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The Hardest War

For most Americans, the war was about revenge against the Japanese, and the reason the European part had to be finished first was so the maximum attention could be devoted to the real business, the absolute torment and destruction of the Japanese. The slogan was conspicuously Remember Pearl Harbor. No one ever shouted or sang Remember Poland.”

—Paul Fussell, Wartime

1.

E.B. Sledge died of cancer on March 2, this year. Dr. Sledge—he was a professor of microbiology, specializing in ornithology, at a small college in Shelby County, Alabama—was seventy-seven. His death went unreported by The New York Times, and I learned of it only recently when my wife, browsing the Internet, happened upon a terse nine-line obituary that appeared in The Washington Post four days after he died. “Eugene B. Sledge,” the headline read, “Marine Memoirist.” The memoir was called With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa. The title is like the book itself, without artifice: it is simple, precise, unsophisticated, unliterary, a war remembrance without tricks or hurrah. Of all the books about the ground war in the Pacific, it is the closest to a masterpiece. First published in 1981, and then reissued in 1990 with an introduction by Paul Fussell, the book “haunted” John Keegan: “His account of the struggle of a gently-raised teenager to remain a civilised human being in circumstances which reduced comrades—whom he nevertheless loved—to ‘twentieth-century savages’ is one of the most arresting documents in war literature,” Keegan wrote in The Second World War, “all the more moving because of the painful difficulty someone who is not a natural writer found in recreating his experience on paper.”

The old breed: “They were the Leathernecks,…the old breed of American regular, regarding the service as home and war as an occupation.” The line comes from a 1926 book called Fix Bayonets, and it sets Sledge’s tone. His father was a doctor in Alabama, and on both sides he was the grandson of Confederate officers. Sledge listened classical music, he hunted, he was well-mannered, and he did not swear. Unlike his earthier fellow Marines he did not say “fuck” or “shit,” a rarity in any branch of the military, and when quoting the dialogue of some of his comrades, he used “stuff” for the latter, and translated the acronym “SNAFU” as “situation normal all fouled up.” At the time of Pearl Harbor, he was eighteen, a college student. A year later he enlisted in the Marines; asked by the recruiting sergeant if he had any scars or distinguishing marks, he wondered why the question was asked and was told, “So they can identify you on some Pacific beach after the Japs blast off your dog tags.” Sledge was sent to a two-year V-12 program at Georgia Tech, from which he would eventually emerge as a candidate second lieutenant, but he purposely flunked out and was sent to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, from which he hoped, as a Marine private, to get into action more quickly.

Marines are different: ask one and he will be the first to tell you. Their recruit training is the American military’s equivalent of the French Foreign Legion. “Remorseless close-order drill hour after hour in the burning sun,” remembers William Styron, an enlisted Marine in World War II and an officer recalled to active duty during Korea, featuring “mental and physical abuse,…frequent sadism at the hands of drill sergeants, all the claustrophobic and terrifying insults to the spirit” that made boot camp “one of the closest things in the free world to a concentration camp.” Styron knew a gunnery sergeant who carried the prunelike testicles of a Japanese soldier in his pocket, “the size of peach pits.” He had removed them from their owner with his bayonet on some Pacific battleground and he fondled them as if they were “worry beads.”

And yet. “It is for me a touchstone of the Marine Corps’ fatal glamour,” Styron writes, “…that there is no ex-Marine of my acquaintance…who does not view the training as a cru-cible out of which he emerged in some way more resilient, simply braver and better for the wear.” A boot camp graduate was, quite simply, a killing machine. Philip Caputo, a Marine lieutenant in Vietnam and author of A Rumor of War, recalls a drill sergeant who made his charges chant, at the top of their lungs, “Ambushes are murder and murder is fun.” One of Sledge’s sergeants, a fifty-year-old World War I veteran, scrubbed his genitals with a GI brush in the shower, “the way one buffs a shoe.” To the foxhole Marines, those gyrenes not in a rifle company—and that included anyone in the command structure beyond their company CP, anyone fifty yards behind the front line, even the artillerymen who laid down covering fire—were what they called REMFs, rear-echelon motherfuckers.

After advanced infantry training, Sledge, now nicknamed “Sledgehammer,” shipped out to the Pacific, where he was assigned as a replacement to the mortar section of K/3/5—King Company, Third Battalion, Fifth Regiment, First Marine Division, which had already fought, and taken heavy losses, at Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester. His trial by fire, in mid-September 1944, would be an amphibious landing at Peleliu, in the Palaus, an island chain in the western Pacific. The conquest of Peleliu was designed to anchor General MacArthur’s right flank for his invasion of the Philippines in October, and to provide an extra airfield to support his troops on Leyte. As it happened, both the anchor and the airfield were extraneous to MacArthur’s needs. In spite of advice to scrub the operation, Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief Pacific (or CINCPAC), allowed it to proceed because the invasion fleet was already at sea and could not be recalled.

The result was a pointless and bloody fiasco.

2.

It would be useful here to consider the differences between combat in the Pacific and combat in the European and North African theaters. As late as the fall of 1944, the Pacific was still a distraction in the overall American war effort. Only 30 percent of the country’s arsenal was allocated to the fight against Japan, and even that was grudgingly granted. The names of the Central Pacific battlefields—Tarawa, Makin, Kwajalein, Eniwetok, Peleliu—were just dots on a map, many half the size of Manhattan. Politics had relegated the war in the Pacific to a back burner, however high the flame. Stalin was demanding a second front to relieve his embattled Russian army, and was impatient with both the Pacific hopscotch from island to island and what he regarded as the sideshows in Italy and Churchill’s proposed feints into the “soft underbelly” of Europe. By the time of D-Day, however, Stalin’s enthusiasm for a second front had dampened; he thought the Russians could win the war in Europe by themselves without Overlord (the code name for the Normandy invasion). For Roosevelt and Churchill, the idea of the Russian army west of the Rhine was a source not just of concern but of dread. Their separate assessments intuited what Stalin had told Yugoslavia’s Tito, according to Milovan Djilas: “Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach. It cannot be otherwise.” Politically and diplomatically, as well as militarily, Overlord, on June 6, 1944, was the Allied priority, not Saipan or Tinian or Rota or Guam, that summer’s Pacific invasions.

The Pacific campaigns were also fought in places previously unknown to the Americans fighting and dying there, remote from the cultures and history from which they sprung and with which they were familiar. Nowhere have these cultural and historical differences between the Atlantic and Pacific theaters been defined better than by Samuel Hynes in The Soldiers’ Tale, an exhilarating literary analysis of combatant diaries and memoirs from both world wars and Vietnam. Hynes, Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature Emeritus at Princeton, is another Marine veteran, a former twenty-year-old lieutenant and TBM pilot on Okinawa who, like Styron, was called back into uniform during Korea. “In North Africa, you went back to rest in Cairo or Alexandria, where an ancient Mediterranean culture began,” he writes.

The Pacific war wasn’t like that…. The islands were remote…the landscapes…hostile to Westerners…. Out there the war life was all there was: no history was visible, no monuments of the past, no cities remembered from books. There was nothing there to remind a soldier of his other life: no towns, no bars, nowhere to go, nowhere even to desert to.

Even the air war was different. It was equally frightening in both theaters, but a disabled bomber or fighter over Germany at least gave its air crew a chance to bail out and wind up in a prisoner-of-war camp. In the Pacific, there was that “feeling that comes from flying in an empty sky over an empty, endless ocean,” Hynes writes, his aviator memories still agonizingly fresh fifty years later:

Out there, the enemy first had to be found—a cluster of ships somewhere in all that space; and after the attack the planes had to find their way home, to another cluster somewhere over the horizon, and reach their own carrier while they still had enough fuel to land—if the carrier was still afloat after the enemy’s attack. It was a flying war of intense insecurity and uncertainty, as fearful as the European bombers’ war, but different—emptier, more remote from any familiar, comfortable thing, and with its own special kind of fear: where is safety, in all this space? Why fly one way rather than another? What will happen to me if I don’t find the ship? There ought to be a psychological name for this sense of a self astray in vastness—the speck-in-space syndrome—will that do?

In Europe and the Mediterranean, combat was a war of movement and maneuver, armies and strategy and logistics; Big Steel and Willow Run and the American assembly line against the Wehrmacht. Island warfare did not allow for parry and thrust and grand offensive schemes; on those tiny coral outcroppings it was slogging and slugging it out—hand to hand, cave to cave, pillbox to pillbox, knife to knife. Digging in was virtually impossible; entrenching tools were more useful for batting the brains out of an enemy slithering into your position and trying to slit your throat in the night than they were for hacking a foxhole out of the rock.

There was something else different between the two theaters: the unequivocal and uncompromising hatred between the Japanese military and the forces—American, British, and Australian—arrayed against them, “a hatred,” Hynes says, “untempered by time.” Some of it was undoubtedly racial; a pamphlet assured Marines that “the Jap is much too short to enter the Marine Corps.” Even so gentle and gentlemanly a Marine as Sledge was seared by the rage:

This collective attitude, Marine and Japanese, resulted in savage, ferocious fighting with no holds barred. This was not the dispassionate killing seen on other fronts or in other wars. This was a brutish, primitive hatred, as characteristic of the war in the Pacific as the palm trees and the islands.

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