Posts tagged with: Eugene Sledge

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Thursday, February 7, 2013

ServingGodAndCountry2

I frequently noted in the field, how chaplains – to a man – sought out front line action. And I assume that was because, as one put it, at the time: ‘There is where the fighting man needs God most – and that’s where some of them know him for the first time. – U.S.M.C. Commandant A.A. Vandegrift, 1945

The last two decades has seen a surge in interest in popular historical study of America’s role in the Pacific and Europe during World War II in films and books but little to no individual attention has been given to the role of military chaplains. There were never enough chaplains to serve American soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen, but as Dorsett points out those that served found innovative and courageous ways to reach the men. “They can’t say that the church forgot them, when they were called into service and henceforth in their lives they will forget the church,” declared Lutheran Chaplain Edward K. Rogers. “They may forget the church and God, but the church and God’s pastors or priests did not forget them.” Chaplains were integral to America’s victory in Europe and the Pacific. This is the argument put forward in Serving God and Country: US Military Chaplains in World War II by Lyle Dorsett.

Outside of the famous four U.S. Army chaplains who sacrificed their lives to save fellow military and civilian men when the transport Dorchester sank in 1943, there is very little popular historical assessment of the enduring role of chaplains in the war and how they helped shape a post-war society. Chaplains broke new ground when it came to racial desegregation in training classes and contributed to greater ecumenical understanding between churches, denominations, and synagogues. “The clergy integrated well and became pioneers in the integration of the U.S. Armed Forces before President Harry S. Truman’s executive order 9981 of July 1948,” declared Dorsett.

Integration of ideas and practical ecumenicsm also flourished. For example, some Protestant pastors, while well educated, previously may have had limited interpersonal contact with other traditions and faiths like Judaism or Catholicism. As one chaplain pointed out, “It was harder to speak ill of one’s faith when that person was a friend.” Chaplains also had to be trained in the basic rudiments of other faiths in order to offer proper religious counsel for servicemen.

Undeniably, the United States on the eve of Pearl Harbor in 1941 was remarkably less secular than today. Chaplains or “chappies” were, with very few exceptions, Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Jewish. Parents, especially mothers, were comforted by the fact that their sons had professional shepherds to guide them in the field and throughout their military service. World War II was the first American conflict where published images, especially from the Pacific at bloody battles like Tarawa, would relay disturbing images to Americans at home. Chaplains were pressed to the limit on both fronts of the war, but the savage fighting of the Pacific island hopping campaign tested military chaplains to minister in what many combatants called “the depths of hell.” “By their patient, sympathetic labors with the men, day in and day out and through many a night, every chaplain I know contributed immeasurably to the moral courage of our fighting men,” added Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. (more…)

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Thursday, November 11, 2010

photo reprinted with permission from warofourfathers.com

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.