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With the Old Breed

Aileen is away for the day and I’m at home with some sick children. So we’re sprawled out on the couch and instead of doing my usual reading, I’m kicking back with an old favorite, With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge. Sledge’s memoir is probably the best Second World War memoir I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a few). I first encountered it studying military history in university and have read it a few times since then. Once relatively unknown, Sledge’s name recently came up in Ken Burns’ excellent documentary about World War II and rumor has it that Sledge will also be a character in the sequel to the Band of Brother series. What I love about Sledge’s book is that it gives such a realistic and unglamorized perspective on the war in the Pacific. Sledge was not a hero (at least, not any more than any of the men who fought in the War) and came home with no medals for valor. Were it not for this memoir, it’s unlikely that anyone would remember his name. Yet because of it, his name is almost synonymous with the battle for the little island of Peleliu. His account is fascinating, not just for the history of the battles but for the account of what it is like to be a soldier under fire.

Here are just a couple of excerpts from his book to give you a bit of its flavor.

*****

We waited a seeming eternity for the signal to start toward the beach. The suspense was almost more than I could bear. Waiting is a major part of war, but I never experienced any more supremely agonizing suspense than the excruciating torture of those moments before we received the signal to begin the assault on Peleliu. I broke out in a cold sweat as the tension mounted with the intensity of the bombardment. My stomach was tied in knots. I had a lump in my throat and swallowed only with great difficulty. My knees nearly buckled, so I clung weakly to the side of the tractor. I felt nauseated and feared that my bladder would surely empty itself and reveal me to be the coward I was. But the men around me looked just about the way I felt. Finally, with a sense of fatalistic relief mixed with a flash of anger at the navy officer who was our wave commander, I saw him wave his flag toward the beach. Our driver revved the engine. The treads churned up the water, and we started in—the second wave ashore.

We moved ahead, watching the frightful spectacle. Huge geysers of water rose around the amtracs ahead of us as they approached the reef. The beach was now marked along its length by a continuous sheet of flame backed by a thick wall of smoke. It seemed as though a huge volcano had erupted from the sea, and rather than heading for an island, we were being drawn into the vortex of a flaming abyss. For many it was to be oblivion.

The lieutenant braced himself and pulled out a half-pint whiskey bottle.

“This is it, boys,” he yelled.

Just like they do it in the movies! It seemed unreal.

*****

Later, reflecting on the campaign, Sledge writes this:

None of us would ever be the same after what we had endured. To some degree that is true, of course, of all human experience. But something in me died at Peleliu. Perhaps it was a childish innocence that accepted as faith the claim that man is basically good. Possibly I lost faith that politicians in high places who do not have to endure war’s savagery will ever stop blundering and sending others to endure it.

But I also learned important things on Peleliu. A man’s ability to depend on his comrades and immediate leadership is absolutely necessary. I’m convinced that our discipline, esprit de corps, and tough training were the ingredients that equipped me to survive the ordeal physically and mentally—given a lot of good luck, of course. I learned realism, too. To defeat an enemy as tough and dedicated as the Japanese, we had to be just as tough. We had to be just as dedicated to America as they were to their emperor. I think this was the essence of Marine Corps doctrine in World War II, and that history vindicates this doctrine.