In his memoir With the Old Breed, Eugene B. Sledge recalls his service with the U.S. Marines during World War II. In December 1942, at the age of nineteen, Sledge, a young man from Mobile, Alabama, decides to enroll in the Marine Corps. Proud of his country and anxious to defend it as best he can, Sledge feels that he must take part in the war, which the U.S. entered after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
Following his family’s advice, Sledge initially joins officer training. However, when he realizes that such training involves taking classes on a peaceful university campus for two years, Sledge decides to enlist immediately as an infantryman, in order to participate directly in the war. Sledge reaches boot camp full of naïve enthusiasm but is soon faced with severe discipline and the icy personality of his drill instructor, Corporal Doherty. Sledge initially hates Doherty and the other officers for the harassment they subject recruits to. However, he later realizes that these officers’ strategy is to prepare recruits to the harsh reality of war, where fighters are not allowed much sleep, peace, or rest. Reflecting back on his training experience, Sledge thus concludes that boot camp and scrupulous training play a crucial role in preparing Marines for combat—where they will always be more likely to survive if they learn to follow the rules.
In February 1944, after months of training, Sledge and other new Marines finally board a ship to the Pacific. After weeks at sea and further training in New Caledonia, on June 2nd they reach the island of Pavuvu, home of the 1st Marine division. There, Sledge sees veteran Marines who fought in the famous battles of Guadalcanal and Gloucester. He is awed by their unassuming attitude as well as their distant, detached look—the natural emotional consequence of weeks spent in harrowing battle. When Sledge learns that he is going to join Company K in the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division (also known as K/3/5), he feels honored to be joining the 1st Marine Division, an elite group with an illustrious fighting history since World War I. He is ecstatic to join this long line of distinguished fighters, known as the “old breed.”
On September 14, after taking part in amphibious-landing exercises, Company K finally embarks for Peleliu, where they will fight the Japanese. On the ship, Sledge chats with a friend, Robert Oswalt, who plans to be a neurosurgeon after the war. Sledge notes that Oswalt was later killed on Peleliu, and concludes gloomily that war has the capacity to destroy the most promising members of society. During his conversation with Oswalt, Sledge becomes conscious that he might not survive the next day, a thought that fills him with absolute fear. He wonders whether he will prove courageous or cowardly in battle, and if he will actually be able to kill the enemy.
On the morning of D Day, September 15, 1944, Sledge prepares to enter his first battle. He decides to follow Snafu around, a Gloucester veteran whose knowledge and experience make Sledge feel more secure. When Sledge enters the amtrac, an amphibious tank, he experiences utter panic, becoming so nervous that he feels his heart pound in his chest and his knees buckle. As they advance toward the beach, Sledge is overwhelmed by the sight, sound, and commotion of Japanese shells falling all around them, attempting to destroy the American amtracs. The shells create a hellish atmosphere that Sledge describes as like being in the heart of an exploding volcano.
Sledge and his companions then exit the amtrac, running on the beach as fast as they can to avoid the shells and bullets. Sledge survives this ordeal but suffers from a feeling of helplessness when he sees amtracs explode and fellow Marines fall dead on the beach. He is overwhelmed by the injustice and absurdity of war, which destroys so many young lives. However, he is also proud to capture this enemy territory and to help his country win the war. Sledge then sees his first enemy corpse and is horrified by this sight, although when he notices his veteran comrades’ nonchalant attitude, he realizes that he will probably soon become desensitized to such visions himself.
Although Sledge and his companions were initially told that the battle on Peleliu would last barely three or four days, Peleliu proves to be infinitely more vicious and protracted than anyone had expected because of a change in Japanese strategy. Before Peleliu, the Japanese usually launched banzai suicide attacks against the enemy. On Peleliu, however, the Japanese begin using a network of mutually supporting positions, a much more effective defensive technique that forces the Americans to destroy each individual Japanese hide-out in a prolonged war of attrition, in order to win the battle.
In addition to these new techniques, Sledge notes that the Japanese are known as fanatics. They regularly launch suicide infiltrations at nighttime to surprise Marines in their foxholes. On Peleliu, Sledge also decries Japanese soldiers’ seemingly gratuitous cruelty. He sees three American corpses that some Japanese soldiers have mutilated horribly, cutting off various body parts—and, in one case, stuffing a man’s penis in his mouth. Sledge is shocked by such displays of brutality, which he does not believe his fellow Marines would be capable of. At the same time, Sledge also describes a typical behavior among the Marines: collecting souvenirs from Japanese corpses. This includes removing the Japanese’s gold teeth with a knife. Although Sledge is initially repulsed by this practice, over time he becomes inured to such brutality himself. It is only thanks to his friend, the corpsman Ken “Doc” Caswell, that he does not take part in this practice as well and thus keeps himself from turning into a callous, unfeeling fighter.
In general, Peleliu proves to be a horribly vicious environment, marked by ferocious battles in which Marines are exposed to close-range shell fire, an experience Sledge considers capable of driving even the toughest combat veteran to utter panic. As Sledge becomes accustomed to living in an environment marked by constant stress, exhaustion, and filth, he realizes that this is a world that non-combatants could never imagine—a universe of constant brutality, fear, and death, completely severed from the standards of the civilized world.
What helps Sledge survive on Peleliu is the atmosphere in Company K, which he grows to love as a family. Some of his officers impress him with their courage, compassion, and intelligence. One evening, Sledge chats with one such officer, Lt. Edward Jones, nicknamed “Hillbilly.” The two of them share stories about being from the South and Sledge confesses to Hillbilly that he is often overwhelmed by a deep, debilitating fear of combat. Hillbilly replies that this is a normal reaction to war, and that everyone, including himself, experiences fear. The most important thing, however, Hillbilly notes, is to keep on performing one’s duty anyway. This conversation makes Sledge feel understood and reassured. Later, on Okinawa, he is able to pay this kindness forward and comfort a terrified companion in the same way Hillbilly once did. Such moments of comradeship convince Sledge that friendship and solidarity are crucial to the experience of war in the Marine Corps, as they are the only things that make war tolerable.
Capt. Andrew “Ack Ack” Haldane, whom Sledge describes as the most beloved, most distinguished officer in the Marine Corps, also plays a crucial role in driving Company K’s strong morale and motivation. Known for his extraordinary leadership capacities, Haldane shows a deep interest in his men and proves dedicated to protecting both their lives and their emotional well-being. Toward the end of the battle of Peleliu, however, Haldane is killed in action. This event devastates the entire company, causing Sledge to experience the most acute grief he ever felt during the war.
After a month and a half of fighting on Peleliu—longer than anyone had expected— the island is finally secured and Company K is able to return to Pavuvu. Sergeant Haney, a respected veteran who has been fighting since World War I, describes Peleliu as the most terrible combat experience he has ever been through, convincing Sledge that his own horror at what he has witnessed is justified. However, Sledge explains that historians have since agreed that, despite its ferocity and intense human toll, the battle of Peleliu was probably unnecessary in the greater historical context of World War II, as it did not bring any clear strategic gains. This idea depresses Sledge and his comrades, who have lost so many friends during the battle.
After months of resting and training on Pavuvu and Guadalcanal, Company K is once again sent to battle, this time on the Japanese island of Okinawa—Japan’s last defense before the Japanese mainland. There, despite the usual fear of dying or being wounded, Sledge discovers that his previous combat experience keeps him from panicking in the same way he did on Peleliu. He still experiences fear, anger, and grief, but knows that he is capable of being a strong fighter and a reliable companion.
Fighting on Okinawa proves long, frustrating, and debilitating. In addition to the usual stress of combat and Japanese night-time infiltrations, the Marines are forced to advance in knee-deep mud and constant rain, which sometimes drives them to states of uncontrollable rage. Sledge describes the horrific living conditions on the island, in which the men must suffer from intense close-range shelling as well as routine horrific circumstances—such as the sight and smell of rotting bodies, maggots, and human excrement. Because of these harrowing conditions, the cases of “combat fatigue” and mental collapse increase exponentially. Sledge soon realizes that his own mind is affected by this harrowing environment. The life of a Marine on Okinawa sometimes proves so unbearable that he convinces himself he is lost in the middle of a nightmare and will soon wake up. To keep from “cracking up,” he makes a pledge to himself to retain his sanity on Okinawa—a promise that gives him the strength necessary to keep on going in the most trying times.
In the meantime, the company’s new mortar section leader, Mac, fresh out of officer training, proves arrogant, incompetent, and cruel. He demonstrates gratuitous brutality toward Japanese corpses, taking part in actions that make his subordinates feel revolted and outraged. By contrast, other officers, such as Cpl. Burgin and Lt. Duke, serve as redeeming forces, men Sledge looks up to and who make him feel more secure in combat. Members of Sledge’s company, such as John Redifer, also play an important role in maintain company morale, as they prove capable of extraordinary acts of courage and self-sacrifice.
While Marines are immersed in harrowing conditions on Okinawa, the international political scene undergoes new developments, influencing the course of the war. On May 8, the Marines learn that Nazi Germany has surrendered—a piece of news they receive with indifference, as the month of May on Okinawa proves deadlier and more horrendous than any other before. After weeks of harrowing battle, the island of Okinawa is finally secured on June 21. Then, a few months later, after atomic bombs are dropped on Japan on August 6 and 9, World War II ends on August 15, 1945.
After being sent to rest on Pavuvu, Sledge spends four months on occupation duty in China before returning home. Despite his relief at going home after so long, Sledge knows that he will probably struggle to reintegrate into civilian life. He is also forced to undergo a process of grieving, as he must leave his Company K family, which has brought so many warm, supportive friendships, and has become home to him.
Sledge concludes his narrative by remarking on the savage, wasteful nature of war. Although he insists on how cruel war is, he also notes that certain redeeming factors, such as his companions’ courage and camaraderie, helped make war tolerable. He also notes that, in a world in which other countries will always try to dominate one another, he believes that defending and sacrificing oneself for one’s country is a sacred responsibility, which his fellow Marines accepted so courageously.