When Company K arrives at their new position, Sledge notices many artillery shells on the ground, concluding that the American soldiers they are relieving must have been met with heavy shelling. When Company K meets the soldiers they are relieving, these men all have tragic, vacant expressions that reveal that, as one soldier tells Sledge, “It’s hell up there.”
Sledge’s assessment of shelling as one of the most terrifying experiences in the war proves justified here, as the men’s expressions suggest they are traumatized by what they have undergone. This will prove to be a common feature of Okinawa, where frequent shelling will put Sledge’s own sanity to test.
Sledge and his companions then experience the chaos of battle. They run through an open field exposed to shells and machine-gun fire while the army troops attempt to leave their positions unscathed. Although Sledge is terrified, he knows since Peleliu that he can control his fear, and does not experience the same numbing panic as he did the first time. As Snafu and Sledge reach a side of the ridge where they are to dig their gun hole, they learn that two good friends from the company have died. The news fills them with gloom and anger.
Sledge’s new self-confidence does not necessarily make him a more skillful fighter, but allows him to retain better control over his own mind—a crucial element in such a brutal, upsetting war. Learning about dead friends serves to accentuate Sledge’s anger at the injustice of the war and at the enemy. He now views the Japanese enemy with even less compassion than before.
In the meantime, the men notice that Mac is digging an extremely deep pit. They make fun of him for it, even though it is disrespectful to talk that way to an officer. They all laugh about the contrast between Mac’s current fearful attitude and his previous boasting.
Mac’s effort to dig a deep gun pit reveals how little practical knowledge he has of war—in which he will probably soon become too tired to dig such large pits, and will also realize they do not ensure his safety. The men’s insubordination toward Mac also shows how little trust and respect he has earned from them.
That night, it begins to rain torrentially, and the Marines learn that they will take part in a large attack the next day. The next day, the attack fails, and the Marines are forced to retreat because of the enemy’s heavy fire. Sledge remains in his foxhole under heavy rain, hoping that he will not have to serve as a stretcher bearer in the area exposed to Japanese fire. Sledge describes the mud on Okinawa as a terrible source of frustration, making daily life miserable. He remembers seeing pictures of soldiers during World War I suffering from exactly the same dire circumstances, and demonstrating the same disgust.
Sledge’s fear of stepping out into an exposed area does not reveal a lack of concern for his companions but, rather, the realistic consequences of duty, in which one can easily be shot while working as a stretcher bearer. Sledge’s description of mud on Okinawa suggests that the enemy is not the only source of hatred and anger, but that one’s immediate circumstances—the daily routine of life as a Marine in such a harsh environment—can provoke the same effect.
From his foxhole, Sledge witnesses the pathetic sight of four stretcher bearers struggling to save a wounded comrade in the crippling mud, under enemy fire. Two of the stretcher bearers are soon shot, and the remaining two succeed in carrying the Marine on the stretcher in addition to their newly wounded comrades. From their hidden position, Sledge and his comrades cheer at this sight.
The stretcher bearers’ plight reveals that launching an assault against the enemy is one’s duty just as much as saving one’s comrades. There are strong standards of camaraderie and solidarity in the Marines—standards that derive from men’s friendships as much as from their obligation to follow the rules.
Company K then learns that they will launch another assault the next day. One of Sledge’s friends, overwhelmed by despair at the thought that he might never make it home, comes to speak to him. Remembering the comforting conversation Sledge once had with Hillbilly, he comforts his friend in the same manner. He concludes that such conversations are a crucial, heartwarming aspect of being an infantryman at the front, where only friendship makes life bearable. This time, the attack is partially successful, and Company K is able to move to a quiet area of the front lines before nighttime. Sledge then sees the friend he comforted the night before being carried off on a stretcher, bearing the million-dollar wound that will take him home, far from the war.
Sledge’s ability to comfort his friend derives not only from the model of Hillbilly’s leadership, but from his own personal experience of fear and anguish. His understanding that all soldiers must share the same conversation underlines that everyone experiences such feelings at some point during combat. The friend’s luck at being taken away from combat highlights the absurdity of war, in which some wounds can lead to peace and freedom, whereas others lead to suffering and death, regardless of an individual’s skill.
That night, the Japanese launch a large counterattack to isolate the 1st Marine Division and cause confusion in the American organization. Sledge and his fellow companions are forced to stay awake all night, hearing the sound of heavy artillery attacking the 1st Marines ahead of them. However, the 1st Marines succeed in killing the hundreds of Japanese who try to corner the division’s flank by arriving through water. They also witness an air attack against the American fleet, with kamikaze planes diving into ships.
Nighttime attacks, especially those that include shelling, are particularly harrowing, as they deprive men of precious moments of rest. This situation mirrors Sledge’s frustration at boot camp with being woken up during the middle of the night by his officers—a drill he only understood later as realistic practice for life at the front.