Joe Mazzello plays Eugene Sledge in HBO's The Pacific.
[ed. note: Knowing what characters in The Pacific wrote memoirs may qualify, for some, as a "spoiler," in that they apparently ... lived long enough to write memoirs. So please understand that these reflections from NPR's Russell Lewis may, in effect, spoil events from World War II. This cannot be helped. I dearly hope you will read it anyway. — Linda Holmes]
by Russell Lewis
Some books just stay with you. Perhaps it's a memorable storyline. Or the writing. Or a compelling narrative. Sometimes it's all of those and more.
I first read With The Old Breed when I was in college. Journalism was my major. But American history became a passion. The early Deep South, the Civil Rights movement, World War II. I soaked it all in and read as much about those eras as I could. But one book haunted me. It stayed with me. It's the kind of book you love to reread. Little did I know how With The Old Breed would later parallel many aspects of my life.
The writing of With The Old Breed, and the reading of it too, after the jump.
Eugene Sledge grew up in south Alabama. He joined the Marines and fought in two battles in World War II: Peleliu and Okinawa. He wanted to become an officer but enlisted to get to battle sooner. He was scared and brave. He wasn't sure if he'd survive.
Sledge took notes throughout both campaigns, intending to write a short memoir for his family. His words were honest, forthright and just plain accessible. During some of the worst firefights, as his friends were cut down by enemy fire, Sledge wrote several times, "What a waste." I remembered how he chose his words and the pictures he painted with his engaging, yet simple, descriptions.
He went through boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. He remembered how Drill Instructors would bark orders at the terrified recruits. Many years later, as a public radio military reporter, I would walk through some of the same buildings and interview 18-year-olds with clean, cropped buzz cuts like Sledge's. They all seemed gung ho and eager. I wondered how many of these young men were really ready for battle. I wondered if any had read Sledge's book.
The battle at Peleliu in 1944 was supposed to be a quick one. Just four days. It was a tiny island. But the Japanese offered strong resistance and the conflict dragged on for months and killed thousands of Americans and Japanese. Later, the National Museum of the Marine Corps would call Peleliu the 'bitterest battle of the war for the Marines'. The Navy even named one of its amphibious assault ships the U.S.S. Peleliu. I spent several days at sea aboard that boxy, gray ship during a training mission in the Pacific Ocean.
Sledge was a member of the storied 1st Marine Division. That unit is based at Camp Pendleton, just north of San Diego. The sprawling 125,000 acre base is the Marine Corps's largest expeditionary training facility on the west coast. It's a place I got to know very well during my six years reporting on military issues there.
After I left Southern California, I moved several times and continued to pare down my belongings. I hadn't thought much about the book until a few weeks ago when I saw a headline in my local paper: "Alabama man's memoir used in HBO's The Pacific." I'd heard about the upcoming series but didn't know much about it. As I read the article, I learned that half of The Pacific was based on Sledge's book.
What surprised me even more is that Eugene Sledge had been a biology professor at a university not far from where I live now. A picture taken in 1999 showed him sitting in a comfortable chair, smiling, with his arms wrapped around a tiny black dog.
Sledge died a few years ago. He still has family in a neighboring town, and his son is quoted as saying his father would probably shun the publicity from the HBO series. So I did something else to honor this World War II veteran.
The other day I went looking for his book and found it, tucked away in the back of a bookshelf. There was a bit of dust and the pages have yellowed. I'm about halfway through With The Old Breed again, and I'm wondering if my love of writing and reporting on the military somehow got its start because of Eugene Sledge and his book.
Russell Lewis is Southern Bureau Chief of NPR News and based in Birmingham, Ala.