With the Old Breed is not only the best of all the war memoirs I’ve read this summer but it’s also the only one that I’ve ever read that belongs in the same league as William Manchester’s Goodbye Darkness. Sledge, who was a mortarman with the 1st Marine Division, is terribly graphic in portraying the reality of combat at Peleliu and Okinawa, where Marines fought in the midst of rotting maggot-infested corpses and atrocities were committed by both sides. But sugar-coating the true nature of those campaigns would have done a disservice to those who fought them.
With the Old Breed is on the required professional reading list issued by the Commandant of the Marine Corps. I was initially puzzled as to why the book, which is revered in the Corps, was on the section of the list recommended for senior enlisted personnel and captains rather than the section recommending books for junior enlisted and lieutenants. I think the answer is because of the book’s focus on leadership in the crucible of combat: those whom Sledge respected (particularly his company commander, Captain Andrew Haldane) and those whom he felt failed their Marines.
I’m intrigued by one observation that Sledge makes about Japanese strategy on Peleliu. He notes repeatedly that Peleliu was where the Japanese, who previously had tried to repel American landings at the waterline, changed their strategy and withdrew to interior defensive positions which forced American troops to carry the fight inland. However, earlier this summer I reviewed a book on the U.S. Army campaign at Biak, New Guinea, where the Japanese commander had withdrawn his troops to defensive positions in ridges and coral caves and turned what was expected to be a several-day campaign into one that lasted about three months. I’m curious as to whether Marine planners were aware of what the U.S. Army units had experienced on Biak only a few months earlier.
Sledge, who became a college professor after he left the Corps, writes well and his observations about humanity and combat seem as timely today as they were in 1944 or in 1981 when the book was first published. Once you finish With the Old Breed, you may also wish to read the sequel, China Marine, detailing the several months that Sledge spent in China disarming Japanese troops after the Japanese surrender. I read China Marine prior to reading With the Old Breed and I wish I had read them in the correct chronological sequence.