U.S.’s involvement in the war began on December 7, 1941, after Japan launched a surprise military air strike against the naval base of Pearl Harbor. The U.S. then declared war on Japan and became involved in various operations. In continental Europe, the U.S. took part in operations such as the invasion of Italy, which caused the country to surrender, and the Battle of Normandy, which successfully forced German forces to retreat from France. The Allied forces ultimately prevailed in Europe. After the Allied invasion of Germany in early 1945—which concluded with the capture of Berlin by Soviet and Polish forces and the suicide of Adolph Hitler—Nazi Germany finally surrendered on May 8, 1945. In the meantime, in the Pacific theater, the Allies launched major offensives such as the battles of Guadalcanal and Tarawa. The U.S. fought to regain control over the Philippines, which the Japanese had invaded in 1942, defeating General MacArthur’s American and Filipino forces. The battle of Peleliu, fought between the U.S. and Japan, was meant to prepare MacArthur’s return to the Philippines, but became controversial because of its unclear strategic gains and its extremely high casualty rate. However, General MacArthur was able to regain control the Philippines from October 1944. The U.S. then launched the Battle of Okinawa and was able to secure the island on June 22, 1945, in what proved to be the costliest single campaign in the Pacific. Despite such Allied successes, it is only after the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima (August 6) and Nagasaki (August 9), while threatening to invade the Japanese mainland, that Japan finally surrendered on August 15, 1945, putting an end to the war. War crime trials were later conducted against the Germans and the Japanese.

Other Books Related to With the Old Breed

Eugene Sledge’s memoir belongs to a long history of narratives of war, whether in novel form or as memoirs, written by those who experienced it firsthand. Written from two separate national perspectives, two classics, English soldier Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and German writer Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front both relate the impact of World War I on youthful innocence and optimism. This period of history proved inspirational to Eugene Sledge, who mentions reading English poet and World War I veteran Wilfred Owen’s poetry. Other works written during the twentieth century relate the complex effects of war on the human mind. War correspondent Martha Gellhorn’s account of twentieth-century conflicts, The Face of War, written over a fifty-year period, adopts a similar yet geographically broader perspective as Eugene Sledge, as it comments on the horrific brutality of war while accepting that war is sometimes necessary. More recently, novels such as Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds have focused on the physical and psychological trauma of war veterans—a topic Sledge mentions in With the Old Breed but investigates with greater depth in his memoir China Marine.
Key Facts about With the Old Breed
  • Full Title: With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa
  • When Written: 1944-1981
  • Where Written: E. B. Sledge started writing his memoir in 1944, immediately after the battle of Peleliu, and continued writing after his return to the U.S.
  • When Published: 1981
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Setting: Various Pacific islands during World War II
  • Climax: The death of Company K’s beloved captain “Ack Ack” Haldane
  • Antagonist: The Japanese enemy
  • Point of View: First person

Extra Credit for With the Old Breed

The Bible. Sledge often mentions praying during the most trying times on Peleliu and Okinawa, but the small New Testament he carried with him everywhere in combat also had another purpose: it served as a notebook, where he took clandestine notes about the war. These notes later proved crucial in allowing him to compose his memoir With the Old Breed.

Adaptations. With the Old Breed inspired various movie adaptations, such as Ken Burns’s World War II documentary The War (2007) and the HBO miniseries The Pacific (2010).