As the fighting drags on, Sledge describes increasing cases of combat fatigue: men whose faces go blank, as though they have moved into a different reality from their companions. Their symptoms can include utter detachment, uncontrollable crying, or yelling. Sledge concludes that, of all the miseries of war, shell fire is the most likely to break a Marine’s mind. Sledge also recalls men falling sick and suffering—as he did—from what was called “trench foot” in World War I: a state in which one’s feet are continuously wet and sore. Luckily, Sledge’s feet never become infected.
Once again, in addition to fighting the enemy, the Marines are forced to wage an invisible war against themselves: to protect themselves, that is, against the fragility of their own minds. The fact that Sledge and his comrades suffer from a World War I affliction suggests that, although civilization evolves, war is universally cruel and unfair, regardless of the epoch one is fighting in.
Sledge also describes the surprising experience of receiving letters from former Marines who have been lucky enough to be sent home. Although these soldiers usually express initial relief at the comforts of civilian life, they later begin to show resentment. They describe feeling isolated from ordinary civilians and longing for the companionship that Company K provided. The Marines in combat do not understand such attitudes, since they all hope to be taken out of the war safely. However, Sledge explains that what those former Marines want is to be with people who have experienced what they have gone through—events and circumstances deeply incompatible with anything civilians might imagine war to be.
The former Marines’ difficulty to adjust to civilian life foreshadows all the current Marines’ probable difficulties to return to ordinary society. Although friendship between Marines makes war tolerable, it also excludes them from the rest of the civilian population, who might not understand how to interact with people who have been so deeply immersed in violence, suffering, and death. These experiences highlight precisely how large the gap is between the Marines’ lives at war and their former lives at home.
In the last weeks of May, the Marines suffer heavy shelling in a section of the island called Shuri. After this exhausting ordeal, which keeps Sledge from sleeping, he recalls falling asleep one day on an empty stretcher placed on the ground. It is the first time he is actually able to rest in a long time. However, all of a sudden, he feels that he is being lifted up. Removing the poncho he had used to cover himself, he sees two startled stretcher-bearers carrying him away. When he hears his companions’ laughter, he realizes that his friends told the stretcher bearers he was dead. The episode leaves him with an eerie sensation but amuses his companions greatly.
This episode reveals the Marines’ desire to laugh at even the most serious events, such as the death of their friend. Laughter allows them to cope with the stress and violence around them, and also creates a tight-knit community in which members learn to accept teasing and jokes as a form of bonding, not as insults. Sledge’s unnerving sensation, however, suggests that he is distraught by the possibility that he might actually die someday—and that he could rightfully be carried away on a stretcher, like he almost was.
At the end of May, Company K learns that the Marines have taken over Shuri Castle, an important strategic landmark that marks a turning point in the battle. There, the Marines raised the Confederate flag in celebration of this victory. The Southerners in Company K, including Sledge, cheer enthusiastically, while Americans from other areas of the country feel hostile or indifferent to this event.
Sledge’s celebration of the Confederate flag—a symbol of the American Civil War made controversial by the Confederacy’s support of slavery, and the Ku Klux Klan;s later adoption of it as a banner—does not necessarily imply that Sledge is racist, but does highlight his feeling of Southern pride. The existence of separate, segregated African-American Marine units in World War II, however, suggests that the Marine Corps was far from being at the forefront in the fight against racism and discrimination.
One day, on the eve of a battle in Shuri that all Marines know is of crucial importance, Sledge digs his foxhole straight into a Japanese corpse full of maggots. An NCO tells Sledge to keep on digging anyway, because of instructions about the specific locations for foxholes, but Sledge angrily retorts that he cannot possibly do so. Duke, a lieutenant who was Company K’s sections on Peleliu, arrives and tells Sledge to dig in a slightly different spot instead. Deeply affected by the sight of the corpse, Sledge does not understand how he succeeded in not vomiting during this experience.
The NCO’s instruction for Sledge to keep on digging shows his lack of intelligence, sensitivity, and compassion, as he does not understand that a Marine cannot possible live in a foxhole built inside a rotting human body. By contrast, Duke remains lucid and aware of the psychological issues at play. His ability to listen to Sledge emphasizes the importance of compassion and communication in good leadership.
Later, when Sledge’s foxhole buddy slips and falls in the mud, the man’s body becomes entirely covered in maggots. This Marine, a Gloucester veteran that Sledge knows intimately, almost loses his mind, finding that this experience is too much for him to bear. Sledge is so affected by these events that he finds himself unable to concentrate when Duke shows the Marines the plans for the next day’s attack on the map—a uncharacteristic decision by an officer, as officers never share the details of military strategy with mere infantrymen. Sledge and his companions know that they have reached a historic juncture and will participate in an epic battle, but Sledge, still affected by his friend’s fall in the mud, regrets not having the concentration necessary to ask questions or listen to the dialogue between the officer and his men.
Sledge and his friend’s reaction to being so close to rotten bodies and maggots reveals that they are losing their patience and their endurance for the horrors of war, since they cannot even concentrate when they are given the unique opportunity to understand the strategic development of the battle. Duke’s willingness to take the time to show the map to his men highlights his uniquely human qualities, such as his passion for military strategies and his capacity to see his subordinates as equals capable of the same emotions and intelligence as any officer.