“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
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.
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.
One particularly grisly result of this mutual hatred was the way both sides engaged in the defiling of dead, and sometimes living, bodies. “We should remember that mutilation of the dead had been part of military behavior from the beginning of wars,” Hynes writes matter of factly. “If you kill your enemy, his body belongs to you, it’s part of the loot.” In the Pacific there was a brisk traffic in body parts that received an implicit benediction even from Life magazine. In 1944, Paul Fussell tells us, Life ran a full-page Ralph Crane photograph of a young American woman gazing rapturously at what the caption described as a “Jap skull…found on New Guinea” on her writing table, a memento sent to her in Phoenix by her sailor boyfriend.
The photograph is worth considering. The young woman is pensive and refined. She is wearing unobtrusive earrings and is fastidiously dressed in a light blazer and blouse. Her hair is perfectly coiffed, rolled into a pompadour, and held in place by a snood. She looks as if she might be the headmistress of a good private day school for girls, and she seems, like all young women of good breeding, pen in hand, to be framing a thank-you note to the sailor boyfriend. Saying that the skull was “found” dances around several uncomfortable questions. How was the skull separated from the torso to which it was attached? By whom? With what? Who scalped it? Who boiled the skin off the skull? Who then scrubbed it with wire brushes and various available caustics to make it suitable for sending? These were questions not asked on the European front. “I never heard,” Hynes writes, “of a GI cutting a souvenir off a German or an Italian corpse.”
Peleliu is a five-mile-long by two-mile-wide coral atoll shaped like a lobster’s claw. It was the optimistic projection of the Marine general in command that the battle would last no more than four days; it lasted two months. Sixteen thousand Marines faced off against eleven thousand Japanese, who had an interlocking defense covering every yard of unforgiving terrain with crosshatching fields of fire. Instead of meeting the Marines at water’s edge, the Japanese forced them to attack defensive positions back from the beach that had been blasted out of the coral over the preceding years; no position or cave or pillbox went uncontested. The temperature was 115 degrees; heat prostration would ultimately take as many Americans out of combat as wounds. On the amtrac taking him to the landing beach at Peleliu, Sledge was afraid that he would piss in his fatigues, revealing himself to be “the coward I was.” I doubt that anyone has ever analyzed the DNA of fear better or less self-consciously: stomach in knots, bowels loosened, bladder emptying, legs gelatinous, the sheer fetal-position, mind-unstabling terror of being under artillery or mortar fire. Shelling, Sledge writes, “tortured one’s mind almost beyond the brink of sanity.” And again: “To be shelled in the open is terror compounded beyond the belief of anyone who hasn’t experienced it.” His fear was not just of getting killed, but equally fear that one’s panic would compromise unit battle integrity, causing harm, even death, to fellow Marines. Sledge is too diffident to suggest that the suppression of this second fear is a major component of battlefield bravery.
Although keeping a diary was strictly against regulations, Sledge evaded the order by taking notes on scraps of paper and slipping them into a pocket-sized Gideon’s New Testament kept in a waterproof bag that he had “liberated” from the corpse of a Japanese soldier. He referred to the Gideon so often that his section mates thought he was a Bible whacker, when what he was actually doing was constantly updating his diary. His notes were all about battle and killing and the almost unbelievable inhumanity of man to man. It was the dawn of creation on the coral rock, an ethical as well as a geographical wasteland for combatants on both sides. Two examples, in Sledge’s own words:
The bodies [of three dead Marines] were badly decomposed and nearly blackened by exposure…. These Marines had been mutilated hideously by the enemy. One man had been decapitated. His head lay on his chest; his hands had been severed from his wrists and also lay on his chest…. The Japanese had cut off the dead man’s penis and stuffed it in his mouth. The corpse next to him had been treated similarly. The third had been butchered, chopped up like a carcass torn by some predatory animal.
The Marines delivered tit for tat. In a lull between engagements Sledge saw one dragging what he first assumed to be a Japanese 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 to each ear. He put his foot on the sufferer’s lower jaw and tried again. Blood poured out the soldier’s mouth. He made a gurgling noise and thrashed wildly. 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.
The only religion was survival. Every time K/3/5 moved up into a new position, Sledge would estimate how fierce the fighting had been for the company being relieved by the number of dead Marines lying under their ponchos. One night a Marine went mad, screaming that the Japanese were trying to drown him in the ocean. When neither fists nor a medic’s morphine could shut him up, an officer in the CP ordered him silenced with an entrenching tool lest his ravings reveal K/3/5’s position; in the morning it was discovered that whoever hit him had killed him. The sun was “like a giant heat lamp,” Sledge wrote; occasional rain flurries fell on the coral and “evaporated like steam off a hot pavement.”
Day after day, night after night, Marines were assaulted by the “putrid odor of rotting flesh.” The rock was so impenetrable, the combat so constant that latrines could not be dug; excrement was flung from where it was evacuated, its stench mixing with the putrefaction of the dead. Only the blowflies enjoyed Peleliu; the shit and the bloated unburied bodies provided a banquet that made “these nasty insects so large, so glutted, and so lazy that some could scarcely fly.”
K/3/5’s casualties mounted; the company commander was killed by a sniper, and by the time the unit was withdrawn after thirty days of facing down the Japanese, 150 of the 235 officers and men who came ashore the morning of the invasion were either dead or wounded, including five of the seven officers. Sledge found himself envying the dead: “The dead were safe.” Accepting the inevitability of death became a given: “We were expendable! It was difficult to accept. We came from a nation and a culture that values life and the individual. To find yourself in a situation where your life seems of little value is the ultimate in loneliness.” The “shock, horror, fear, and fatigue” wore him and his fellow Marines down physically and emotionally, reducing them to a near-zombie state:
I slowly turned my back to the men facing me, as I sat on my helmet, and put my hand in my face to try to shut out reality. I began sobbing…. My body shuddered and shook. I was sickened and revolted…. I felt I couldn’t take any more.
One is reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins: “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.”
At last the tattered survivors of K/3/5 were loaded on a troopship and sent to an island in the rear for retraining and the replenishing of its ranks with replacements as gung-ho as Sledge had been before he came to Peleliu. In all, the Peleliu campaign cost the lives of 1,252 Marines, with another 5,274 wounded; this did not include shell shock and heat prostration victims. Nearly the entire 11,000-man Japanese defense force was killed; only 302 were taken prisoner. In his rear area haven, Sledge’s superiors selected him as a possible officer candidate. Sledge told the interviewing officer that he would very much like to go home and attend OCS, that he had seen enough action on Peleliu to satisfy “my curiosity and ardor for fighting.” Asked, however, if as a junior platoon leader he could send men into a situation where he knew they would be killed, he replied, “I couldn’t do it, sir.”
PFC Sledge was returned to the mortar section of K/3/5 to prepare for the invasion of Okinawa.
Okinawa was the last great land battle of World War II, and in one sense the most important: the butcher’s bill for the eighty-three-day campaign was so high, the battle so vicious, the loss of life on both sides so profligate that it all but guaranteed dropping Little Boy on Hiroshima, thus beginning the nuclear age. By midwinter 1945, with the war in Europe slowly winding to its conclusion, the war against Japan was finally the main event. In February, three Marine divisions stormed Iwo Jima, an eleven-and-a-half-square-mile piece of rock and volcanic ash just 650 miles from the Japanese mainland; the cost was horrendous—nearly 7,000 dead Marines and almost 20,000 dead Japanese. The aim was to give General Curtis LeMay’s Twenty-First Bomber Command a base for the fighter planes escorting his B-29s and an island refuge where aircraft crippled in bombing attacks over the home islands could land rather than ditch in the Pacific; over 2,400 wounded B-29s did land on Iwo Jima, thus saving the lives of thousands of airmen. Flying out of the Marianas, LeMay’s B-29s were exacting a frightening cost, making good on his boast that he would bomb Japan “back into the Dark Ages.” On the night of March 9 and 10, his bombers started a firestorm in Tokyo that killed 197,000 people and left a million more homeless; some of the dead boiled to death in overheated ponds and canals where they had sought refuge against the firestorm.
LeMay, as usual, was not at a loss for an apocalyptic metaphor. The Japanese, he said, were “scorched and boned and baked to death.” Such bombast was meant for civilian consumption; the closer one got to harm’s way the more skepticism there was about command rhetoric and wartime slogan-eering. On his way to Okinawa, Samuel Hynes, not yet twenty-one, dropped by an officers’ club bar at the Eniwetok naval anchorage. Mounted on a board over the bar like a stuffed fish was an enormous woman’s brassiere, and burned into the wood backing were the words “Remember Pearl Olson.”
The Okinawa invasion was designated L-Day rather than D-Day—L standing for “Love” in the military phonetic alphabet then in use—and was scheduled for April 1, April Fool’s Day, which also happened to be Easter Sunday; love and Easter and April Fool’s seem in retrospect particularly inappropriate for the carnage that was to follow. It would be the first battle ever fought by foreigners on Japanese territory—Okinawa (which means “piece of offshore rope”) was politically, although not culturally, a part of Japan, and was just 350 miles from Kyushu, the southernmost of the home islands. The invasion armada was the largest of the Pacific war—1,457 ships, including forty-plus aircraft carriers, eighteen battleships, scores of cruisers and support craft, 150 destroyers and destroyer escorts, and 430 troopships and landing craft carrying an invasion force of 567,000 men—four Army divisions and three Marine—50,000 of whom would go ashore on L-Day after five days and nights of naval and air bombardment.
Called the Tenth Army, the ground troops were under the command of Army Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., the son of a Confederate general who later became governor of Kentucky. Buckner’s Tenth would face a garrison of 77,000 men, deeply dug into a labyrinth of hill forts that were like underground land battleships and all but impervious to the heaviest aerial bomb or sixteen-inch naval shell. Some were two-tiered with living quarters, ventilation shafts, and running water, and were connected to each other by a network of caves; one section alone was found to contain sixteen hidden light mortars, eighty-three light machine guns, forty-one heavy machine guns, seven antitank guns, six field guns, two mortars, and two howitzers, along with attendant supplies of food and ammunition. Iwo had proved, if it still needed proving, that the closer the war got to the homeland, the more determined the Japanese commanders were to fight to the death. Seventy thousand Japanese troops died on Okinawa; the toll of civilian dead was estimated at between 62,000 and 150,000 of the island’s population of 460,000. Over 12,000 American soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen were killed on land, sea, and in the air.
Few of the defenders knew of the disastrous defeat the Japanese navy had suffered at the battle of Midway three years earlier, or that the remainder of the Imperial Navy had been largely destroyed since, and thus would be unavailable to engage the American fleet offshore. In the absence of a navy, the Japanese had to rely on the Divine Wind—the Kamikaze Corps. First introduced, not too successfully, during the invasion of the Philippines, the kamikaze idea had been perfected by the time of Okinawa—if there is any way to perfect suicide. All that was needed was a plane and a pilot willing to crash that plane into a ship, setting it afire with its fuel and the bombs it carried. Finding pilots to volunteer was no problem; their commanding admiral called them the “treasures of the nation.” Piercing the air cover and withering antiaircraft screen was another matter—less than 10 percent of the kamikazes got through—but they still managed to sink thirty-six ships off Okinawa, damage 368 others (including the heavy cruiser Indianapolis, flagship of Vice-Admiral Raymond Spruance, commander of the Fifth Fleet), and kill nearly five thousand officers and men—more than twice the number killed at Pearl Harbor.
Kamikazes, said an English historian, introduced an element of personal threat “absent from naval warfare since the days of boarding and hand-to-hand fighting.” The New York Times military writer Hanson Baldwin had a less romantic assessment:
The battle for Okinawa can be described only in the grim superlatives of war. Never before had there been…such a vicious sprawling struggle of planes against planes, of ships against planes. Never before, in so short a space, had the Navy lost so many ships; never before in land fighting had so much American blood been shed in so short a time on so small an area; probably never before in any three months of the war had the enemy suffered so hugely.
What is so baffling about the Okinawa campaign is how effectively it seems to have been erased from the national memory; five weeks after the island was officially secured, Little Boy cast the battle into a historical limbo, as if it were fought with sword and musket. Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Iwo Jima were the glamour names of the island war; Okinawa was only the last one. There was no planting of the stars and stripes as there was on Mount Suribachi, no monument in Washington visited by tourists; there was just the relentless killing, so many dead that one had the sense of a battle lost, the colors struck.
It is one of the many considerable virtues of George Feifer’s The Battle of Okinawa: The Blood and the Bomb that he both addresses and redresses history’s indifference to this last gruesome battle. First published in 1992 as Tennozan (Japanese for “decisive struggle”), the book has been updated with new material that makes what was an appalling story nine years ago when I first read it even more ghastly and forceful and apposite today, when once more America is sending its young into foreign fields and hostile skies.
Feifer never served in the military, unlike Hynes and Sledge, both of whom he quotes with telling effect. Their view of Okinawa was that of the grunt and the subaltern. Sledge never had any idea of overall strategy, what he scornfully calls “putting pins on a map” at the regimental CP. Occasionally there was scuttlebutt from company runners, but all he really knew was that his life depended on the Marine who shared his hole and after that his loyalty was to the men in his mortar section. In the line the Marines were bunched so close together that there was scarcely an arm’s length between foxholes. Hynes’s war was fought hundreds of feet above the battlefield, often on night missions when he was ordered to attack any light—a fire, a headlight, an open door, someone brewing a cup of tea or lighting his way to a crapper; one night he reported to his squadron intelligence officer that he had scored a direct hit on a three-hole privy.
Feifer’s gift is the ability to take personal stories such as those of Sledge and Hynes and use them to punctuate his narrative of the larger campaign. To the Marines and to the Navy, Okinawa might have been less of a killing field had a more imaginative general than Buckner been in command. Buckner was a veteran of the First World War, and his military learning curve seemed to have ended with the full frontal assault. On Okinawa, it was as costly as it had been at the Somme or Passchendaele. The island’s “southern landscape,” Feifer writes, “was studded with hill turrets that repelled assaults like the posts of a pinball machine.” Like Field Marshal Haig, who might have been his mentor, Buckner persevered. “You won’t see spectacular advances,” he told reporters, “because this isn’t that kind of fighting.” Under the strain of continuous kamikaze attacks, the Navy grew increasingly restive. Admiral Nimitz, CINCPAC, complained that Buckner’s snail’s pace offense was costing the fleet “a ship and a half a day.” By mid-May, 14 million tons of bombs had been dropped on Japanese positions to no apparent effect except to the countryside and the civilian population. The ancient culture of Okinawa, Hynes writes,
had simply been erased from the earth by the bombing and shelling…. The island I saw…was only a place to fight a battle…. This was once a landscape; now it’s an anti-landscape, a space that can be defined only by war’s destructions—the bodies and the shell craters. There are no living creatures, no human habitations, no cultivated fields, not a tree or a road or a fence…. In its devastation it resembles the anti-landscape of the Somme; but with a difference. A mile or two behind the lines on the Somme, there were towns and fields untouched by the war, where a man might go to find ordinary life…. There was no such place, no such life on Okinawa.
In K/3/5, new junior officers “got hit so soon and so fast,” Sledge writes, “that it seemed to me that the position of second lieutenant in a rifle company had been made obsolete.” Respect for the chain of command had been drummed into him since boot camp, and it pained him to suggest that some of these neophyte officers were simply no damn good, playing at war “as if it were a mixture of football and boy scout camp-out.” The worst of them was his new section leader, an Ivy League lieutenant who tested his marksmanship with a carbine by trying to shoot the head off the penis of a dead Japanese soldier, and whose idea of toughness was urinating into the mouths of enemy corpses. “I was ashamed,” Sledge said, “that he was a Marine officer.”
Replacement riflemen were killed even before they could be picked up on the company roster. “They came up confused, frightened and hopeful, got wounded or killed, and went right back to the rear on the route by which they had come, shocked, bleeding or stiff,” Sledge remembers. “They were forlorn figures, coming up to the meat grinder and going right back out of it like homeless waifs, unknown and faceless to us, like unread books on a shelf.”
Shuri Heights, Half Moon Hill, Wana, the Horse Shoe, Sugar Loaf Hill—the engagements all blended into one. Sledge lost track of the time; torrential rain turned the ground into a quagmire. Maggots invaded both the living and the dead, tumbling out of “muddy dungaree pockets, cartridge belt, legging lacings, and the like.” Artillery shells unearthed half-buried bodies and blew newer, smaller chunks into other holes. Unburied Japanese corpses turned into mummies in the heat, a Japanese veteran reported to Feifer: “Adult faces shrunk to the size of a child’s and turned black, except for the teeth, which shone white.” The stench of death “saturated my nostrils,” Sledge recalled with a shudder. “I existed from moment to moment, sometimes thinking death would be preferable….”
There was, however, a lunatic side to the Okinawa campaign that might have been masterminded by Catch-22’s Milo Minderbinder. Supply ships carried millions of candy bars; eight million leaflets were dropped on Japanese positions, some bringing the latest skinny from the home front: “Night Baseball Revived in America” or “Shirley Temple Engaged.” Inch by inch, yard by yard, Japanese defenders were forced to retreat to the southernmost part of the island. Fight to the death was a fact, not a slogan. Japanese officers committed seppuku, or ritual suicide, rather than surrender, and enlisted men blew themselves up with hand grenades or jumped off cliffs into the ocean and certain death. Blasted out of their homes, tens of thousands of them already dead, civilians killed themselves by the hundreds, perhaps thousands, convinced by their leaders that the Americans would exterminate them if they survived.
Still the remaining Japanese fought on without quarter. American officers did not wear sidearms and tried not to use binoculars, both of which would identify their command function and make them prime targets. It was a precaution that Buckner failed to take when he visited a forward position on June 18. Across a ridge, the last surviving gun crew of a Japanese heavy artillery battery spotted him and several of his officers as they peered through their binoculars at a Marine unit. The gun fired five rounds. Buckner was hit and bled to death before he could be evacuated; he was the highest-ranking American officer killed during the war.
The colors were finally raised on Oki- nawa’s bloody and terrible southern tip on June 22, although it was not until July 2 that Buckner’s replacement, Lieutenant General Joseph (“Vinegar Joe”) Stillwell, announced that the campaign was officially over. Planning for Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyushu, the southernmost of the home islands, scheduled for November 1, was already advanced, with thirteen divisions scheduled for the landing on November 1; Operation Coronet, the invasion of Honshu, Japan’s main island, was set for March 1946, with sixteen divisions in the landing force. Then at 5:30 AM on July 16, in a test code-named Trinity, an experimental nuclear device was detonated in the remote Jornada del Muerto Valley northeast of Alamogordo, New Mexico, and three weeks later, on August 6, Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima. Russia declared war on Japan two days later, and the following day, Fat Man was exploded over Nagasaki. On August 15, Emperor Hirohito surrendered and the Second World War came to an end.
“Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” Paul Fussell wrote years later. He had been seriously wounded as an infantry lieutenant in Europe, and after recovering he was training to participate in Operation Coronet. His was a sentiment shared almost unanimously by the troops who would invade Kyushu and Honshu; officers and men had all heard the stories about the ferocity of the combat on Okinawa and were calculating their chances of survival against Japanese forces fighting on their home soil. Sledge, untouched in two campaigns, thought the law of averages would surely catch up with him. Hiroshima left him “with an indescribable sense of relief…. 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 engulfed us…. The survivors of the abyss sat hollow-eyed and silent, trying to comprehend a world without war.”
Almost immediately after Hiroshima, the unremitting horror of the Pacific campaign began to slip even what tenuous claim it had on American attention. America had quite naturally been Eurocentric: Europe was the place from which its people emigrated, or fled; the homeland where allegiances of blood and history remained. The comfort of history was in large part why the Pacific war has never entered the Zeitgeist the same way the European war did. In 1917, as American troops paraded in Paris on their way to the trenches, General John J. Pershing stood before the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette, and said, in thanks for the sustenance he had given George Washington during the American Revolution, “Lafayette, we are here.” (Pershing always claimed an aide made the remark, but he gets the credit because he was in command.) No American general ever stepped ashore in the Pacific and said, “People of Kwajalein (or the Carolines or the Marianas or the Palaus), we are here.”
There was also the untenability of island combat. Japanese defenders did not engage in any traditional kind of combat, Fussell wrote in Wartime: “It was suicide stubbornly protracted.” Although a military rule of thumb is that 30 percent casualties are the most a unit can endure over a prolonged period while still maintaining its combat dynamic, one Marine regiment on Oki- nawa sustained losses of 82 percent, and a battalion of 1,145 men picked up three thousand Marines on its morning reports in less than three months; in other words, each man in its normal complement had been replaced twice. K/3/5 was removed with only twenty-six remaining of the Peleliu veterans who landed on L-Day.
In the softening of retrospect, the European theater is the war of that treacly concoction, “the Greatest Generation,” while the Pacific is seen to have fast-forwarded from December 7, 1941, to the Japanese surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri four years later in Tokyo Bay; Pearl Harbor is remembered, but what is a Ulithi or an Ie Shima or a Ngesebus? The Greatest Gen lends itself to the sentimental claptrap of Peggy Noonan’s “Boys of Pointe du Hoc” speech, celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Omaha Beach, an address written by a speechwriter for a president who spent his years in uniform making propaganda movies in Los Angeles. “They knew some things were worth dying for,” Noonan wrote. “They knew…that one’s country is worth dying for and that democracy is worth dying for because it is the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man.” At Normandy in 1984, Ronald Reagan knocked the speech out of the park. One is reminded, however, of Sledge as he contemplated rows of dead Marines on Peleliu waiting for graves registration to identify and tag them. “I recalled some of the eloquent phrases of politicians and newsmen about how ‘gallant’ it is for a man to ‘shed his blood for his country’ and ‘to give his life’s blood as a sacrifice,'” he wrote wear-ily. “The words seemed so ridiculous. Only the flies benefited.”
These are thoughts to hold when the country is once again unexpectedly at war. The campaign in the Pacific is the model to keep in mind. It was a war of hate as this will be. The kamikazes were the primitive precursors of those more technically sophisticated suicide pilots who crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing more people in half an hour than the Divine Wind did when it sank and damaged over four hundred ships off Okinawa. Patriotism is abroad in the land; in print and on the airwaves, men who were not inclined to serve as PFCs or platoon leaders in Vietnam talk about “taking out” not only Osama bin Laden but any number of foreign leaders. Those who preen about “taking out” have all the bravado of the K/3/5 lieutenant who peed in the mouths of Japanese corpses.
At a memorial service ten days after the WTC tragedy, I ran into a friend, another old Marine who had enlisted after Pearl Harbor and served in the Pacific. Many of the mourners were wearing lapel flags or red, white, and blue ribbons. “You know,” he said, “patriotism is easy. It’s war that’s hard.” If there is anything we can take away from these three remarkable books by E.B. Sledge, Samuel Hynes, and George Feifer, it is exactly how hard war is.
December 20, 2001