« Administration: Fourmilab Server Updated to AWS Linux 2 | Main | Reading List: Spymaster »

Monday, September 10, 2018

Reading List: With the Old Breed

Sledge, E[ugene] B[ondurant]. With the Old Breed. New York: Presidio Press, [1981] 2007. ISBN 978-0-89141-906-8.
When the United States entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the author was enrolled at the Marion Military Institute in Alabama preparing for an officer's commission in the U.S. Army. Worried that the war might end before he was able to do his part, in December, 1942, still a freshman at Marion, he enrolled in a Marine Corps officer training program. The following May, after the end of his freshman year, he was ordered to report for Marine training at Georgia Tech on July 1, 1943. The 180 man detachment was scheduled to take courses year-round then, after two years, report to Quantico to complete their officers' training prior to commission.

This still didn't seem fast enough (and, indeed, had he stayed with the program as envisioned, he would have missed the war), so he and around half of his fellow trainees neglected their studies, flunked out, and immediately joined the Marine Corps as enlisted men. Following boot camp at a base near San Diego, he was assigned to infantry and sent to nearby Camp Elliott for advanced infantry training. Although all Marines are riflemen (Sledge had qualified at the sharpshooter level during basic training), newly-minted Marine infantrymen were, after introduction to all of the infantry weapons, allowed to choose the one in which they would specialise. In most cases, they'd get their first or second choice. Sledge got his first: the 60 mm M2 mortar which he, as part of a crew of three, would operate in combat in the Pacific. Mortarmen carried the M1 carbine, and this weapon, which fired a less powerful round than the M1 Garand main battle rifle used by riflemen, would be his personal weapon throughout the war.

With the Pacific island-hopping war raging, everything was accelerated, and on February 28th, 1944, Sledge's 46th Replacement Battalion (the name didn't inspire confidence—they would replace Marines killed or injured in combat, or the lucky few rotated back to the U.S. after surviving multiple campaigns) shipped out, landing first at New Caledonia, where they received additional training, including practice amphibious landings and instruction in Japanese weapons and tactics. At the start of June, Sledge's battalion was sent to Pavuvu island, base of the 1st Marine Division, which had just concluded the bloody battle of Cape Gloucester.

On arrival, Sledge was assigned as a replacement to the 1st Marine Division, 5th Regiment, 3rd Battalion. This unit had a distinguished combat record dating back to the First World War, and would have been his first choice if he'd been given one, which he hadn't. He says, “I felt as though I had rolled the dice and won.” This was his first contact with what he calls the “Old Breed”: Marines, some of whom had been in the Corps before Pearl Harbor, who had imbibed the traditions of the “Old Corps” and survived some of the most intense combat of the present conflict, including Guadalcanal. Many of these veterans had, in the argot of the time, “gone Asiatic”: developed the eccentricities of who had seen and lived things those just arriving in theatre never imagined, and become marinated in deep hatred for the enemy based upon personal experience. A glance was all it took to tell the veterans from the replacements.

After additional training, in late August the Marines embarked for the assault on the island of Peleliu in the Palau Islands. The tiny island, just 13 square kilometres, was held by a Japanese garrison of 10,900, and was home to an airfield. Capturing the island was considered essential to protect the right flank of MacArthur's forces during the upcoming invasion of the Philippines, and to secure the airfield which could support the invasion. The attack on Peleliu was fixed for 15 September 1944, and it would be Sledge's first combat experience.

From the moment of landing, resistance was fierce. Despite an extended naval bombardment, well-dug-in Japanese defenders engaged the Marines as they hit the beaches, and continued as they progressed into the interior. In previous engagements with the Japanese, they had adopted foolhardy and suicidal tactics such as mass frontal “banzai” charges into well-defended Marine positions. By Peleliu, however, they had learned that this did not work, and shifted their strategy to defence in depth, turning the entire island into a network of defensive positions, covering one another, and linked by tunnels for resupply and redeploying forces. They were prepared to defend every square metre of territory to the death, even after their supplies were cut off and there was no hope of relief. Further, Marines were impressed by the excellent fire discipline of the Japanese—they did not expend ammunition firing blindly but chose their shots carefully, and would expend scarce supplies such as mortar rounds only on concentrations of troops or high value targets such as tanks and artillery.

This, combined with the oppressive heat and humidity, lack of water and food, and terror from incessant shelling by artillery by day and attacks by Japanese infiltrators by night, made the life of the infantry a living Hell. Sledge chronicles this from the viewpoint of a Private First Class, not an officer or historian after the fact. He and his comrades rarely knew precisely where they were, where the enemy was located, how other U.S. forces on the island were faring, or what the overall objectives of the campaign were. There was simply a job to be done, day by day, with their best hope being to somehow survive it. Prior to the invasion, Marine commanders estimated the island could be taken in four days. Rarely in the Pacific war was a forecast so wrong. In fact, it was not until November 27th that the island was declared secured. The Japanese demonstrated their willingness to defend to the last man. Of the initial force of 10,900 defending the island, 10,695 were killed. Of the 220 taken prisoner, 183 were foreign labourers, and only 19 were Japanese soldiers and sailors. Of the Marine and Army attackers, 2,336 were killed and 8,450 wounded. The rate of U.S. casualties exceeded those of all other amphibious landings in the Pacific, and the Battle of Peleliu is considered among the most difficult ever fought by the Marine Corps.

Despite this, the engagement is little-known. In retrospect, it was probably unnecessary. The garrison could have done little to threaten MacArthur's forces and the airfield was not required to support the Philippine campaign. There were doubts about the necessity and wisdom of the attack before it was launched, but momentum carried it forward. None of these matters concerned Sledge and the other Marines in the line—they had their orders, and they did their job, at enormous cost. Sledge's company K landed on Peleliu with 235 men. It left with only 85 unhurt—a 64% casualty rate. Only two of its original seven officers survived the campaign. Sledge was now a combat veteran. He may not have considered himself one of the “Old Breed”, but he was on the way to becoming one of them to the replacements who arrived to replace casualties in his unit.

But for the survivors of Peleliu, the war was far from over. While some old-timers for whom Peleliu was their third campaign were being rotated Stateside, for the rest it was recuperation, refitting, and preparation for the next amphibious assault: the Japanese island of Okinawa. Unlike Peleliu, which was a tiny dot on the map, Okinawa was a large island with an area of 1207 square kilometres and a pre-war population of around 300,000. The island was defended by 76,000 Japanese troops and 20,000 Okinawan conscripts fighting under their orders. The invasion of Okinawa on April 1, 1945 was the largest amphibious landing in the Pacific war.

As before, Sledge does not present the big picture, but an infantryman's eye view. To the astonishment of all involved, including commanders who expected 80–85% casualties on the beaches, the landing was essentially unopposed. The Japanese were dug in awaiting the attack from prepared defensive positions inland, ready to repeat the strategy at Peleliu on a much grander scale.

After the tropical heat and horrors of Peleliu, temperate Okinawa at first seemed a pastoral paradise afflicted with the disease of war, but as combat was joined and the weather worsened, troops found themselves confronted with the infantryman's implacable, unsleeping enemy: mud. Once again, the Japanese defended every position to the last man. Almost all of the Japanese defenders were killed, with the 7000 prisoners made up mostly of Okinawan conscripts. Estimates of U.S. casualties range from 14,000 to 20,000 killed and 38,000 to 55,000 wounded. Civilian casualties were heavy: of the original population of around 300,000 estimates of civilian deaths are from 40,000 to 150,000.

The Battle of Okinawa was declared won on June 22, 1945. What was envisioned as the jumping-off point for the conquest of the Japanese home islands became, in retrospect, almost an afterthought, as Japan surrendered less than two months after the conclusion of the battle. The impact of the Okinawa campaign on the war is debated to this day. Viewed as a preview of what an invasion of the home islands would have been, it strengthened the argument for using the atomic bomb against Japan (or, if it didn't work, burning Japan to the ground with round the clock raids from Okinawa airbases by B-17s transferred from the European theatre). But none of these strategic considerations were on the mind of Sledge and his fellow Marines. They were glad to have survived Okinawa and elated when, not long thereafter, the war ended and they could look forward to going home.

This is a uniquely authentic first-hand narrative of World War II combat by somebody who lived it. After the war, E. B. Sledge pursued his education, eventually earning a doctorate in biology and becoming a professor at the University of Montevallo in Alabama, where he taught zoology, ornithology, and comparative anatomy until his retirement in 1990. He began the memoir which became this book in 1944. He continued to work on it after the war and, at the urging of family, finally prepared it for publication in 1981. The present edition includes an introduction by Victor Davis Hanson.

Posted at September 10, 2018 00:09