Your grandfather’s buddies in Company K, 3d Battalion, Fifth Marines nicknamed him “Sledgehammer” when he joined the outfit in the South Pacific. The name invokes a hulking image, but in truth Eugene Sledge weighed a slender 145 pounds. He was a feisty, intense young man, anxious to prove himself as a front-line rifleman. Yet the experience seared Sledgehammer’s soul. His powerful postwar memoir would speak for all infantrymen in that global war. “With the Old Breed” is the most compelling book on war I’ve ever read. You’ll read it yourself when you come of age, but for now, here’s a portrait of your courageous, haunted, and memorable grandfather from a retired Marine historian fortunate to have been one of his friends.
I met your grandparents, Dr. Eugene and Jeanne Sledge, in 1995 when I had the pleasure of interviewing Sledgehammer for a pair of documentaries on Peleliu and Okinawa for The History Channel. I was a novice; and even though he had already given dozens of TV interviews since the release of his book, he was graciously patient with me. We shared several things in common: the Marine Corps, bird watching, and Georgia ancestors in the Civil War. He gave a riveting interview, Jack!
The documentaries featured testimonies from such legendary leathernecks as General Ray [Raymond G.] Davis and Lieutenant General Victor “Brute” Krulak, but Sledgehammer’s vivid, outspoken accounts stole the show. In fact, Jack, the National Museum of the Marine Corps obtained the rights to a special 5-minute video of Sledge’s 1995 commentary, which highlights the Peleliu section of the World War II Gallery.
On Peleliu’s 55th anniversary in 1999, I accompanied your dad, Henry, on a 10-day bushwhacking exploration of that haunted battlefield. We retraced Sledgehammer’s footsteps across the airfield, slithered into untouched caves in the Umurbrogol, and discovered the Japanese bunker in the Ngesebus jungle where he came within a hair’s breath of losing his life. I remember Henry’s exultant phone call from Peleliu to Alabama, waking up his dad with news of his discovery.
I worked closely with your grandfather in his last years, helping him complete his second book, “China Marine,” which described his homecoming and difficult transition to “normal” life. When he died in 2001, your grandmother Jeanne invited me to deliver the eulogy at his memorial service. Later that spring I helped write and produce the five-act documentary “Eugene Sledge: Old Breed Marine” for The History Channel’s “Unsung Heroes” series. Your unique and thoughtful grandfather influenced me powerfully.
Private First Class Eugene Bondurant Sledge, 534559, USMCR, was 20 years old when he reported for duty in the Russell Islands on 3 June 1944. “I was young and naïve, away from home and my country for the first time,” he recalled. “The war for me, a Marine infantryman, was many things—overwhelming, horrifying, degrading, fascinating.”
He was born in Mobile, Alabama on 4 November 1923, the second son of Dr. Edward Simmons Sledge and Mary Frank Sturdivant Sledge. He grew up in a close-knit, physically active family. Yet Eugene was a frail child. An early case of rheumatic fever induced a heart murmur and sometimes confined him to a wheelchair. Overcoming these limitations was his first achievement in life.
His father taught him self-discipline, field craft, and marksmanship. His mother encouraged him to maintain a journal of his many field trips. He loved to take off on nature hikes with his spaniel “Deacon.”
A tradition of military service ran in the Sledge family. Eugene’s great-grandfather was a Confederate field surgeon in the Army of Tennessee. His father—your great-grandfather—served with the Alabama National Guard in 1916 during the U.S. mounted expedition against the Mexican raider Pancho Villa. His brother graduated from The Citadel and became an Army lieutenant. Eugene, however, favored the Marine Corps, especially after reading John W. Thomason’s riveting account of World War I leathernecks in “Fix Bayonets.”
Eugene was an 18-year-old student at Marion Military Institute when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve a year later against his parents’ wishes, but he agreed to postpone active duty to commence an accelerated college degree and commissioning program at Georgia Tech. He dutifully studied engineering the first semester, but grew restless when newspapers reported epic Marine amphibious battles at Bougainville and Tarawa in late 1943. So keen was his desire to prove himself in combat that he abruptly quit the officer candidate program and shipped out for Marine boot camp at San Diego.
Jack, it was a measure of your grandfather’s strength of character as a young man that he voluntarily joined the Marines, then volunteered again to serve in the infantry. He deliberately chose the most hazardous duty of the Pacific War—sustained close combat against Imperial Japanese Army soldiers.
Private First Class Sledge joined the ranks of the First Marine Division (nicknamed “The Old Breed”) on Pavuvu. In 1942, the division had spearheaded the first American offensive against the Japanese at Guadalcanal. The following year, The Old Breed Marines served as Army General Douglas MacArthur’s amphibious shock troops by launching a surprise landing on Cape Gloucester. The salty Old Breed veterans on Pavuvu shared their invaluable knowledge of fighting the Japanese with Sledge and the other green replacements. Two hard-learned rules provided the keys to survival: fight as a team and “kill or be killed.”
These combat axioms would abide, but the nature of amphibious warfare in the Pacific was already changing. No longer would the First Marine Division conduct surprise landings on large, thickly jungled islands against an enemy who could retreat or be evacuated to fight again. At Peleliu and Okinawa—smaller islands that were much closer to Japan—The Old Breed would encounter heavily armed, thoroughly fortified Japanese forces defending the high ground to their deaths in a new doctrine of attrition warfare. It was your grandfather’s fate to experience the full horrors of both these slaughter pens.
Captain Andrew A. (“Ack-Ack”) Haldane of Metheun, Massachusetts, welcomed young Sledgehammer to “King” Company and assigned him as an assistant gunner in the company’s mortar platoon. Here Sledge met his gunner and future foxhole-buddy, Merriell (“Snafu”) Shelton, a Cape Gloucester veteran from rural Louisiana.
Some mortars are huge, Jack, but the foot-mobile Marine rifle companies of WW II relied on the small M2 60 mm mortar, often described as “the company commander’s personal artillery.” There were two 60 mm mortars in K/3/5. Each could lob a 3-pound high-explosive shell about 2,000 yards. In the close-quarters fighting to come at Peleliu and Okinawa, Sledge and Shelton would deliver explosive rounds as close as 25 yards beyond the company’s front line. This required intense concentration to avoid accidently dropping a “short” round within one’s own ranks. No matter how tired, scared, or sick your grandfather was, he never fired a short round, never caused friendly casualties. “We were always proud of that,” he said.
You’ve no doubt learned that all Marines are riflemen. Burdened with carrying the mortar’s components and ammo, Sledge’s crew carried the lighter M1 carbine, instead of the standard M1 Garand rifle. Your grandfather was picky about his weapons, however, and he soon exchanged his unreliable carbine for a rifle. Later he favored the firepower of a .45-caliber Thompson submachine gun. Throughout the war, he also carried the same .45-caliber Colt automatic pistol worn by his father in the 1916 Mexican campaign. On his cartridge belt he wore a Ka-Bar fighting knife, with its 7-inch Bowie blade.
Your grandfather embarked for Peleliu while the troops were still buzzing about their commanding general’s prediction about the coming battle. “This will be rough but fast,” said Major General William Rupertus. “We’ll be through in three days, maybe two.” Jack, he was right about the “rough” part but wrong about the duration. The battle lasted nearly three months. After five weeks the First Marine Division had suffered 6,500 casualties and lost its combat effectiveness. The remnants yielded the battle to the 81st Army Division and returned to Pavuvu.
The Marines had launched the invasion well, executing a difficult amphibious landing across a coral reef under heavy fire. But the battle devolved into costly frontal assaults in the western highlands, an ungodly jumble of coral cliffs, canyons, and crags the natives called the Umurbrogol. The Marines called it “Bloody Nose Ridge.” In this extreme terrain the Japanese had prepared hundreds of mutually supporting caves. The Marines had never fought such a disciplined enemy, nor assailed such inhospitable ground.
Peleliu provided your grandfather’s introduction to combat. Assigned to the second wave of the D-day assault, he experienced the near-crippling fears common to any man crossing a line of departure under fire for the first time. “I prayed that I would do my duty, survive, and not wet my pants,” he admitted. He landed on Orange Beach Two amid great confusion. He saw his first dead bodies, fired his first rounds in anger, smoked his first cigarette. Crossing the exposed airstrip under direct artillery and machine-gun fire was his most frightful experience of the battle. “I could see the bluish-white Jap tracers snapping by me just like the railings on a porch,” he said.
It took your grandfather time to kill dispassionately, to accept the combat axiom “Kill or be killed.” Snafu Shelton saw him hedge his first shots and yelled, “What’re you waiting for? Shoot ’em!” His epiphany came during the battle for Ngesebus when a squad of Japanese soldiers dashed out of a concrete bunker at close range. He shot a man squarely in the chest, saw that he had killed him, swallowed hard, and then took aim on the next onrushing soldier. Kill or be killed.
Sledge had always kept a journal of his experiences, but command policy forbade diaries lest they fall into Japanese hands. He avoided that rule by writing cryptic notes in the pages of his New Testament. These he would resurrect in the future to excoriate his nightmares and provide the core of his celebrated memoir. In this way he painstakingly chronicled Peleliu’s skull-cracking heat, the stench of decomposing bodies and human waste, and the ungodly grunts and screams of desperate hand-to-hand fighting each night. Two-thirds of his fellow Marines in Company K were killed or wounded on Peleliu, including the esteemed Captain Haldane, killed by a Japanese sniper. To your grandfather, Haldane’s loss was “the worst grief I endured in the entire war.”
Four months later the rebuilt First Marine Division embarked aboard amphibious ships for Okinawa with the mission of seizing the island as the advanced staging base for the ultimate invasion of Japan. The 1945 campaign for Okinawa was the biggest air, land, and sea battle of the war. Here, the First Marine Division landed on April Fools’ Day as part of the U.S. Tenth Army. A veteran Japanese field army, reinforced by additional heavy artillery units, defended the island.
The night before the landing, your grandfather’s lieutenant told the platoon to expect 85 percent casualties in the ship-to-shore assault. He was blessedly wrong. The Japanese applied the same defense-in-depth tactics of Peleliu by holing up in their traverse ridges around the ancient Shuri castle and ceding the landing to the Americans.
Instead of huddling inside his amphibian tractor against heavy fire, Sledgehammer and his crew sat topside, singing “Little Brown Jug” at the top of their lungs. Once ashore he even had time to admire the countryside. “Pine trees grew everywhere,” the wayfaring naturalist reported. “I’d forgotten what a delicious odor the needles gave off.” Soon the Tenth Army called for the Marines to reinforce Army units attacking the Japanese main line of resistance. Sledge shortly began to experience artillery barrages twice as terrifying as Peleliu.
Jack, the concentration of Japanese heavy artillery fire severely traumatized him. So did the presence of so many native Okinawans. At Peleliu the Japanese forcibly evacuated the natives before the U.S. landing, but at Okinawa, the natives were caught in deadly crossfires at every turn. More than one-third of the population died. Sledge saw evidence of this slaughter every day, and it pierced his heart. He also grieved at the death or maiming of more and more Company K buddies as the campaign bogged down in the rain and mud. The Tenth Army advanced an average of 133 yards a day. Three thousand human beings on all sides died each day. More than 26,000 American troops lost their sanity from “combat neurosis.”
Your grandfather came close to succumbing to the same demons. You can discern this yourself when you read chapter 12 (“Of Mud and Maggots”) about the bloody impasse at Half Moon Hill. “Every crater was half full of water, and many of them held a Marine corpse,” he wrote. “The bodies lay pathetically just as they had been killed, half submerged in muck and water, rusting weapons still in hand.”
At the height of your grandfather’s misery came a letter from home with news that “Deacon, my beloved spaniel, had been hit by an automobile, had dragged himself home and had died in my father’s arms.” Sledge was inconsolable. “There, with the sound of heavy firing up ahead … big tears rolled down my cheeks because Deacon was dead.”
When the battle for Okinawa ended, Sledge took stock of the remnants of his outfit. Of the 235 Company K Marines who landed with your grandfather on D-day at Peleliu, less than 24 remained on their feet after Okinawa. Many of these had been shot and later returned to duty. Only Sledge and perhaps 10 other Company K Marines survived the combined four months of combat without a wound. Yet, as Sledge warned, “None came out unscathed.”
Jack, your grandfather returned from the war with an almost unbearable burden of grief and anger. It took him years to find his place in the postwar society. His father, who had treated combat neurosis casualties from World War I, advised his son to take joy in good friends, music, and literature, develop a career involving outdoor work, and find a good woman.
Eugene met Jeanne Arceneaux at the wedding of a mutual friend and sparks flew. They were married in 1952 and raised two sons, your Uncle John and your dad. With Jeanne’s encouragement, Eugene earned a doctorate in biology. He became a professor at the University of Montevallo in central Alabama, a secluded place with red-brick streets, towering oak trees, and Civil War-era buildings. He and Jeanne bought a house on two wooded acres and named it “Stillwood.”
Yet his post-combat nightmares would not go away. Sometimes an external event provoked memories of the terrible artillery barrages. Once during the 1960s, Sledge heard loud artillery explosions from the nearby TV room as his young sons—your dad and uncle—watched the ABC series “Combat.” The boys, alarmed by a strange noise, discovered their distressed father pounding his head against the wall.
Your grandfather found that the best way to exorcise the memories that haunted him was to describe each scene. Your dad recalls seeing him late at night, sitting by the fire, writing furiously on a yellow legal pad. Over the years these memoirs accumulated to nearly a thousand hand-written pages. Jeanne became intrigued by the graphic story and began typing each page. “I was typing as fast as my fingers could fly, because I wanted to see how this particular episode turned out,” she said. “And both boys were reading over my shoulder, saying, ‘Type faster, Mom, faster!’ ”
She told Eugene his story was extraordinary and deserved to be published. What began as exercise in self-therapy had grown into a full-length memoir of combat in the Pacific. In 1981, when your grandfather was in his mid-50s, Presidio Press published “With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa.” It appeared 36 years after his last battle at Kunishi Ridge, Okinawa.
Jack, the book provided an unblinking account of life and death in the front lines, written with a survivor’s compassion for his lost and maimed companions and with a scientist’s attention to detail and authenticity. It was immediately acclaimed as a battle classic.
Your grandfather received hundreds of personal letters from infantry veterans of all services that simply said, “Thanks for telling my story.” He received letters from children and grandchildren of infantry veterans, saying, “I never knew why my Dad or Grandpa could not speak of their experiences in combat—now I know why.”
Distinguished historians and authors like John Keegan, Rob Cowley, and Pulitzer Prize winner Studs Terkel praised the book. Paul Fussell, a veteran infantry officer and subsequent National Book Award-winning author, described Sledge’s book as “superb, honest, heart-rending and brutal.” Television reporters and documentary producers, including some from Japan, flocked to his door.
You’ll find, Jack, that “With the Old Breed” is almost as difficult for readers to absorb as it was for your grandfather to write. It is a disturbing and haunting memoir, an indelible accounting of the costs of war as borne by the infantry. In its pages he achieved the difficult task of writing a book that at its heart is both pro-Marine Corps and undeniably anti-war. The book has long been featured on the Commandant’s approved Marine Corps professional reading list, and it remains in print three decades after its first release.
Your grandfather taught biology and ornithology to thousands of students at the University of Montevallo for nearly 30 years. In retirement, he continued his long nature walks with his dogs and shared the peace and comfort of Stillwood with Jeanne. He died of cancer in March 2001, just nine days before their 49th anniversary. He was 77.
The Corps took every measure to honor its outspoken former rifleman. Marines in dress blues from the Inspector-Instructor staff, Bessemer, Alabama, stood watch over his flag-draped coffin during the visitation and memorial service in Montevallo. Other Marines from the I-I staff in Mobile provided pallbearers and a firing detail for his burial. First Sergeant Michael W. Redmyer presented the folded colors to Jeanne Sledge and read her a personal note from General James L. Jones, USMC, the Commandant of the Marine Corps.
He was a good man, Jack, and a good friend. He would have been mighty proud of you. His book will remain a heartfelt tribute to the sacrifices of The Old Breed Marines long after the battles of Peleliu and Okinawa recede from public memory.
Thanks for listening, Mister Jack. Rest in peace, Sledgehammer.
Joseph H. Alexander
Editor’s note: We hope you enjoy this refreshing and different approach to telling a Marine story—Joseph Alexander “Jack” Sledge is the namesake of the author, Col Joe Alexander. Well-known to most Marines, Col Alexander is a noted Marine historian, author and Vietnam War veteran, who served the Corps on active duty for 28 years, and continues to serve today. He is the author of numerous articles and five books, including the award-winning “Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa,” currently on the Marine Corps professional reading list.
His latest book, co-written with the late Brigadier General Edwin H. Simmons, USMC (Ret), is “Through the Wheat: The U.S. Marines in World War I.” He has helped produce 25 military documentaries for cable television and continues his efforts as historian for the National Museum of the Marine Corps. His books, and Eugene Sledge’s book “With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa,” are available at MCA bookstores or online at www.mca-marines.org.