Eugene Sledge (nicknamed “Sledgehammer” by his fellow Marines) recalls the decisions that led him to enlist in the Marine Corps in December 1942. Although he was pursuing studies at the Marion Military Institute in Alabama, he wanted to join the Marine Corps as soon as possible so that he might take part in combat before the end of World War II. Following the advice of friends and family, he decided to join an officer training program, in order not to enter the war at the lowest—and thus most dangerous—rank.
Sledge’s commitment to helping his country win the war highlights both his patriotism and his personal qualities of courage and self-sacrifice. It suggests that, however much he might end up personally suffering during the war, he remains convinced that he is taking part in a noble, moral task: defending his country as best he can. At the same time, his effort to become an officer also shows his desire to protect his life and be spared some of the horrors of combat.
During Sledge’s interview for officer training, the recruiting sergeant asks him many questions about any particular physical features he has, explaining that these are helpful if Sledge is killed abroad and his dog tag destroyed. This introduces Sledge to what he describes as the Marines’ typical, crudely realistic attitude.
Sledge’s introduction to the realities of war involves confronting the brutal fact of death—and, in this particular case, the possibility for his body to be destroyed beyond recognition. The recruiting sergeant’s attitude reveals that the Marines bond over their knowledge of such terrible, frightening realities.
After finishing his first year of college, Sledge goes to Georgia Tech for Marine officer training. Once there, however, he is disappointed by how peaceful and boring life there is, in contrast to the violent world of war. The students discover that they will have to endure two years like this before becoming Marines, and ninety of them—including Sledge—decide to leave officer training to enlist directly into the Marine Corps as infantrymen. The captain in charge is impressed by the young men’s resolve to take part in the war and expresses his admiration for their spirit.
Sledge and his companions’ enthusiasm for war serves as a prelude to the enthusiasm and solidarity he so often lauds within the Marine Corps: a shared motivation to perform one’s duty to the best of one’s capacities, in order to help one’s country win the war. At the same time, Sledge’s frustration with his current life also reveals that he is naïve and idealistic, as he does not yet know how horrific actual combat can be.
During the train trip from Atlanta to San Diego, where these Marine recruits will start boot camp, they all sing and cheer, excited about what awaits them. Looking back, Sledge realizes that they were all naïve, completely unaware of the dangers and horrors that lay ahead. When they arrive, a friendly sergeant, decorated for distinguished combat service in World War I, warns them about the tough training they are going to endure. The boys then get on buses taking them to boot camp and, when they arrive, begin to feel nervous about the strict discipline they witness outside the bus window and the scared faces of their fellow recruits.
The boys’ optimistic, enthusiastic attitude shows how unaware they are of the harsh realities that await them—a world marked by strict discipline, fatigue, and fear. Their attitude might seem overly naïve, but it can also be understood as a powerful motivator. Indeed, the boys’ enthusiasm plays an important role in sustaining them throughout the rough following weeks of boot camp. What they are about to experience will determine how committed they truly are to the war, turning their innocent enthusiasm into endurance and strength.
Once they get off the bus, fellow recruits tell the new boys they are going to regret their decision. The boys then meet Corporal Doherty, their drill instructor (DI), a terrifying man who reminds them, in an angry tone, that they are mere recruits and might not actually be capable of becoming Marines. Sledge describes Corporal Doherty as a New Englander and the meanest man he has ever met. Doherty does not necessarily yell in a loud manner, but terrifies his recruits by issuing cold, threatening commands, which make them fear him as much as the prospect of the Japanese enemy.
Corporal Doherty’s insistence on the boys’ naïveté highlights the difficulty and prestige of becoming a Marine, which involves taking part in a series of experiences capable of testing even the most dedicated recruit’s ardor. Doherty’s attitude serves as an introduction to the various types of leadership Sledge will encounter throughout the war, which vary in terms of competence, as well as in leaders’ capacity for kindness and compassion.
Corporal Doherty takes the recruits to a beach near San Diego Bay, where he drills them to the point of exhaustion. If they cannot perform a certain task well enough, he humiliates them publicly. The recruits soon learn to clean their rifles every day, as they understand that this is a Marine’s “best friend” and most precious possession. Once, when Doherty hears a recruit talk about his rifle as a “gun,” he makes him run in front of everyone, holding his rifle in one hand and his penis in the other, screaming that the former is his rifle and the latter his “gun.” The recruits thus learn, in this severe way, to use the proper names when referring to pieces of artillery.
It will remain common, throughout Sledge’s experiences of training and combat, for people to use humiliation and violence in order to convey the importance of respecting rules. This is not necessarily a deliberate effort to make the soldiers feel bad but, rather, to instill in them—through pure fear, if necessary—the life-or-death importance of respecting rules. Sledge often criticizes such methods as much as he understands their greater purpose: to save soldiers’ lives.
As a recruit’s day begins at 4 a.m. and ends at 10 p.m., Sledge does not understand his superiors’ cruel practice of interrupting their sleep to make them perform drills during the night. Later, though, he realizes that this was not gratuitous harassment, but a technique to prepare recruits for combat, in which sleep is extremely scarce. Under the icy command of Corporal Doherty, the recruits also become used to following clear rules, such as never leaving one’s assigned area without the permission of the DI, or staying in line with the platoon’s cadence. Looking back, Sledge concludes that neither his fellow recruits nor he realized how crucial such discipline and physical endurance would later prove in combat, where it could help save one’s life.
The purpose of boot camp is to instill in recruits certain skills that prepare them for the war, but also to immerse them in a context similar to that of combat, so that they will become used to it more easily. This combination of learning and suffering prepares them to the harsh conditions of war, where having automatic habits—which might initially seem too strict or arbitrary—can save one’s life in moments of stress, in which the mind is not capable of thinking rationally. This forces the Marines to trust in their body’s reflexes, as well as in the validity of their superiors’ orders.
One day, the recruits are sent to the rifle range. There, Sledge receives training in rifle marksmanship that he describes as exceptionally thorough and effective. The men become used to the pain and difficulty of certain positions, and also internalize certain rules, such as never pointing one’s rifle in a direction in which one does not intend to shoot, or checking a rifle to determine whether or not it is loaded, as the opposite can lead to many accidents.
During the war, Sledge will find himself in situations in which he witnesses first-hand the fatal consequences of not respecting such basic rules. In this manner, the harsh discipline that recruits are subject to during boot camp always has a concrete objective—to protect men’s lives—even if it initially appears too extreme or unpleasant.
During this period, Sledge finds that the particular mental and physical harassment he has become used to is replaced by serious, methodical, and respectful training. However, he notes that punishment is still severe. Once, when a man turned toward a friend to chat during training, thus moving his rifle away from the targets, a captain kicked him hard, making him fall on his face, before yelling at him profusely. This taught all recruits about the importance of following such a crucial rule.
Although the captain’s use of violence against a recruit seems abusive, it reveals the man’s awareness of the crucial importance of what he is teaching—specifically, the knowledge that in war, any breach in rule-following can lead to someone’s death. As Sledge often notes, dying in the middle of combat or by pure accident is equally tragic, and should be taken equally seriously.
After eight weeks of training, Sledge realizes that Corporal Doherty and the other DIs have successfully turned the recruits into mentally and physically strong potential fighters. On December 24, 1943, the men graduate from boot camp and are told that they are officially Marines. Afterwards, Sledge is sent to Camp Elliott, where, like most other new Marines, he will train to become an infantryman—what Sledge describes as “cannon fodder” that will fight in the Pacific. As Sledge leaves boot camp, he watches Doherty and realizes that, although he still dislikes him, he respects him for the training he has given him.
Sledge’s gratefulness for the training he has received does not suggest that all forms of leadership are equal. As Sledge later discovers, it is possible—though not common—to combine discipline with respect and compassion for one’s subordinates. This is a difficult attitude to adopt, found in only a few, exceptional leaders. Sledge understands that situations of extreme stress can lead even the best-intentioned leaders to express themselves in harsh ways.