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Eugene Sledge: Memoir excerpts
Selections from Eugene Sledge's "With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa." The acclaimed first-person account was named one of the top five books in epic 20th-century battles.
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PELELIU


I enlisted in the Marine Corps on December 3, 1942 at Marion, Alabama…, prompted by a deep feeling of uneasiness that the war might end before I could get overseas into combat… The recruiting sergeant…asked me lots of questions and filled out numerous official papers. When he asked, "Any scars, birthmarks, or other unusual features?" I described an inch-long scar on my knee. I asked why such a question. He replied, "So they can identify you on some Pacific beach after the Japs blast off your dog tags."?


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Maybe it was the naïve optimism of youth, but the awesome reality that we were training to be cannon fodder in a global war that had already snuffed out millions of lives never seemed to occur to us. The fact that our own lives might end violently or that we might be crippled while we were still boys didn't seem to register. The only thing that we seemed to be truly concerned about was that we might be too afraid to do our jobs under fire. An apprehension nagged at each of us that he might appear to be "yellow" if he were afraid."


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It was hard to sleep that night [before the invasion.] I thought of home, my parents, my friends -- and whether I would do my duty, be wounded and disabled, or be killed. I concluded that it was impossible for me to be killed, because God loved me. Then I told myself that God loved us all and that many would die or be ruined physically or mentally or both by the next morning and in the days following. My heart pounded, and I broke out in a cold sweat. Finally, I called myself a damned coward and eventually fell asleep saying the Lord's prayer to myself.


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Everything my life has been before and after pales in the light of that awesome moment when my amtrac started in amid a thunderous bombardment toward the flaming, smoke-shrouded beach for the assault on Peleliu… Shells crashed all around. Fragments tore and whirred, slapping on the sand and splashing into the water a few yards behind us….


The world was a nightmare of flashes, violent explosions, snapping bullets. Most of what I saw blurred. My mind was benumbed by the shock of it… Up and down the beach and on the reef, a number of amtracs and DUKWs were burning, Japanese machine gun bursts made long splashes on the water as though flaying it with some giant whip….


I caught a fleeting glimpse of some Marines leaving a smoking amtrac on the reef. Some fell as bullets and fragments splashed among them… I turned my face away and wished that I were imagining it all. I had tasted the bitterest essence of war, the sight of helpless comrades being slaughtered, and it filled me with disgust.


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We moved rapidly in the open, amid craters and coral rubble, through ever increasing enemy fire… I clenched my teeth, squeezed my carbine stock, recited over and over to myself, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me” …


The sun bore down unmercifully… Smoke and dust from the barrage limited my vision. The ground seemed to sway back and forth under the concussions. I felt as though I were floating along in the vortex of some unreal thunderstorm. Japanese bullets snapped and cracked and tracers went by me on both sides at waist height…


The farther we went, the worse it got. The noise and concussion pressed in on my ears like a vise… It seemed impossible that any of us would make it across… To be shelled by massed artillery and mortars is absolutely terrifying, but to be shelled in the open is terror compounded beyond the belief of anyone who hasn't experienced it.  The attack on Peleliu’s airfield was the worst combat experience I had during the entire war.


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We moved on and finally halted near an abandoned Japanese machine gun bunker… We ate our rations, checked our weapons, and prepared for a long night… We felt isolated listening to the moisture dripping from the trees and splashing softly into the swamp. It was the darkest night I ever saw. The overcast sky was as black as the dripping mangroves that walled us in. I had the sensation of being in a great black hole and reaching out to touch the sides of the gun pit to orient myself. Slowly the reality of it all formed in my mind: we were expendable!


It was difficult to accept. We come from a nation and a culture that values life and the individual. To find oneself in a situation where your life seems of little value is the ultimate in loneliness.


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Even before the dust had settled I saw a Japanese soldier appear at the blasted opening. He was grim determination personified as he drew back his arm to throw a grenade at us. My carbine was already up. When he appeared, I lined up my sights on his chest and began squeezing off shots. As the first bullet hit him, his face contorted in agony. His knees buckled. The grenade slipped from his grasp. All the men near me…began firing. The soldier collapsed in the fusillade and the grenade went off at his feet…


I had just killed a man at close range. That I had seen clearly the pain on his face when my bullets hit him came as a jolt. It suddenly made the war a very personal affair. The expression on that man's face filled me with shame and disgust for the war and all the misery it was causing.


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Each morning just before sunrise, when things were fairly quiet, I could hear a steady humming sound like bees in a hive as the bluebottle flies became active with the onset of daylight. They rose up off the corpses, rocks, refuse, brush and wherever else they had settled for the night like a swarm of bees. Their numbers were incredible.


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During a lull the men stripped the packs and pockets of the enemy dead for souvenirs. This was a gruesome business, but Marines executed it in a most methodical manner. Helmet headbands were checked for flags, packs and pockets were emptied, and gold teeth were extracted.  Sabers, pistols and hari-kari knives were highly prized and carefully cared for until they could be sent to the folks back home or sold to some pilot or sailor for a far price.. 


The men gloated over, compared, and often swapped their prizes. It was a brutal, ghastly ritual the likes of which have occurred since ancient times on battlefields where the antagonists have possessed a profound mutual hatred. It was uncivilized, as is all war, and was carried out with that particular savagery that characterized the struggle between the Marines and the Japanese. It wasn't simply souvenir hunting or looting the enemy dead; it was more like Indian warriors taking scalps.


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While I was removing a bayonet and scabbard from a dead Japanese, I noticed a Marine… dragging what I assumed to be a corpse. But the Japanese wasn't dead. He had been wounded severely in the back and couldn't move his arms…


The Japanese's mouth glowed with huge gold-crowned teeth and his captor wanted them. He put the point of his kabar knife on the base of a tooth and hit the handle with the palm of his hand. Because the Japanese was kicking his feet and thrashing about, the knife point glanced off the tooth and sank deeply into the victim's mouth. The Marine cursed him and with a slash cut his cheeks open ear to ear. He put his foot on the sufferer's lower jaw and tried again. Blood poured out of the soldier's mouth…


I shouted, "Put the man out of his misery.' All I got for an answer was a cussing out. Another Marine ran up, put a bullet in the enemy soldier's brain, and ended his agony. The scavenger grumbled and continued extracting his prizes undisturbed.


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To the noncombatants and those on the periphery of action, the war meant only boredom or occasional excitement; but to those who entered the meat grinder itself, the war was a nether world of horror from which escape seemed less and less likely as casualties mounted and the fighting dragged on and on. Time had no meaning; life had no meaning. The fierce struggle for survival in the abyss of Peleliu eroded the veneer of civilization and made savages of us all. We existed in an environment totally incomprehensible to men behind the lines -- service troops and civilians.

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At first glance, the dead Japanese machine gunner appeared about to fire his deadly weapon. He still sat bolt upright in the proper firing position. Even in death his eyes stared widely along the gun sights… The crown of the gunner's skull had been blasted off.


As [a Company K rifleman and I] talked, I noticed a fellow mortarman sitting next to me. He held a handful of coral pebbles in his left hand. With his right hand, he idly tossed them into the open skull of a dead Japanese machine gunner. Each time his pitch was true, I heard a little splash of rainwater in the ghastly receptacle. My buddy tossed the coral chunks as casually as a boy casting pebbles into a puddle on some muddy road back home; there was nothing malicious in his action. The war had so brutalized us that it was beyond belief.


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[There were certain areas we moved into and out of several times as the campaign dragged along its weary, bloody course. In many such areas I became quite familiar with the sight of some particular enemy corpse, as if it were a landmark. It was gruesome to see the stages of decay proceed from just killed, to bloated, to maggot-infested rotting, to partially exposed bones --  like some biological clock marking the inexorable passage of time. On each occasion my company passed such a landmark, we were fewer in number.


 


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As I struggled upward [onto the boat] with my load of equipment, I felt like a weary insect climbing a vine. But at last I was crawling up out of the abyss of Peleliu!… I stowed my gear on my rack and went topside. The salt air was delicious to breathe. What a luxury to inhale long deep breaths of fresh clean air, air that wasn't heavy with the fetid stench of death… 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.


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OKINAWA

The weather was cool and there was the wonderful smell of pines, which reminded me of home. It was such a beautiful island; you really could not believe that there was going to be a battle there.


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A column of men approached us on the other side of the road – They were the army infantry from the 106th Regiment, 27th Infantry Division that we were relieving. Their tragic expressions revealed where they had been. They were dead beat, dirty and grisly, hollow-eyed and tight-faced…


As they filed past us, one tall, lanky fellow caught my eye and said in a weary voice, "It's hell up there, Marine."?


Nervous about what was ahead and a bit irritated that he might think I was a boot, I said with some impatience, "Yeah, I know. I was at Peleliu."?


He looked at me blankly and moved on.


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I found it more difficult to go back each time we squared away our gear to move forward into the zone of terror… And it wasn’t just dread of death or pain, because most men felt somehow they wouldn’t be killed… Each time we went up, I felt the sickening dread of fear itself and the revulsion at the ghastly scenes of pain and suffering among comrades that a survivor must witness. The increasing dread of going back into action obsessed me. It became the subject of the most tortuous and persistent of all the ghastly war nightmares that have haunted me for many, many years. The dream is always the same, going back up to the lines during the bloody month of May on Okinawa.


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On 8 May Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally. We were told the momentous news, but considering our own peril and misery, no one cared much. We were resigned only to the fact that the Japanese would fight to total extinction on Okinawa, as they had elsewhere, and that Japan would have to be invaded with the same gruesome prospects. Nazi Germany might as well have been on the moon.


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By twos and threes, the Company K men forming the front line eased onto a barren, muddy, shell-torn ridge named Half Moon Hill and into the foxholes of the company we were relieving….It was the most ghastly corner of hell I had ever witnessed…The place was choked with the putrefaction of death, decay and destruction. In a shallow defilade to our right…lay about twenty dead Marines, each on a stretcher and covered to his ankles with a poncho… but as I looked out I saw that other Marine dead couldn’t be tended properly. Every crater was half full of water, and many of them held a Marine corpse. The bodies lay pathetically just as they had been killed, half submerged in muck and water, rusting weapons still in hand. Everywhere lay Japanese corpses, killed in the fighting. Swarms of big flies hovered above them…For several feet around every corpse, maggots crawled about in the muck… I believed we had been flung into hell's own cesspool.


 


 If a Marine slipped and slid down the back slope of the muddy ridge, he was apt to reach the bottom vomiting. I saw more than one man … stand up horror stricken as he watched in disbelief while fat maggots tumbled out of his muddy dungaree pockets, cartridge belt, legging lacings and the like…. We didn't talk about such things. They were too horrible and obscene even for hardened veterans. The conditions taxed the toughest I knew almost to the point of screaming. Nor do authors normally write about such vileness…it is too preposterous to think that men could actually live and fight for days under such terrible conditions and not be driven insane. But I saw much of it there on Okinawa and to me the war was insanity.

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We thought the Japanese would never surrender. Many refused to believe it. Sitting in stunned silence, we remembered our dead. So many dead. So many maimed. So many bright futures consigned to the ashes of the past. So many dreams lost in the madness that had engulfed us. Except for a few widely scattered shouts of joy, the survivors of the abyss sat hollow-eyed and silent, trying to comprehend a world without war.