Wednesday, May 1, 2013

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene Sledge

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene Sledge

Just finished reading for the second time; With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene B. Sledge. This book was one of the two books that was used as a source material for the Pacific series of HBO. The other being Robert Leckie's Helmet for my pillow. After seeing the series I wanted to read the books to delve further into the experience that these men had fighting the war in the Pacific.

Eugene B. Sledge, from Mobile Alabama served primarily as a mortar man in King Company, 5 Marines of the 1st Marine Division. On occasion he would serve the dangerous job of being a stretcher bearer as well as a rifle man. This book details his experience from boot camp to the two campaigns that he underwent as a member of the 1st Marine Division. This book was initially supposed to be a personal account of the war for his family, but his wife Jeanne suggested that it could be of interest to other people, and so personal memoir was born.

These two campaigns were at Peleliu and Okinawa and both were assessed as one of the most bloodiest and difficult campaigns of the Pacific War. This was owing to the amount of wounded and men killed as well as the physical hardships brought about by the weather and the terrain.

If we look at it further, this could be primarily because the tide had turned in the Pacific in favor for the Allies. The US Industrial might was churning into full speed and materially and technologically they have become more superior than Imperial Japan. The Pacific War turned into a war of attrition, where for every defeat, he who could not replace the men and material they lost was destined to lose the war. Japan lacked the industrial capacity (it was said that it was 10:1 in favor of the US) and the raw materials to continue building war materials.

But despite the technical superiority in man and materials you would think that the ensuing conflict would have made the final periods of the war more easier, it didn't. One reason is that because the tables were turned, the Americans were now on the offensive and the Japanese the defensive. Sun Tzu's The Art of War always said never to fight a desperate foe, because these men know that they have nothing to lose. The Japanese of World War II could have added another paragraph in Sun Tzu's book on fighting against fanatical men, men who believed that they fought for a god and would have gladly paid with their lives rather than to be captured or to surrender.

The Battle of Peleliu holds the distinction of being the battle where the Japanese had changed their tactics. Long gone were the fatalistic Banzai charges that sought to overwhelm defenders by sheer mass of numbers. Instead what they employed were mutually defensive and well hidden positions in hollowed caves. They took advantage of terrain and built tunnels to interconnect their defenses. The most important weapon of all was the thought that they knew that they weren't going to win, they just wanted to make the Allies pay a higher price in blood for every Japanese soldier killed. To whittle done the resolve of the Allies and the American public so that when the time for the invasion of Japan would come (Allied command were estimating 1 million soldiers would be lost during the invasion of Japan) so that a brokered peace could be won. Perhaps, they knew they were going to lose anyway, and that they just wanted to keep as much of their captured empire as they could and that could only be done in a negotiating table.

It was at Peleliu that King Company lost its beloved Company Commander, Capt Andrew "Ack Ack" Haldane. Eugene B. Sledge talks highly of the man and details it further in his book. But proof of how well loved he was can be seen in the opening pages of this book, where Sledge dedicates the book to the memory of his fallen commander and to the men of the 1st Marine Division. Capt Haldane got shot by a sniper when he poked his head out of cover while trying to ascertain the enemy's position. In the tv series, there was one scene in Pavuvu when K Company had returned from the Battle of Peleliu, where an officer is seen throwing personal effects in disgust into a trashbin and Sledge coming over to see what it was and seeing in it a book by Hemingway that belonged to Capt. Haldane and also throwing it away in a bout of sadness. I always wondered if this was a true account or just "dramatic effect" added in by the director, turns out that this scene really did happen.

The strength of the book lies in the graphic details that Eugene Sledge was able to describe the deplorable conditions of the battlefield, the brutality and bestiality of the fighting. Most especially the barbarism that the Imperial Japanese leaders ordered their soldiers to employ. One narrative in particular that I can't seem to forget was the way Sledge described the Japanese soldiers practice of desecrating corpses. In one instance he saw some marine corpses lying by the road waiting to be picked up. But this did not stop some Japanese soldiers from skewering and chopping up the already lifeless bodies and stuffed some of their body parts into the dead corpses mouths as a sign of insult. Even medics and stretcher bearers were not spared from withering fire and even attracted it. You can just imagine how these intense acts of barbarism inflamed further the already scalding hatred the Marines had for the Japanese.

Another thing I learned from this book was the way weather and climate bore down on the spirit of a man in combat and added greatly to his misery and fatigue. In Peleliu it was the intense heat, the lack of a natural source of water and the hard coral ground that prevented a man from digging a proper cover from the intense bombardment and machine gun fire. In Okinawa it was the incessant rain and mud. Then there was also the corpses and rotting flesh that brought the maggots and flies. Because of the rains and the intense bombardment that made roads impassable, it was impossible to move the corpses to the rear echelon areas for proper care. All of this combined with the length of stay of a soldier in the forward area, under the intense fire and shelling could break a man down.

After reading this book, it reinforced my belief of the brutality of war. In times of war all norms are lost and men will have no recourse but to rely on instinct and raw animalism in order to survive. It reinforces your sense of responsibility and of duty, to make sure to elect leaders into place that will guarantee that events like these will never happen again in our lifetime.