What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

The Same Old Weary Shuffling

I don’t believe anyone of discernment can fail to be moved by the misery, horror and hardship endured by the men who fought the Pacific War in the 1940s. Particularly the US Marines (and Army) against the Japanese Army; these two fearsome fighting forces confronted each other, amidst a supremely punitive environment, with a level of ferocity for which it is difficult to find historical parallel.

There was cruelty and courage in superabundance, and tenacity in the teeth of unimaginable privation. The extreme scarcity of acts of surrender speaks to the bitterness of the combat and the reciprocal hatred that impelled it.

And yet, somehow our two nations put the bitterness and hatred behind them. And rather quickly at that. A mere fifteen years after the war, Japan and the US signed a treaty which began by declaring a mutual desire “to strengthen the bonds of peace and friendship . . . and to uphold the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.” The compact founded upon that treaty stands today, by some measures, as the most durable alliance between two great powers in all of history.

Put more whimsically, will any American athlete, upon touching down in Japan for these fraught Olympic Games, or Japanese athlete, seeing the Americans land, spare even a moment to ponder what happened on Guadalcanal almost eighty years ago?

Not a bad record of reconciliation for (a) an Empire which instilled such fanaticism in her soldiers that some of them maintained solitary guerilla operations, on godforsaken island redoubts, for decades after the war ended; and (b) a Republic agreed by all her forward-thinking elites (at least since, oh, last summer) to have been founded on racist principles and systems.


Below are some harrowing excerpts from E. B. Sledge’s memoir of his combat tour as a Marine in the Pacific War, With the Old Breed. In simple, direct prose undergirded by a palpable generosity of spirit and unmarred by militaristic hauteur, Sledge supplies a narrative of his experience justly deserving of its reputation as one of the best Pacific War memoirs. You don’t need to be a military history buff to profit from the book.

I’ll conclude this prolegomenon with a remark tailored to Lydia and her readers: notice how Sledge’s memory attaches so often to features of the physical world? In a strange way it reminds one of a certain Evangelist, whose own historical narrative of great events is so ill-treated by scholars, that his sturdy Hebrew name has been debased into the ridiculous pseudo-Teutonic jargon of “Johannine community.” Saint John the Apostle, too, had an eye for physical features, which he tended to convey in simple, direct prose. He didn’t fight a bloody war (so far as we know), or endure the trauma of prolonged shelling; but he sure witnessed some bloody events, and he endured a brutal exile, where he was traumatized by a Vision of something rather like a spiritual shelling. As Lydia rightly says, this emphasis on physical detail is a mark of authenticity. If Sledge’s book should manage to abide for another two thousand years, no doubt pompous 41st century scholars will speak of it as, “emanating from the Sledgehammer community” and asseverate that, because it’s “little concerned with actual events” but rather, “general theological themes of the war,” it only “contains history” and isn’t actually a historical document.

+ + + + +

The next morning, again with the help of tanks and amtracs, our battalion took most of the remainder of Ngesebus. Our casualties were remarkably low for the number of Japanese we killed. In midafternoon we learned that an army unit would relieve us shortly and complete the job on the northern end of Ngesebus.

Our mortar section halted to await orders and dispersed among some open bushes. In our midst was the wreckage of a Japanese heavy machine gun and the remains of the squad that had been wiped out by Company K. The squad members had been killed in the exact positions to be occupied by such a squad "according to the book."

At first glance the dead gunner appeared about to fire his deadly weapon. He still sat bolt upright in the proper firing position behind the breech of his machine gun. Even in death his eyes stared widely along the gun sights. Despite the vacant look of his dilated pupils, I couldn't believe he was dead. Cold chills ran along my spine. Gooseflesh tickled my back. It seemed as though he was looking through me into all eternity, that at any instant he would raise his hands — which rested in a relaxed manner on his thighs — grip the handles on the breech, and press the thumb trigger. The bright shiny brass slugs in the strip clip appeared as ready as the gunner, anxious to speed out, to kill, and to maim more of the "American devils." But he would rot, and they would corrode. Neither he nor his ammo could do any more for the emperor.

The crown of the gunner's skull had been blasted off, probably by one of our automatic weapons. His riddled steel helmet lay on the deck like a punctured tin can. The assistant gunner lay beside the gun. Apparently, he had just opened a small green wooden chest filled with strip clips of machine-gun cartridges when he was killed. Several other Japanese soldiers, ammo carriers, lay strung out at intervals behind the gun.

A Company K rifleman who had been in the fight that knocked out the machine-gun crew sat on his helmet nearby and told us the story. The action had taken place the day before while the mortar section was fighting at the pillbox. The rifleman said, "The thing that I just couldn't believe was the way those Nip ammo carriers could chop chop around here on the double with those heavy boxes of ammo on their backs."

Each ammo box had two leather straps, and each ammo carrier had a heavy box on his back with the straps around his shoulders. I lifted one of the ammo chests. It weighed more than our mortar. What the Japanese lacked in height, they certainly compensated for in muscle.

"I'd sure hate to hafta lug that thing around, wouldn't you?" asked the Marine. "When they got hit," he continued, "they fell to the deck like a brick because of all that weight."

As we talked, I noticed a fellow mortarman sitting next to me. He held a handful of coral pebbles in his left hand. With his right hand he idly tossed them into the open skull of the Japanese machine gunner. Each time his pitch was true I heard a little splash of rainwater in the ghastly receptacle. My buddy tossed the coral chunks as casually as a boy casting pebbles into a puddle on some muddy road back home; there was nothing malicious in his action. The war had so brutalized us that it was beyond belief.

I noticed gold teeth glistening brightly between the lips of several of the dead Japanese lying around us. Harvesting gold teeth was one facet of stripping enemy dead that I hadn't practiced so far. But stopping beside a corpse with a particularly tempting number of shining crowns, I took out my kabar and bent over to make the extractions.

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 I 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 about 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.

Reflecting on the episode after the war, I realized that Doc Caswell didn’t really have germs in mind. He was a good friend and a fine, genuine person whose sensitivity hadn’t been crushed by the war. He was merely trying to help me retain some of mine and not become completely callous and harsh.

[. . .]

The sun bore down on us like a giant heat lamp. Once I saw a misplaced phosphorous grenade explode on the coral from the sun's intense heat. We always shaded our stacked mortar shells with a piece of ammo box to prevent this.

Occasional rains that fell on the hot coral merely evaporated like steam off hot pavement. The air hung heavy and muggy. Everywhere we went on the ridges the hot humid air reeked with the stench of death. A strong wind was no relief; it simply brought the horrid odor from an adjacent area. Japanese corpses lay where they fell among the rocks and on the slopes. It was impossible to cover them. Usually there was no soil that could be spaded over them, just the hard, jagged coral. The enemy dead simply rotted where they had fallen. They lay all over the place in grotesque positions with puffy faces and grinning buck-toothed expressions.

It is difficult to convey to anyone who has not experienced it the ghastly horror of having your sense of smell saturated constantly with the putrid odor of rotting human flesh day after day, night after night. This was something the men of an infantry battalion got a horrifying dose of during a long, protracted battle such as Peleliu. In the tropics the dead became bloated and gave off a terrific stench within a few hours after death.

Whenever possible we removed Marine dead to the rear of the company's position. There they were usually laid on stretchers and covered with ponchos which stretched over the head of the corpse down to the ankles. I rarely saw a dead Marine left uncovered with his face exposed to sun, rain, and flies. Somehow it seemed indecent
not to cover our dead. Often, though, the dead might lie on the stretchers for some time and decompose badly before the busy graves registration crews could take them for burial in the division cemetery near the airfield.

During the fighting around the Umurbrogol Pocket, there was a constant movement of one weary, depleted Marine company being relieved by another slightly less weary, depleted company. We seemed to rotate from one particularly dangerous part of the line to one slightly less so and back again continuously.

There were certain areas we moved into and out of several times as the campaign dragged along its weary, bloody course. In many such areas I became quite familiar with the sight of some particular enemy corpse, as if it were a landmark. It was gruesome to see the stages of decay proceed from just killed, to bloated, to maggot-infested rotting, to partially exposed bones — like some biological clock marking the inexorable passage of time. On each occasion my company passed such a landmark we were fewer in number.

Each time we moved into a different position I could determine the areas occupied by each rifle company as we went into that sector of the line. Behind each company position lay a pile of ammo and supplies and the inevitable rows of dead under their ponchos. We could determine how bad that sector of the line was by the number of dead. To see them so always filled me with anger at the war and the realization of the senseless waste. It depressed me far more than my own fear.

Added to the awful stench of the dead of both sides was the repulsive odor of human excrement everywhere. It was all but impossible to practice simple, elemental field sanitation on most areas of Peleliu because of the rocky surface. Field sanitation during maneuvers and combat was the responsibility of each man. In short, under normal conditions, he covered his own waste with a scoop of soil. At night when he didn't dare venture out of his foxhole, he simply used an empty grenade canister or ration can, threw it out of his hole, and scooped dirt over it next day if he wasn't under heavy enemy fire.

But on Peleliu, except along the beach areas and in the swamps, digging into the coral rock was nearly impossible. Consequently, thousands of men — most of them around the Umurbrogol Pocket in the ridges, many suffering with severe diarrhea, fighting for weeks on an island two miles by six miles — couldn't practice basic field sanitation. This fundamental neglect caused an already putrid tropical atmosphere to become inconceivably vile.

Added to this was the odor of thousands of rotting, discarded Japanese and American rations. At every breath one inhaled hot, humid air heavy with countless repulsive odors. I felt as though my lungs would never be cleansed of all those foul vapors. It may not have been that way down on the airfield and in other areas where the service troops were encamped, but around the infantry in the Umurbrogol Pocket, the stench varied only from foul to unbearable.

In this garbage-filled environment the flies, always numerous in the tropics anyway, underwent a population explosion. This species was not the unimposing common housefly (the presence of one of which in a restaurant is enough to cause most Americans today to declare the place unfit to serve food to the public). Peleliu's most common fly was the huge blowfly or bluebottle fly. This creature has a plump, metallic, greenish-blue body, and its wings often make a humming sound during flight.

The then new insecticide DDT was sprayed over the combat areas on Peleliu for the first time anywhere. It supposedly reduced the adult fly population while Marines were still fighting on the ridges, but I never noticed that the flies became fewer in number.

With human corpses, human excrement, and rotting rations scattered across Peleliu's ridges, those nasty insects were so large, so glutted, and so lazy that some could scarcely fly. They could not be waved away or frightened off a can of rations or a chocolate bar. Frequently they tumbled off the side of my canteen cup into my coffee. We actually had to shake the food to dislodge the flies, and even then they sometimes refused to move. I usually had to balance my can of stew on my knee, spooning it up with my right hand while I picked the sluggish creatures off the stew with my left. They refused to move or to be intimidated. It was revolting, to say the least, to watch big fat blowflies leave a corpse and swarm into our C rations.

Even though none of us had much appetite, we still had to eat. A way to solve the fly problem was to eat after sunset or before sunrise when the insects were inactive. Chow had to be unheated then, because no sterno tablets or other form of light could be used after dark. It was sure to draw enemy sniper fire.

Each morning just before sunrise, when things were fairly quiet, I could hear a steady humming sound like bees in a hive as the flies became active with the onset of daylight. They rose up off the corpses, refuse, rocks, brush, and wherever else they had settled for the night like a swarm of bees. Their numbers were incredible.

Large land crabs crawled all over the ridges at night, attracted by corpses. Their rustling through dry debris often was indistinguishable from prowling enemy soldiers. We responded by tossing a grenade at the sound.

In addition to rotting corpses and organic waste, the litter of smashed and worn out equipment of every type became more abundant as the battle dragged on and the size of the Umurbrogol Pocket shrank slowly. The ridges and ravines were littered with the flotsam of fierce combat. Debris of battle was everywhere and became more noticeable as the weeks dragged on.

I still see clearly the landscape around one particular position we occupied for several days. It was a scene of destruction and desolation that no fiction could invent. The area was along the southwestern border of the pocket where ferocious fighting had gone on since the second day of battle (16 September). The 1st Marines, the 7th Marines, and now the 5th Marines, all in their turn, had fought against this same section of ridges. Our exhausted battalion, 3/5, moved into the line to relieve another slightly more exhausted battalion. It was the same old weary shuffling of one tired, depleted outfit into the line to relieve another whose sweating men trudged out of their positions, hollow-eyed, stooped, grimy, bearded zombies.

Comments (3)

One of the greatest war memoirs ever written in the English language. Right up there with U. S. Grant's personal memoirs, though of course Sledge was a lowly grunt rather than a general. Victor Davis Hanson has a good introduction to With the Old Breed on his website.

It's also worth watching The Pacific which is based in part on Sledge's book as well as The Thin Red Line.

I managed to catch a program comprised of colorized film of those battles, with narration, featuring an interview with Sledge's son, just last weekend. Gripping, harrowing stuff.

Wow. Where did you find this gem of a show, Jeff?

Pacifica -- I liked The Pacific, but Band of Brothers was superior as those series go, in my opinion.

Post a comment

Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.