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Veterans Day: E.B. Sledge and The Old Breed

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The emotional scars and nightmares from Eugene Bondurant Sledge’s memories of the battles at Peleliu and Okinawa haunted him for years. He was among a company of men who didn’t talk about their feelings. The experience, he said, “made savages of us all.” Many years later, from notes taken of the battles in his field Bible, Sledge published With The Old Breed, one of the most stirring personal accounts of war I’ve ever read.

His compassion and love for his fellow Marines, and the circumstances of what happened on those islands, caused an outpouring of raw and vivid emotion. Sledge’s writing and passion is so heartfelt in this book because he allows the sensitivity to the events that surrounded him to be chronicled page by page. He quotes the theme of Wilfred Owen’s poem “Insensibility” by saying, “Those who feel most for others suffer most in war.” And this is what particularly made Sledge a master of the craft of writing, his deep and abiding love for others.

The island fighting against the Japanese in the Pacific was so brutal and horrific that Sledge called it “the most ghastly corner of hell I ever witnessed.” In the fight for Okinawa, some of the bravest of combat veterans cracked, “even to the point of losing their desire to live.” The Marines in the Pacific proved so courageous that Admiral Chester Nimitz simply said of those at Iwo Jima: “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.” Sledge mirrored those thoughts in his own account:

It’s ironic that the record of our company was so outstanding but that so few individuals were decorated for bravery. Uncommon valor was displayed so often it went largely unnoticed. It was expected.

After the war E.B. Sledge went on to become a successful professor teaching microbiology and ornithology at the University of Montevallo in his home state of Alabama. Sledge, who passed away in 2001, published his account in 1981.

He had originally planned for his memoir to be read by family but his wife encouraged him to submit it for publication. Today it is widely considered amongst the most impressive and heartfelt accounts of war. And when it was first published it helped many veterans open up for the first time about their own experience. British military historian John Keegan called With The Old Breed “one of the most arresting documents in war literature.” HBO drew heavily from the book for their miniseries “The Pacific.” The book is also on the official reading list of the Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps.

The literary contrast of Sledge’s hatred for the Japanese because of their gruesome practices on the battlefield and his own compassion also make With The Old Breed a fascinating read. Sledge, long known as a gentleman from the Deep South, became sickened and disgusted by the horror of war. He writes hauntingly about the profound fear of hitting the beach at Peleliu while reciting the Lord’s Prayer as young men were obliterated around him. He closed his book with these words:

Until the millennium arrives and countries cease trying to enslave others, it will be necessary to accept one’s responsibilities and be willing to make sacrifices for one’s country – as my comrades did. As the troops used to say, ‘If the country is good enough to live in, it’s good enough to fight for.’ With privilege goes responsibility.

With The Old Breed refers to the veterans of Sledge’s 1st Marine Division who had already earned their reputation for fierce and heroic fighting at Guadalcanal before Sledge joined them. As their “Old Breed” nickname indicates, The 1st Marine Division is the oldest, largest, and most decorated division in the United States Marine Corps. Sledge’s book is also a testimony for these men who experienced, overcame, and triumphed over an enemy that waged unspeakable horrors and where surrender was not an option for either side.

On this Veterans Day, it is Sledge’s words from his preface that are most fitting. He says this of the debt of thanks we owe and the enduring link between the American military and liberty:

Now I can write this story, painful though it is to do so. In writing it I’m fulfilling an obligation I have long felt to my comrades in the 1st Marine Division, all of whom suffered so much for our country. None came out unscathed. Many gave their lives, many their health, and some their sanity. All who survived will long remember the horror they would rather forget. But they suffered and they did their duty so a sheltered homeland can enjoy the peace that was purchased at such high cost. We owe those Marines a profound debt of gratitude.

Ray Nothstine is opinion editor of the the North State Journal in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he was managing editor of Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty quarterly. In 2005 Ray graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in Oxford.


  • Shaun Walls

    Thank you for sharing this insight to EB Sledge’s book “With The Old Breed”. He sounded like a true gentleman with a strong mind to hold on tight to his sanity. I have spent time talking with the elderly as a companion and listening to their stories has provided more history than school ever could. Many of the men would lightly refer to their time in Vietnam and abroad because it was a painful marker in their life however not a single one would elaborate on the events and I wouldn’t push them to. The pain in their eyes was reflection enough of a time they will carry on their souls forever. Today I will teach my 6 year old Grand Daughter the history of Veterans Day, what it means to us and what it still means to the Veterans themselves. We’ll do a craft infused history lesson and will then head out to Thank some Veterans face to face for their sacrifices. No Thanks can ever be enough but I hope they will know the Thanks we give will indeed be heartfelt and true.

  • Andrea Sledge

    Thank you for you kind word regarding my late father-in-law.

  • Allison Haack

    I think he stated it so well when he said…

    “…it will be necessary to accept one’s responsibilities and be willing to make sacrifices for one’s country.”

    It sounds like he was an amazing man; a true American, definitely self-sacrificing.

    Great review, Ray.

  • Dale Allen

    Incredible story. I have just finished reading WITH THE OLD BREED and well as CHINA MARINE. Can someone advise me as to whether there is a scholarship fund at Auburn or University of Montevallo that has been established to honor this warrior.. I would like to contribute.

  • Ken

    Ray quotes Eugene Sledge, “But they suffered and they did their duty so a sheltered homeland can enjoy the peace that was purchased at such high cost.”

    Sheltered Homeland.

    And elsewhere he quotes, “As the troops used to say, ‘If the country is good enough to live in, it’s good enough to fight for.’ With privilege goes responsibility.”

    In Jakarta, Mr. Obama characterized the Muslim nation that embraces Sharia law as “a deep and enduring partnership” while in his next breath he chastised Israel for plans to build over a thousand new apartments in Jerusalem – the tiny nation’s capital city. And from Japan, we hear that the White House will push for an agreement with Russia on arms control before the new U.S. Senate convenes in January with new members characteristic of the kind of mettle Mr. Sledge’s contemporaries carried to the fight in the Pacific.

    It’s time the “sheltered” nation realize that it’s under attack again. Redoubts in the front yard won’t stop these suited bad guys from Chicago. They think your front yard is theirs already.

    The peace Mr. Sledge purchased will fly away when good men long for their shelter and believe that memories of other’s feats in battle will carry the day. It’s time we all buckle on the armor; and looking over our shoulder promise Mr. Sledge and the 1st Division that we won’t let them down.

  • As the son of a former marine i read E.B. Sledges book with much interest.I was soon transported into the horror that was the war in the pacific. TO date i have been cover to cover 3 times. I was so saddened to learn of his passing because i wanted to meet this american hero and thank him for sacrficing his youth for our freedom.

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  • Alexander

    thanks from New Zealand,
    the city of Wellington from whence the Marines trained and left to begin their counter attack against the Japanese.

  • Twkoonce

    a wonderfull account of what war is relly about

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