With The Old Breed

Posted: Wednesday, March 10, 2010 by Travis Cody in

A couple of weeks ago, I gave you a passage from With the Old Breed, a memoir by World War II Marine E.B. Sledge. I still haven't finished the book, although I'm almost there. It's been quite a painful read. The descriptions are vivid and disturbing. I'd like to share another one with you.

The passage comes toward the end of the book, during the battle of Okinawa. Mr Sledge writes of his experience while dug in near Shuri at Half Moon Hill. The weather was foul, with constant torrential rain creating fields of mud. The weather and threat of enemy snipers kept the Marines from disposing of enemy dead. They chanced sniper and mortar fire just to take a few minutes and shovel mud over enemy corpses.

Even worse, it was difficult for them to collect their own dead... and that is anathema to any Marine.

The longer we stayed in the area, the more unending the nights seemed to become. I reached the state where I would awake abruptly from my semi-sleep, and if the area was lit up, note with confidence my buddy scanning the terrain for any hostile sign. I would glance about, particularly behind us, for trouble. Finally, before we left the area, I frequently jerked myself up into a state in which I was semi-awake during periods between star shells.

I imagined Marine dead had risen up and were moving silently about the area. I suppose these were nightmares, and I must have been more asleep than awake, or just dumbfounded by fatigue. Possibly they were hallucinations, but they were strange and horrible. The pattern was always the same. The dead got up slowly out of their waterlogged craters or off the mud and, with stooped shoulders and dragging feet, wandered around aimlessly, their lips moving as though trying to tell me something. I struggled to hear what they were saying. They seemed agonized by pain and despair. I felt they were asking me for help. The most horrible thing was that I felt unable to aid them.

At that point I invariably became wide awake and felt sick and half-crazed by the horror of my dream. I would gaze out intently to see if the silent figures were still there, but saw nothing. When a flare lit up, all was stillness and desolation, each corpse in its usual place.

Among the craters off the ridge to the west was a scattering of Marine corpses. Just beyond the right edge of the end foxhole, the ridge fell away steeply to the flat, muddy ground. Next to the base of the ridge, almost directly below me, was a partially flooded crater about three feet in diameter and probably three feet deep. In this crater was the body of a Marine whose grisly visage has remained disturbingly clear in my memory. If I close my eyes, he is as vivid as though I had seen him only yesterday.

The pathetic figure sat with his back toward the enemy and leaned against the south edge of the crater. His head was cocked, and his helmet rested against the side of the crater so that his face, or what remained of it, looked straight up at me. His knees were flexed and spread apart. Across his thighs, still clutched in his skeletal hands, was his rusting BAR. Canvas leggings were laced neatly along the sides of his calves and over his boondockers. His ankles were covered with muddy water, but the toes of his boondockers were visible above the surface. His dungarees, helmet, cover, and 782 gear appeared new. They were neither mud-spattered nor faded.

I was confident that he had been a new replacement. Every aspect of that big man looked much like a Marine "taking ten" on maneuvers before the order to move out again. He apparently had been killed early in the attacks against Half Moon, before the rains began. Beneath his helmet brim I could see the visor of a green cotton fatigue cap. Under that cap were the most ghastly skeletal remains I had ever seen - and I had already seen too many.

Every time I looked over the edge of that foxhole down into that crater, that half-gone face leered up at me with a sardonic grin. It was as though he was mocking our pitiful efforts to hang on to life in the face of the constant violent death that had cut him down. Or maybe he was mocking the folly of the war itself: "I am the harvest of man's stupidity. I am the fruit of the holocaust. I prayed like you to survive, but look at me now. It is over for us who are dead, but you must struggle, and will carry the memories all your life. People back home will wonder why you can't forget."

During the day I sometimes watched big rain drops splashing into the crater around that corpse and remembered how as a child I had been fascinated by rain drops splashing around a large green frog as he sat in a ditch near home. My grandmother had told me that elves make little splashes like that, and they were called water babies. So I sat in my foxhole and watched the water babies splashing around the green-dungaree-clad corpse. What an unlikely combination. The war had turned the water babies into little ghouls that danced around the dead instead of little elves dancing around a peaceful bullfrog. A man had little to occupy his mind at Shuri - just sit in muddy misery and fear, tremble through the shellings, and let his imagination go where it would.

To combat veterans of any conflict in any branch of service, my gratitude is poor payment for what you endured. Yet it's what I have to offer, and you have it.


  1. Jeff B says:

    It's hard for me to imagine what any of these men went through. To have those type of scenes ingrained in your mind for ever must be quite a burden to carry.

  1. JohnH985 says:

    Isn't it amazing how strong the power of a book can be?

  1. Travis says:

    Jeff: First they faced the horror of living through it, then they had to face the horror of the memories for the rest of their lives.

    John: Indeed.

  1. jennifer says:

    That was almost too well written. I felt what he was experiencing - but I didn't want to.

    I stand in agreement with you. I can only offer our Veterans my thanks but it is sincere.

  1. Travis says:

    Jennifer: Well put. The entire book is like this. That's why it has been a tough read for me.

  1. Bond says:

    Pacific begins on Sunday...I have TiVo all set...i could be convinced to transfer to DVD and relay it to you my friend

    These words sent shivers down my spine...so incredible the images he put on paper and now in my brain.

    My dad has completed his memoirs and I am waiting to read them, including his time in Korea - I never knew of the situations he faced, but in these words, he recounts his nightmares...

  1. Wow - what an amazing piece of writing. Again, I'm so thankful he felt he could revisit such horrible memories in order to share them so masterfully with us.