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  • Writer's pictureJody Ferguson

With the Old Breed - Book Review

Accounts of soldiers’ fighting days in WWII are legion. Ranging from the highest of generals and admirals to the lowliest of privates and sailors, there are riveting descriptions of the searing experiences of veterans from every army that participated in the largest conflict that mankind has ever known. One of the more overlooked books written from the viewpoint of the common foot soldier is Eugene Sledge’s “With the Old Breed,” a visceral account of his days island hopping across the Pacific as a U.S. Marine in 1944-45. Penned thirty-five years after the end of WWII and based on notes he had written in a pocket version of the New Testament that he carried into battle, Sledge’s prose is as remarkable as it is realistic, and the astonishing, graphic descriptions of combat often leave the reader speechless.

Some examples:

“To those who entered the meat grinder itself, the war was a nether world of horror from which escape seemed less and less likely as…the fighting dragged on and on. Time had no meaning; life had no meaning. The fierce struggle eroded the veneer of civilization and made savages of us all.” After surviving the butchery on Peleliu Island, Sledge describes the effort of ascending a cargo net onto a troopship, which would carry the Marines to rest before taking them to the next bloody landing. “As I struggled upward with my load of equipment, I felt like a weary insect climbing a vine. But at last I was crawling up out of the abyss.”


Sledge’s adjustment to civilian life after the war was difficult. But after finding his niche teaching biology in Alabama, he left the world with this brilliant, though oftentimes horrifying, account of a common soldier fighting a fanatical enemy in some of the most brutal of conditions.


This book made a tremendous impression on me, not just because of the incredible language and graphic realism, but because of a Marine officer who figures prominently in Sledge’s account of his time on Okinawa. My father was too young to fight in the war. But after the war he formed a close friendship with a man in Houston named Tom Stanley. They grew close through a mutual interest in Civil War history. My father later recounted that he once enquired how Tom had lost the top half of his thumb. Tom off-handedly said, “A Jap grenade.” My father knew it best not to ask any further questions. For years they traded books and recommendations and remained in close contact. When my father moved away from Houston they lost contact. Many years later my father received a phone call out of the blue from one of Tom’s children. Tom had passed away peacefully in old age. In his will he specified that my father could take any of the books from Tom’s extensive collection. My father drove down to Houston for the funeral. Afterwards he was taken to Tom’s house by his son, where my father was told he could go into the library and take any book. My father, as grateful as he was, only took a handful of books, mostly about the Civil War. He also took some well-worn books from a shelf that featured U.S. Marines in the Pacific Theater of WWII, knowing my deep interest in this area. The margins in most of the books were all marked with Tom’s handwriting, giving his own account, because after all, as a member of the Fifth Marine Regiment, he had participated in three campaigns. It was in this collection of these books that I came across Sledge’s book. I didn’t read “With the Old Breed” for a while, but when I did there came a moment when I sat up straight in my chair. I immediately drove to my father’s house nearby and showed him what I had found. There on page 212 was a photo of Captain Thomas “Stumpy” Stanley, USMC using a field telephone in a muddy field on Okinawa. He had been Sledge’s company commander. He had earned the nickname “Stumpy” due to the missing thumb. I looked at my father and saw the emotion in his eyes about the connection made through Sledge’s masterful work. In my novel Above the Water the character Tim "Stubby" Staley is based on Tom.




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