With our archives now 3,500+ articles deep, we’ve decided to republish a classic piece each Friday to help our newer readers discover some of the best, evergreen gems from the past. This article was originally published in August 2015.
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 goes responsibility. –Eugene B. Sledge, With the Old Breed
“The fighting will be extremely tough but short. It will be over in four days, maybe three.”
That had been the word from the general of the 1st Marine Division as his men prepared to take the tiny island of Peleliu from the Japanese.
But the fight had not gone as planned. The Japanese had changed their strategy. In previous Pacific battles, they had attacked the Americans in mass kamikaze charges, and been mowed down by the thousands. On Peleliu, they switched tactics, retreating into a vast network of caves and pillboxes carved under the island’s rocky coral landscape. When American planes, ships, and ground artillery pounded their positions, they simply bunkered down, waited for the barrage to finish, and then reemerged for a ferocious counterattack. The enemy had become lethally elusive and was prepared to fight savagely to the death. Thus each yard the Marines took required a high price in blood, and sanity.
So it was that 15 days into the battle, there still appeared to be no end in sight. And one member of Company K, 3d Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment had reached his breaking point. Turning away from his fellow Marines, Private Eugene Bondurant Sledge sat down on his helmet, put his head in his hands and cried. The more he tried to stop his tears, the harder the sobs came. The horror and physical exhaustion of the previous two weeks had finally caught up to him.
E.B.’s nickname — “Sledgehammer” — belied his slight 135-lb build and demeanor. The son of a prominent physician back in Alabama, the shy, intelligent 20-year-old might have been mistaken for a poor young man who had been drafted into the military and found himself in over his head as a grunt. But Sledge had in fact chosen this path for himself. Though his family had urged him to stay in college as long as possible in order to angle for a safe, technical position in the Army, he had not only decided to join the Marines, but when he was put into officer training, he intentionally flunked out in order to enlist as a private. He wanted to see combat before the war was over. This desire was more than fulfilled, under circumstances he could not have conceived of then, and which today strain the limits of the modern imagination.
Since landing on the beaches of Peleliu on September 15, 1944, Sledge and his company had continually been under either actual attack, or the threat of it. Both conditions