E.B. Sledge, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (Novato, California, 1981)
940. 542522 Sledge
Robert Leckie, Helmet for My Pillow: From ParrisIsland to the Pacific (New York: Bantam Books, 2010)
940. 548173 Leckie
As long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by history. My mother was (and is) a great storyteller, and when I was growing up she would spin the histories of great events and great men into human stories that kept my attention rapt (and myself out of mischief) for hours. For me, reading history books always seemed like an obvious thing to do, but I do understand that it’s not that way for everybody. History books tend to be kind of thick, and it can be difficult to know where to start. And, of course, having taught a bit of high school, I am well aware of how students often come to view it is a chore. Still, history is important. George Santayana once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But, at a more basic level, history is an important means of learning who we are as Americans and as human beings. There’s an old Irish proverb that goes, “Time cannot erase history,” which I’ve always taken to mean that history shapes us, even if (and maybe especially when) we’re not aware of it. With this in mind, I thought it might be useful to throw out a few recommendations here and there, both to give people some entry points to reading history and to talk about the ways that it can enrich our lives.
Part of my goal is to highlight new additions to the history holdings here at the library, but I also want to use this space to introduce you to some of my personal favorites. I thought I’d start by doing a bit of the latter. I was trolling around the history shelves the other day when I caught sight of With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by E. B. Sledge. I can remember buying a copy in a little market on the Oregon coast during a family vacation when I was 12 or so, and then spending the next few days sitting amongst the driftwood, spellbound by what I found. I was well familiar at that point with the war in Europe, having heard stories of my grandfather’s service with the 6th Armored Division, but the Pacific theater was another matter entirely. There was heavy fighting in Europe to be sure. Although grim, it was still subject to norms and conventions developed over centuries. On Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Cape Gloucester the fighting plumbed far darker depths of savagery. It was war to the knife, with no quarter asked and none given. It was as great a test of courage, and of humanity, as American servicemen have ever confronted.
Sledge, a mortarman with the 1st Marine Division, got his first taste of combat on Peleliu, a place distinguished even among the old salts of the Pacific for the ferocity of the fighting that happened there. Unlike on Guadalcanal, where the Japanese sought to crush the invaders with massed banzai charges, on Peleliu their goal was to bleed the attacking forces white. In the five square miles of coral and volcanic rock that made up the island, they created a maze of tunnels, gun emplacements, and sniper nests, then fought to defend them to the last man. Sledge and his mates were compelled to fight for every inch of ground, in temperatures that sometimes reach 120 degrees, against an enemy that had only two ways home: victory or death.
Sledge managed to adjust to the rigors of combat, but at times struggled to retain his humanity in the face of the horrors of war. At one point, Sledge decides he’s going to start pulling gold teeth out of dead Japanese soldiers. This grim practice was, if not common, at least frequent enough to have gotten Sledge’s attention. Finding himself in a break in the action, Sledge pulled out his Kabar (a knife carried by Marines in combat) and made ready for his first foray into the practice,
A hand grasped me by the shoulder, and I straightened up to see who it was. “What are you gonna do, Sledgehammer?” asked Doc Caswell. His expression was a mix of sadness and reproach as he looked intently at me.
“Just thought I’d collect some gold teeth,” I replied.
“Don’t do it.”
“Why not, Doc?”
“You don’t want to do that sort of thing. What would your folks think if they knew?”
“Well, my dad’s a doctor, and I bet he’d think it was kinda interesting,” I replied, bending down to resume my task.
“No! The germs, Sledgehammer! You might get germs from them.”
I stopped and looked inquiringly at Doc and said, “Germs? Gosh, I never thought of that.”
“Yeah, you got to be careful of germs around all these dead Nips, you know,” he said vehemently.
“Well, then, I guess I’d better just cut off the insignia on his collar and leave his nasty teeth alone. You think that’s safe, Doc?”
“I guess so,” he replied with an approving nod.
There is, as with so many of Sledge’s stories, a simple beauty to this scene. Sledge clearly sees through Doc Caswell’s subterfuge about the germs, and understands what lies beneath: the doctor’s determination to preserve, to the greatest degree possible, not only Sledge’s body but his soul as well.