Eugene Sledge and several classmates intentionally flunked out of their studies in order to enlist during World War II. Sledge chose the Marine Corps infantry and was trained as a 60mm mortarman before being assigned as a replacement in the 5th Marine Regiment. Pvt. Sledge joined K Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines after the Battle of Cape Gloucester in preparation for the assault on Peleliu. Sledge and the rest of the 1st Marine Division attacked Peleliu on September 15, 1944.
The fight for the island was supposed to be short but dragged on for more than two months before the island was secure. It was during the fighting on Peleliu that Sledge began keeping a journal of his experiences tucked in the pages of his bible. The fight for the island had so decimated his division that they would not be fit for action again for over six months.The 1st Marine Division next saw action during the bloody battle for Okinawa. After 82 intense days of combat, the island was secured and the Marines began preparing for their next mission, the invasion of Japan. Fortunately, the atomic bombs forced a Japanese capitulation and Sledge and the 5th Marines instead were sent to Beijing for occupation duty. Sledge was discharged from the Marine Corps in February of 1946 at the rank of corporal.
Despite being out of the war, the experiences he had continued to plague him. He felt out of place back in Alabama, being around people who had not experienced the war. As he stated in an interview with PBS, “As I strolled the streets of Mobile, civilian life seemed so strange. People rushed around in a hurry about seemingly insignificant things. Few seemed to realise how blessed they were to be free and untouched by the horrors of war. To them, a veteran was a veteran – all were the same, whether one man had survived the deadliest combat or another had pounded a typewriter while in uniform.”
While at the Registrar a clerk reviewing his military transcripts asked him if “the Marine Corps taught you anything useful?” To which he replied “Lady, there was a killing war. The Marine Corps taught me how to kill Japs and try to survive. Now, if that don’t fit into any academic course, I’m sorry. But some of us had to do the killing — and most of my buddies got killed or wounded.”
Along with his difficulties with civilians, Eugene Sledge also found himself a changed man. Prior to the war, he had been an avid hunter but when he came back, he found the experience too much to bear. During one particular hunt, Sledge’s father found him weeping after having to kill a wounded dove, saying he could no longer bear to witness any suffering. The conversation was an important one. His father suggested he could substitute bird watching for hunting. This would be a turning point in Sledge’s transition and help guide his career.
Sledge threw himself into his studies at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University), as the studying seemed to help with the flashbacks. In science, he found a subject that would keep him sane and complimented his new passion for observing nature. He completed his bachelor’s degree in only three years, graduating in 1949 with a degree in Biology. He returned to Alabama Polytechnic in 1953 as a graduate student and research assistant before earning his Master’s in Biology in 1955.
Despite his rigorous study keeping many of the bad memories at bay, the war was still with him. At the urging of his wife, he returned to the journal he kept during the war and began work on his memoirs. Then from 1956 to 1960 Sledge attended the University of Florida where he received his Ph.D. in Biology. Dr. Sledge returned to Alabama and became a professor of Biology at the University of Montevallo in 1962.Dr. Sledge continued to teach at the university until his retirement in 1990. During that time, he also continued to work on his own memoirs. His first book, With the Old Breed: at Peleliu and Okinawa, was published in 1981. Unlike most autobiographical war memoirs, Sledge’s book was written very academically and included cited sources. There is no shortage of authenticity to it, as he describes in gory detail, his experiences from the war. Combined with his academic pursuits, the writing of his book allowed Sledge to finally put the war behind him.
Eugene Sledge died in 2001 but his memory lives on. In 2002, his second book, China Marine: an Infantryman’s Life after WWII, was published. Then in 2007, it was announced that “With the Old Breed” was being used as source material for the HBO miniseries “The Pacific.” “With the Old Breed” is also on the Commandant’s Reading List.