On August 26th, Company K heads to Guadalcanal, where the men practice amphibious landing exercises that involve using an amtrac, an amphibious tracked vehicle. During these few days of training, as Sledge explains to sailors that Haney is not “Asiatic,” he realizes that, from the outside, Marines might seem crazy or reckless, but this is only because they adopt an attitude of ironic detachment in order to prepare themselves for stressful ordeals.
In addition to feeling a sense of family in Company K because of the valor of its members, Sledge realizes that part of his feeling of identity with the Marines derives from their difference from the rest of the population. In particular, men (such as Haney) who have fought on the front lines are affected mentally and emotionally by war, and often display social behaviors that appear odd to external spectators.
In anticipation of landing, Sledge explains that Peleliu, in the Caroline Islands chain, has the shape of a lobster’s claw, which allows the Japanese to defend landing beaches from the surrounding coral ridges. On September 14, “D Minus 1,” the Marines embark for Peleliu. On the ship, Sledge and a friend try to appear relaxed about the next day. However, as Sledge watches the beautiful Pacific sunset, he suddenly realizes that he might not actually be alive at the same time tomorrow, and he feels panic overcome him. A lieutenant then gives a speech in which he says they expect the battle on Peleliu will be rough but will last only a few days.
The geography of Peleliu explains why the Marines’ amphibious landing on the beach proved so deadly, as the Japanese were able to attack them from all around. The lieutenant’s expectations about the battle also prove mistaken, revealing that no one suspected the Japanese would adopt new defensive techniques that would transform the battle of Peleliu into a war of attrition. This highlights the tragedy of the battle of Peleliu, which proved infinitely more horrific than anyone anticipated.
Sledge then chats about what he wants to do after the war with his companion Oswalt, whom Sledge admires for his intelligence. Although Oswalt says he plans to be a neurosurgeon, because he is fascinated by the human brain, Sledge explains that Oswalt was later killed on Peleliu. As Sledge prepares to go to sleep that evening, he tries to convince himself that he will not die because God loves him, although he also realizes that God loves everyone. He begins to panic and prays silently to himself to find reassurance.
Sledge’s mention of Oswalt serves as an example of how cruel war is in any camp, as each country sacrifices many of its most physically and intellectually fit men for its own survival. Sledge’s reflections about God give a window into the personal anguish of a soldier forced to confront the prospect of his own death. It underlines the fact that there is no inherent justice in war, since so many innocent lives are sacrificed.
On D Day, September 15th, 1944, the Marines wake up, eat the typical meal Marines eat before combat—steak and eggs—and most of them find that stress leads them all to the bathroom. Although there are only two toilets, Haney occupies one of them for a long time, forcing the Marines—who do not dare tell him to hurry—to form a long line in front of the other one.
Haney’s occupation of the bathroom is comic and tragic at the same time. It highlights everyone’s terror of death, regardless of rank, which is capable of overpowering their minds and bodies, turning this existential fear into a bodily necessity. The absurdity of this situation is typical of war, where ordinary needs coexist with extraordinary events.
As dawn arrives, Sledge stays close to Snafu, who makes Sledge feel safe because he is a Gloucester veteran. Snafu offers Sledge a cigarette, which Sledge refuses. Snafu then laughs, betting Sledge that he will be smoking before the end of the day, just like everyone else. The men are then ordered to wear their gear and enter an amtrac. Sledge recalls the moment in which the amtrac began to float and move through the water, and concludes that no other time in his life had the intensity of that moment in which the amtrac drew closer to the smoke- and flame-covered beach where the Marines were supposed to land.
Sledge’s comfort in Snafu mirrors his later comfort in his own veteran self, as he discovers that combat experience is the best preparation for fighting, since it gives one concrete skills and serves to bolster one’s self-confidence. Snafu’s prediction that Sledge will smoke ultimately comes true, as Sledge will be so affected by the stress of the landing that he looks desperately for any emotional outlet.
Sledge interrupts his narrative to explain that most historians now believe that the battle of Peleliu was not necessary to the outcome of World War II. At the same time, they agree that this was one of the most vicious battles of the war. Peleliu also played an important role in teaching the Marines about a change in Japanese tactics: instead of having one defense line, as the Japanese did in the past, they started using a system of fortified positions in caves and pillboxes (small guard posts), spread as a network throughout the island. This led to a ferocious, merciless battle of attrition, fought until all defenses were destroyed.
The fact that Peleliu was both extraordinarily savage and strategically unimportant underlines the tragedy of such fighting. It shows the absurdity of war as, in this case, the horrors that the soldiers experienced were not necessarily justified—since they did not necessarily serve the higher goal of advancing the course of war. The injustice of this situation will later augment the veterans’ grief, keeping them from understanding why so many of their comrades had to die.