With the Old Breed

by

E.B. Sledge

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With the Old Breed: Part 1, Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The 5th Marines go to secure the northern section of Peleliu. One night, when Sledge is sent to bring water to the company’s command post, he sees Haldane deeply concentrated, looking over a match with a small flashlight. Sledge then hears him ask commanders to fire tank guns ahead of Company K. Haldane explains that he knows this is not strictly necessary from a strategic standpoint, but that he wants “[his] boys” to feel safe. Sledge later tells his companions about this and they all agree that Haldane has an extraordinary capacity to take his men’s feelings into account.
This episode once again highlights Haldane’s excellent leadership skills. He shows that he takes his responsibility toward the company seriously, and considers his men an actual family—as Sledge will later emphasize after Haldane’s death, noting that he served as a parental figure for Company K, making them feel safe and protected. Haldane’s focus on his men’s emotional security reveals his knowledge that psychological preparation is just as important as physical strength.
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That night, in the foxhole, Sledge keeps guard while his buddy Snafu sleeps. Suddenly, Sledge sees two figures emerge from the darkness, speaking in Japanese. With his carbine ready, Sledge notices one soldier head in one direction and the other one toward him. However, he does not yet shoot because he knows two other Marines are in a foxhole right in front of him, and he would risk shooting them in the back. At the same time, he does not understand why his companions, Bill and Sam, have not fired at the Japanese soldier yet.
Sledge’s thinking process emphasizes the difficulty of making the decision to shoot, as he wants to kill the enemy to protect the entire group, but must not put his nearby companions’ lives in danger. This difficult situation shows the interconnectedness of the buddy system, as defending the company as a whole depends on the ability for each foxhole to shoot in its immediate surrounding areas, without impinging on another foxhole’s line of shooting.
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Sledge then sees the Japanese soldier jump into the foxhole in front of him. After hearing the horrific sounds of hand-to-hand combat, Sledge sees a man jump back out. Another Marine soon jumps out and knocks him down. From the right, where the other Japanese soldier went, Sledge hears agonizing screams that horrify him beyond description. He also hears a rifle shot in the foxhole ahead of him, and a Marine’s confirmation that he has shot the infiltrator. When interrogated by a sergeant nearby, Sledge maintains that there were only two infiltrators, though this does not explain how another Japanese infiltrator could have exited Sam and Bill’s foxhole. Someone then agrees to solve the mystery and walks toward the man on the ground, firing a pistol shot to silence him.
This chaotic situation proves deeply confusing to everyone present. The fact that someone—presumably a Japanese infiltrator—ran out of Bill and Sam’s foxhole suggests that there were three: the soldier Sam shot, the soldier who ran to the right, and the soldier who left the foxhole. Sledge’s insistence that he only saw two infiltrators serves as an indication of the situation’s tragic outcome: the man who exited the foxhole was not a Japanese infiltrator but an American Marine, unable to declare his identity after being hit by one of his own, who mistook him for the enemy.
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When dawn arrives hours later, Sledge notices that the figure on the ground is not Japanese. Rather, he discovers that it is Bill. Sledge feels sick to realize that the Marine was shot by one of their very own. The man who killed Bill then goes to admit what happened. After Haldane interrogates Sledge, the officer tells him that this was nothing but a tragic mistake and that Sledge should never discuss what happened.
This episode confirms that some deaths during the war are purely accidental—and thus all the more absurd and tragic, since there was no actual reason for Bill to die. Haldane’s insistence that Sledge say nothing underlines his desire to maintain high morale and trust within the company, so that the men can move on from this episode and keep fighting the war.
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In the meantime, the men all agree that the person at fault in this story is not the shooter but Sam, who was supposed to keep watch while Bill was sleeping. This buddy system is crucial to the functioning of the Marine Corps, and the men attack Sam—who admits that he might have fallen asleep—for his actions. In the eyes of fellow Marines, Sam’s remorse does not make his actions excusable. As the men begin to move out of their positions, Sledge learns that the man who killed the Japanese who had gone toward the right did so by jamming his finger in the enemy’s eye, after both of them lost their weapons. Sledge describes this anecdote as typical of the savage nature of this war.
Sam’s inability to protect his buddy proves that the buddy system is indeed not only a means for soldiers to bond, but a matter of life and death. It also suggests that sheer exhaustion can prove just as deadly as incompetence, as it forces soldiers to struggle against the needs of their own bodies. Sledge’s account of the unconventional, brutal way in which a Marine killed the enemy shows that there are no rules when it comes to personal survival: any way of killing the enemy is justified, as long as it ensures the well-being of the company.
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The next morning, the company learns that Japanese reinforcements have reached Peleliu from larger islands in the north. One veteran comments on the similarity of this situation with his experience in Guadalcanal: as the Japanese send waves of reinforcements, he says, the battle could go on and on.
The Marines gradually discover that what they were initially told would be a rough yet short-lived battle might in fact prove more treacherous than military commanders had anticipated. This highlights the difficulty of making military predictions, as one never knows what new strategies the enemy might use.
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On September 28, the company makes a new beach landing, which terrifies Sledge given his experience of the last one. However, American planes bomb the area by the beach and, although Sledge moves out of the water while repeating a prayer to himself over and over again, he is relieved to note that no one is firing at them as they approach the island.
Over time, Sledge will discover that the same experiences that once drove him to absolute panic, such as beach landings, are manageable—not only, as in this case, because the past does not necessarily repeat itself in such violent ways, but because he gradually gains greater knowledge, experience, and self-confidence.
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However, Sledge soon has to dive for cover with a buddy to avoid a Japanese machine gun. Suddenly, his friend is hit in the arm by a sniper. Sledge calls out for a corpsman, and his friend Ken Caswell, nicknamed “Doc” like all U.S. Navy corpsmen, crawls over. A Marine comes by to help and, in his rush to cut off the injured man’s shoulder pack, slices Doc’s face to the bone with a knife. Showing incredible courage and composure, Doc keeps on working while Sledge presses a battle dressing to Doc’s wound. Sledge explains that, after this, Doc’s wound was tended to and he returned to the battle after barely a few hours. Sledge notes that such behavior is typical of the navy corpsmen serving in the Marines, who are regarded highly by the fighters.
Although Ken Caswell is neither a soldier nor Sledge’s superior, he demonstrates extraordinary qualities of bravery, endurance, and leadership. In this case, he shows his capacity for self-sacrifice, as he puts another man’s safety before his own. Later, he will also serve as a moral guide to Sledge, encouraging him not to take gold teeth from a Japanese corpse. Such behavior demonstrates not only Doc’s courage, but his ability to remain ethical and lucid in the midst of such terrible brutality and chaos.
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The company then moves inland and reaches a pillbox which they are told is empty. When Sledge hears Japanese voices emerging from the pillbox, Cpl. Burgin initially disbelieves him. However, when he goes to look through the ventilator, he sees the enemy.  curses, and begins to shoot at them. The Japanese then throw grenades from inside the pillbox. When instructed to see what is happening, Sledge looks over a sand bank and sees a Japanese machine gunner at the door of the bunker. He quickly lowers his head and avoids a shower of bullets by a fraction of a second. Sledge knows that he has made a crucial mistake by looking at the pillbox without having his carbine ready, and realizes that he is lucky to be alive. As his fear subsides, he grows enraged at this Japanese machine-gunner who almost took his life.
This series of actions shows how Marines’ lives so often depend on sheer luck—in this case, the fact that Sledge overhears some voices, and that he is able to move his head in time to avoid the bullets. The fact that these near-death episodes drive him to rage against the Japanese highlights the personal nature of the hatred the Japanese and Americans feel toward each other, as it derives from firsthand combat experience more than any kind of political consideration. In addition to feeling lucky, Sledge will also later praise Burgin’s competence and training for his quick reaction in taking over an unpredictable situation.
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Unable to kill all the men in the pillbox with grenades, the Marines ask for a tank reinforcement. In the meantime, a few Japanese escape the bunker while holding their pants up with one hand—a strange action that Sledge does not understand, but finds culturally fascinating. The Marines kill all the Japanese who try to exit the pillbox, having lost too many friends to feel any compassion for them.
Sledge’s fascination for the strange scene he witnesses—which he defines as “cultural” but for which the reader is offered no further explanation—does not keep him from wanting to kill the enemy. This proves once more that the instinct of self-protection and aggression is ultimately more powerful than any compassionate concern for the other.
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When the amtrac finally arrives, it fires three shells at the pillbox. However, as the dust settles, Sledge sees a Japanese man about to throw a grenade. In reaction, Sledge raises his carbine and hits him at close range. He then sees the man’s pain at every shot and feels ashamed. At the same time, he realizes that cursing the war for all the suffering it causes is foolish, since that soldier was about to throw a grenade at him—and thus inflict equal suffering. In the end, it is only with the arrival of a flamethrower that the Marines are able to kill all the Japanese in the pillbox. Although Sledge does not enjoy the idea of burning an enemy to death, he admits that this is the only solution, since the Japanese would never surrender willingly.
Sledge’s rapid reactions prove that he has been well trained and is capable of reacting efficiently to danger. His ability to kill someone at close range also shows that his initial fears about killing the enemy were unfounded, since instinct moves him to do so. At the same time, his moral qualms about this action reveal his humanity. Even though he ultimately feels ashamed by his thoughts, they demonstrate that he is not callous, but is still capable of feeling compassion for others—even though he tries to repress these feelings as soon as they arise.
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After the fight, the Marines search the Japanese dead for souvenirs. Sledge finds this practice repulsive, brutal, and uncivilized, but accepts that it is typical of wars in which enemies feel deep hatred for each other.  That day, however, he sees a fellow Marine use his kabar to take a Japanese man’s gold teeth. The soldier is still alive, and instead of killing him on the spot the Marine merely feels annoyed by the Japanese man’s movements and tries to hold him still. Another Marine then arrives and shoots the soldier, putting an end to his suffering. Sledge describes the first Marine’s actions as excessively cruel, a signal of the savage life that they are living—one that could not be comprehended by people outside of the war.
Sledge understands the reasons behind the Marine’s effort to take a gold tooth and to ignore the Japanese soldier’s suffering, because he attributes such actions to the dehumanizing effect of war, which makes soldiers immune to brutality—especially their own. However, Sledge also tries to retain a critical, moral distance from the scene, because he does not want to turn into such an insensitive souvenir-collector as his companion. His description of the scene highlights that the Japanese are not alone in committing cruel acts—rather, anyone involved in war is potentially capable.
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The next day, Sledge sees a fellow Marine throw bits of coral into the mouth of a dead Japanese man, as though he were throwing pebbles in a puddle, without realizing that there is anything odd in his behavior. Although Sledge comments on how much war can brutalize a soldier, to the point of making him lose all notion of what is acceptable and inacceptable, soon after he finds himself inclined to take a few gold teeth from a Japanese corpse himself. However, Doc Caswell sees him and tries to stop him. He tries to remind Sledge that his parents would be disgusted by this, but only convinces Sledge not to take the tooth by invoking germs, which Sledge tells him he had not thought of. It is only later that Sledge realizes Doc was trying to keep him from becoming a cruel, unfeeling soldier, and remind him that there are certain moral limits to a fighters’ actions in war.
Although this Marine’s act of brutality does not actually harm the enemy, since the Japanese soldier is already dead—unlike in the previous episode, in which a Marine ignored the enemy’s suffering—it does reveal how common the sight of death has become to these soldiers, who no longer recognize it as anything out of the ordinary. Sledge’s temptation to collect a gold tooth also shows how easy it is for anyone to fall prey to brutality—even Sledge, who was initially revolted by this very practice. At the same time, Doc’s intervention highlights the intense networks of solidarity that exist among Marines. Doc does not want to appear condescending toward Sledge, but wants his friend to maintain his sanity and his capacity to reason morally.
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As tanks begin to pull back because Sledge’s battalion is going to be relieved by an army battalion, the sound and concussion of shell firing erupts extremely close to them. Although the tanks successfully return and destroy the enemy weapon, Sledge sees the terribly distraught face of a man who was close to the camouflaged artillery weapon. This man is an experienced army veteran who has undergone shelling before, but Sledge explains that being shelled at close range is unbearable, leaving even the most seasoned fighters terrified. Sledge, in fact, recalls this particular episode as one of the most distressing of the war, because of the panic and helplessness shelling has the capacity to instill. The sudden, brief attack leads to many deaths and horrific wounds.
This episode reveals that, however much experience a soldier might have, no one is ever inured to particularly horrifying episodes. Instead of disappearing, fear is always present—as Hillbilly once told Sledge, all one can do is learn to go on anyway. This is one of many anecdotes in which Sledge describes shelling as particularly terrifying not only because of the wounds it can inflict on a man’s body, but because of the mental strain it causes, capable of leading anyone to insanity—which the World War I term “shell shock” exemplifies.
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That afternoon, Sledge and his companions find themselves looking blankly into space. Remembering the words of the officer who had said the battle on Peleliu would be “short, but rough,” and realizing that he has now been on Peleliu for fifteen days, Sledge turns away from his companions and sobs, unable to control the despair he feels at undergoing such a cruel, absurd experience, in which young men like him are killed on a daily basis. Lieutenant Duke then puts his hand on Sledge’s shoulder, asking him what is wrong. He tells Sledge that he feels the same way as him but that it will all be over soon. This gives Sledge the strength necessary to endure the next fifteen days of battle on Peleliu.
The blank stare Sledge and his companions share is a sign of extreme shock and emotional detachment from the horrors they have just witnessed. In Sledge’s case, however, this does not keep him from feeling overwhelmed by despair. Duke’s conversation with him is reminiscent of the conversation Sledge once had with Hillbilly. It confirms that everyone—even Sledge’s superiors—feel terrified and helpless, but that they must maintain the optimism and courage necessary to go on. Once again, this episode highlights how important emotional support and solidarity are.
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As Sledge’s battalion is replaced by an army battalion, the men are able to rest for a while in a quiet area. There, Sledge asks others about his friends in other units, and learns mostly depressing news about their fates.
The negative aspect of forming such strong friendships in war is that one is inevitably forced to confront the grief that comes from losing so many close friends. This is yet another aspect of the war that weighs on everyone’s conscience.
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