As Sledge’s company is on its way toward the beach, they learn that, apart from some shelling by mortars, the landing is unopposed. Although Sledge is amazed to be able to land without being shot, as he moves inland he finds the atmosphere eerie, as he wonders what the Japanese troops are up to. That night, after the Marines dig foxholes in soft earth, they hear a Japanese plane overhead and see it head toward the American fleet. They then see the plane fly directly toward a ship and explode there, in typical fashion of the kamikaze or suicidal attack, a Japanese strategy during the war.
The peace and quiet on the beach contrasts not only with the officers’ and infantrymen’s expectations, but with the Japanese’s ferocity, as they are not afraid of using suicide attacks to harm their enemy. This unexpected occurrence serves as a foreboding signal that the Japanese are using a new technique—one which the American officers ignore, and which might make the battle more difficult than they imagined.
When Sledge wakes up to start his watch in the foxhole he shares with Snafu, he grabs their “Tommy” or submachine gun. After a few minutes, he notices a man crouching by trees nearby, although he is not sure if it is a man—and if it is, whether it is a Japanese or a Marine. He decides to shoot. Although the men hear the cries of Japanese infiltrators during the night, Sledge wakes up the next morning to discover that what he thought was a man was nothing but a stack of straw. His friends make fun of him for hours for this mistake.
The contrast between Sledge’s concentration and the result of his action proves humorous, suggesting that war can sometimes seem like a game. In this vein, despite the dangers of war, the Marines still find the time and energy to focus on jokes, such as Sledge’s mistake. Humor plays an important part in Marines’ lives, as it allows them to cope with the emotional weight of their environment and to bond over shared experiences.
The next day, the Japanese enemy remains invisible. The Marines do see some Okinawans, civilians whom Sledge finds sad and miserable because they are so terrified by their invaders. The Marines, however, take a strong liking to the children, to whom they often give candy and rations. Sledge recalls laughing at humorous, non-violent scenes, such as an Okinawan mother spraying breast milk at her older, annoying son, and an episode in which some Marines rescue a horse trapped in a ditch.
Sledge’s opinion about the Okinawans suggests that he does not bear hatred toward the Japanese people as a whole, but only to their ferocious combatants. He is able to separate his natural compassion from his role as a Marine, which forces him to be merciless with the enemy. This also highlights the injustice and absurdity of war, as innocent civilians are forced to suffer for the actions of their own government and army.
Company K spends their first days on Okinawa encountering little opposition to their advance, although they hear of the 7th Marines being ambushed and suffering casualties. The men are told to only shoot Japanese soldiers and Okinawans who are clearly hostile, and not to take part in target practice.
The military command clearly wants to avoid taking part in any war crimes, such as killing innocent civilians. International wars do (or are supposed to) follow certain ethical rules—although most of these were laid down only in the aftermath of WWII.
Sledge is grateful for patrol sergeant’s Burgin’s presence, as he mistrusts Mac’s orders. One day, Sledge forms part of a group that will patrol the spot where the 7th Marines were ambushed. Although the new men like Mac are relaxed and aloof, Sledge and other veterans know the danger of not taking the enemy seriously and are worried about this new task.
The mistrust and discomfort in Mac’s Company K creates an ominous atmosphere, suggesting that terrible things could happen under Mac’s command. The new men’s inability to understand the dangers of war suggests that combat experience can bring greater competence and lucidity than any amount of theoretical training.
A they walk through a footpath on a low hill where traces of the vicious ambush are obvious, Sledge is shocked to grasp the absurdity of war. He realizes that the Okinawans have cared for this land for centuries with basic farming methods, but that war has brought destruction to it with its latest technology. Sledge concludes that war is an illness, ruining the beauty of a peaceful, natural landscape.
Despite his willingness to defend his country in a patriotic way, Sledge disapproves of war itself. His understanding of the way in which it affects innocent local populations, as well as the earth itself, reveals his intelligence and his compassion, as he trusts that humans are capable of much more admirable acts than this war-time violence.
Sledge and a friend, a Gloucester veteran, are then sent to investigate a section of road nearby. When they suddenly hear shots behind them, the veteran says that it must be an ambush. Scrambling back toward where the shots came from, they see Mac standing over the carcass of a dead animal. He is shooting it in the jaw to see if he can shoot the teeth away. Burgin and the Marines are disgusted by this behavior. Sledge concludes that if Mac had not been an officer, the Marines would probably have “stuck his head in a nearby well,” but they maintain discipline.
Mac proves not only excessively interested in morbid details, but also purely incompetent, as he blatantly disregards the order to shoot only armed Japanese soldiers. His reckless, despicable behavior puts the lives of his own men at risk, revealing either total lack of forethought or lack of care for other people’s lives. The fact that everyone is forced to respect military hierarchy in such circumstances is unnerving, showing the injustice that can take place within Marine ranks.
Sledge explains that Mac is not incompetent, but does not understand the gravity of war. Although Mac has successfully graduated from officer training, which is an impressive feat, he occasionally behaves like a teenager. Sledge describes Mac’s most disgusting habit: urinating in the mouth of every Japanese corpse he sees. Sledge calls this the most revolting thing he ever saw an American do, adding that it repelled even the most hardened combat veterans. He notes that Mac proved insensitive to brutality before even taking part in combat.
Mac’s earlier boasting about behaving aggressively toward the Japanese does not necessarily translate into courage on the battlefield, but expresses itself through hateful acts—potentially as cruel as those Sledge denounced in the Japanese. Mac’s inability to understand the true dangers of war or the necessity to leave enemy corpses alone is a distressing sign of his lack of compassion and sensitivity to other human lives.
During patrols in April, Sledge learns a lot about local Okinawan customs. Sledge is particularly fascinated by the horses and the particular type of halter that Okinawans use, which is made of wood and ropes. He is so intrigued by this system that he takes one to examine it, with the hope of taking it home. (He later abandons the halter, which makes his pack too heavy.) The Marines adopt a horse for a week but, after being ordered to change positions, they are forced to let it free. Sledge tells himself that the horse will be safe and happy in the hills, while the men will have to return to a world of shells, bullets, and death.
Sledge’s respect for Okinawan customs reveals his intellectual curiosity and understanding that the Japanese are not inferior to him in any way simply because they are the enemy. The men’s attachment to a horse also shows that they are still capable of kindness and compassion, despite their immersion in a world of seemingly endless brutality. Sledge’s thoughts on the horse’s peaceful future are a poignant reminder that even the dangers of the natural world cannot compare to the unique horrors of war, and all the unique cruelties humans inflict on each other.
On April 13, the company learns of the death of President Franklin Roosevelt. Although the men are not interested in politics during the fighting, they feel sad about this loss. They wonder if the President’s successor, Harry Truman, will handle the war well—ensuring, most importantly, that it does not last any longer than absolutely necessary.
The men’s interest in politics extends solely to their own fates—namely, whether or not politicians will respect the lives of soldiers. This lack of interest in politics seems paradoxical, given their participation in the most intense form of international politics, but highlights the way in which war overwhelms all the senses and the intellect.
Company K is then told to land on Takanabare Island, where they still encounter no Japanese soldiers. They spend some relaxing days on the island, with few responsibilities beyond making sure the enemy does not try to occupy the island. They receive news that the Marines are experiencing a lot of trouble in the south and are then told that they will go relieve an infantry division there.
The surprisingly peaceful progress of war on Okinawa for Company K starkly contrasts with Sledge’s later description of omnipresent death and horror. It suggests that one’s experience of war is highly dependent on luck and circumstance.
Nervous about this new, dangerous assignment, the men are enjoying a last meal around a fire when Mac suddenly yells “Grenade!” and the men all crouch. Sledge sees Mac throw the grenade, which explodes only slightly. Everyone looks at Mac with surprised, shocked looks, though no one is hurt. They learn that Mac wanted to play a joke on them—a typical trick of pouring out the explosive charge of the grenade before throwing it. Mac, however, did not throw out all the liquid. Outraged, the men are disappointed that the company commander did not witness Mac’s actions. Sledge concludes that this is a sad, depressing way to prepare for the upcoming fight.
Once again, Mac proves unable to understand the dangerous, potentially fatal consequences of his own acts. His behavior also highlights his inability to understand how to socialize with his men—or perhaps, his unwillingness to actually learn how to become a good leader, rather than an excited potential warrior. This episode suggests that, in the same way bravery is not always rewarded, foul acts are not always punished—and that fairness does not necessarily reign in all aspects of the Marine Corps.