The atomic bomb was first deployed in combat 66 years ago next week, and as time marches on, its use – twice – against Japan, obliterating the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, becomes ever more controversial. Distance of time engenders remoteness of feeling, and more voices are heard today than ever before that bombing Japan was immoral, unnecessary, racist and even evil. Those naysayers would do well to read a book first published 30 years ago, “With the Old Breed,” by E. B. Sledge.
Sledge was a Marine private who previously dropped out of officers’ school, and enlisted serving during World War II in Company K, 3rd Battalion, 5th
Marine Regiment in the 1st Marine Division. He served in the military less than four years and was in actual combat for less than four months – but the intensity of those battles shaped the rest of his life and produced a riveting story (popularized by an HBO series last year or so).
Sledge participated in two of the most brutal battles ever fought by the United States, and two of the deadliest in the history of the Marine Corps. Perhaps the most horrific battle ever fought by the Marines occurred on Peleliu, an island in the Central Pacific. Although commanders had predicted – and prepared for – an engagement that would last a week or so, the battle raged for almost two months, in October and November 1944. Peleliu was an island of mountains and ridges with a climate in which temperatures regularly reached 115 degrees. The Japanese had dug in behind fortified bunkers, in caves and forests, and fought to the death.
Sledge eloquently but simply conveys the sense of helplessness when one first encountered the enemy – not knowing where the shooting is from, not knowing at whom to shoot, and seeing soldiers all around being eviscerated instantaneously. Those who romanticize war usually share in common the fact that they never fought in one. His description of the stench of battle – an overlooked element – is overwhelming: the heat, the weeks without bathing, or changes of clothing, the dead bodies rotting in the heat (usually Japanese – the Marines quickly recaptured American dead so they should not suffer that fate, and especially because the Japanese often dismembered Marine bodies for sport), the presence of excrement everywhere (field sanitation was impossible). Sledge, part of a mortar crew, regularly carried more than 50 pounds of materiel with him, running up hills and down valleys, and often in the line of fire. There was a dearth of food (especially hot food) and often water, and soldiers lived through perilous and sleepless nights during which the Japanese sent out individual soldiers to kill or be killed, sneaking up on Americans and stabbing them to death.
Add to this environment the fierce tropical rains that rendered their living quarters (foxholes) practically unlivable, the constant bombardment, the discipline, fearlessness and suicidal urges of the Japanese, and the effectiveness of Japanese snipers, it is no surprise that American casualties were enormous. The Marine 1st division was devastated, suffering 6500 casualties. Almost 11,000 Japanese were killed on this small island, with only 302 being captured. Sledge is poignant in describing his feelings when the Company commander, Captain Andrew Haldane, was killed by a Japanese sniper.
After a break of several months to train reinforcements, Company K was dispatched to Okinawa where that ferocious battle raged for two months, April-June 1945. (VE Day was greeted with indifference, so vicious was the combat.) The temperatures on Okinawa were milder than on Peleliu – but Okinawa infested with maggots that covered the soldiers, and drenched by heavy rains that produced mud that clung to them for weeks at a time. It rained – it poured – at one point for two weeks straight. Men lived in wet foxholes with little cover. Sledge didn’t sleep on hard earth, let alone in a bed or building for more than a month. They were constantly bailing out foxholes. And rains also hid the approach of infiltrators. Here, too, they advanced hill by hill, ridge by ridge, dealing with Japanese that had abandoned the suicidal Bonzai charges of the past and remained in fortified caves and killed with snipers (and were then attacking US ships with kamikazes).
Casualties were beyond belief: the 1st Marine division suffered 7665 dead on Okinawa alone. (All life is precious, but perspective is also important: US dead in Iraq and Afghanistan combined are still fewer than the number of Americans killed on Okinawa). The Japanese losses were staggering, 107,539 dead – and civilian casualties – Okinawans consider themselves different than Japanese – were astronomical: more than 42,000 Okinawan civilians were killed in the crossfire. (Alas, Richard Goldstone was but a child and not yet filing his tendentious reports.) Company K had only 26 men who survived both battles intact. Yet, and unsurprisingly, many military tacticians later claimed
that the battle for Peleliu was unnecessary from a purely military perspective.
It could easily have been bypassed, but was waged in order to allow General
MacArthur to fulfill his promise to return to the Philippines. Such is
hindsight, and it is not even a small comfort to the foot soldiers that carry out
the orders of sometimes errant commanders.
With it all, Sledge writes reverently of the camaraderie, the spirit of sacrifice and brotherhood, the bravery and loyalty, the bonds forged between soldiers – and of the fear that penetrates all. A commander told him that courage does not
mean not being afraid; courage means being afraid and doing your duty under all circumstances. Part of that duty is the brotherhood of the fighting man – they all had nicknames, usually diminutives of their given names, in Sledge’s case, the only, obvious, derivative – Sledgehammer. (Even in the heat of battle, his comrades took the extra time to call him by his full nickname, instead of his
shorter surname.) He struggles with the moral toll of war and the descent by
many – almost all Japanese – into pure barbarism and savagery. And besides being disciplined and respectful of authority (with occasinal hijinks), they were awestruck by their predecessors who had also fought – admiring, for example, Marines who had fought at Guadalcanal, and not even contemplating until long after the battle, that later generations would revere those who fought at Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
To anyone who fought the battles of the Pacific, it was obvious that dropping the atomic bombs on Japan was both necessary and moral. Japan would not have surrendered; indeed, it refused to surrender after the first atom bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945. A land invasion of Japan would have caused an estimated minimum of one million American casualties, and many millions more Japanese civilian casualties. From that perspective, the atomic bombs that killed several hundred thousand Japanese actually saved Japanese lives. Any president would have – and should have – ordered the use of any weapon that would save US lives and bring about a quicker conclusion to the war. To his credit, Harry Truman never hesitated, and he later stated that he never had a sleepless night about his decision.
Sledge writes that when Japan finally surrendered, “we received the news with quiet disbelief coupled with an indescribable sense of relief… stunned silence… We remembered our dead. So many dead. So many maimed. So many bright futures consigned to the ashes of the past.” He adds: “War is brutish, inglorious and a terrible waste. Combat leaves an indelible mark on those who are forced to endure it.”
Sledge became a professor of microbiology and ornithology (at one point, during battle (!), he had become distracted by a bird formation flying overhead, and was almost killed as a result), and died in 2001.
And he concludes with a succinct and eloquent admonition to subsequent generations: “Until the millennium arrives and countries cease trying to enslave others, it will be necessary to accept one’s responsibilities and to 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 comes responsibility.”
That is a most timely reminder to a most pampered and coddled generation, who know only of entitlements and not at all of obligation and little of honor.