Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Doctor John’s History Bookshelf. Volume 1

940. 542522 Sledge

Robert Leckie, Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island 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.

After finishing rereading With the Old Breed, I decided to revisit what I regard as the other great classic of the Pacific theater: Robert Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific. Like Sledge, Leckie served in the 1st Marine Division, fighting on Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester before being badly wounded on Peleliu. But while Leckie shared many of the same experiences as Sledge, his narrative is in a much different register. Sledge, who became a scientist after the war, relates matters in prose that was spare and direct, and it is tempting to read his scientific vocation into his prose style. As a journalist, Leckie writes in a more classically elegant style, as is evident in this passage describing part of the Battle of Tenaru on Guadalcanal:

The Japanese were being nailed into a coffin.
Everyone had forgotten the fight and was watching the carnage, when shouting swept up the line. A group of Japanese dashed along the opposite river edge, racing in our direction. Their appearance so surprised everyone that there were no shots.
We dived for our holes and gun position. I jumped to the gun which the Chuckler and I had left standing on the bank. I unclamped the gun and fired, spraying my shots as though I were handling a hose.
All but one fell. The first fell as though his underpart had been cut from him by a scythe, and the others fell tumbling, screaming.
Once again our gun collapsed and I grabbed a rifle – I remember it had no sling – which had been left near the gun. The Jap who had survived was deep into the coconuts by the time I found him in the rifle sights. There was his back, bobbing large, and he seemed to be throwing his pack away. Then I fired and he wasn’t there anymore.
Perhaps it was not I who shot him, for everyone had found their senses and their weapons by then. But I boasted that I had. Perhaps, too, it was a merciful bullet that pounded him between the shoulder blades; for he was fleeing to a certain, horrible end: black nights, hunger and slow dissolution in the rain forest. But I had not thought of mercy then.
Modern war went forward in the jungle.
Leckie writes with a style that is at times almost poetic, the beauty of which sometimes belies the horrific events that he describes.

At this point, it might be worth devoting a few words to the question of heroism. Neither Sledge nor Leckie were heroes in the traditional sense. Neither was extensively decorated. Leckie received the Purple Heart and the Navy Commendation Medal, but also spent time in the brig in Australia for being caught drunk on guard duty. But there is a larger sense of heroism at play here. Sledge and Leckie, like so many other young men in the wake of Pearl Harbor, rallied to their nation’s defense in its time of need. The stories they tell are not those of virtuoso warriors, but of the common infantryman, the backbone of armies since the time of the ancient Greeks. This too is heroism, the heroism of those willing to endure battle and war, and to give what Lincoln once termed the last full measure of devotion if need be.  

With the Old Breed and A Helmet for my Pillow are two of the finest examples of war memoirs ever written. In them we find illustrated a heroism that needs no fanfare, only victory and the knowledge of a duty fulfilled. These are the kind of books well worth reading, and if you read them once you’ll want to go back to them again and again.

Check back soon for more history recommendations!

~John F.

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