My first old-timer autobiography is “With the Old Breed,” for the simple reason it was already in my kindle library…
Meet EB, our hero. He was in college when World War 2 broke out, and wanted to join the marines although his parents wanted him to finish college. They compromised, and he enlisted in officer ROTC, meaning he’d have another two years of college before becoming a marine officer. But the campus was peaceful and you’d never guess there was a war going on, so desperate to get to the fighting, E.B. and 90 other comrades intentionally flunked out and were sent to the marines as enlisted men. Their commanding officer, a salty and swaggering Guadalcanal survivor, praised the 90 men for their determination. EB was a step closer towards war. It would be 2.5 years before he returned home.
He spent 8 weeks in basic training where they were drilled 18 hours a day with the discipline I’d expect from a WW2 marine boot camp and later they spent 2 easier months in weapons and combat training, where he was trained on the 60MM mortar. They were trained that gun saftey was critical, as was following commands. The commanding officers had keen, observant eyes: when one marine’s attention wavered briefly with his gun, the captain kicked him so hard in the rear the marine fell down; another time, a bomber crashed near the training grounds and many of the marines ran over, but were promptly punished for not seeking their officer’s approval for leaving the area. They were taught how to use their knife, and the trainer guaranteed at least one of them would kill an enemy with a knife in hand-t0-hand combat, something that came true. EB said most of the men weren’t thinking they might be killed – they were worried about being too afraid in combat to perform, something EB attributes to ignroance of what was awaaiting them. It became clearer that they were being trained to be cannon fodder, to be repplacements for the increasing number of marines who were getting killed overseas. Finally, was realizing that war was not like hunting, since animals aren’t shootingn back — he would neve hunt again.
They were loaded aboard a former passenger liner, and sent overseas. Most of them had never been away from home, and now it was starting to sink in that for some of them this would be a one-way trip (i.e. they would die in battle). Below deck was crowded, smelly and hot, and the chow line was long and the food awful, and because it was so crowded they ate standing up. EB caught a glimpse of the officers eating in comfort, but was comforted later because officers received no such comforts in battle. During the day, they had calisthenics, had “bull” conversations and stayed above deck as much as possible.
They were initially stationed on a small island that looked like a postcard from the distance but was choked with rotting coconut trees and covered in soft mud. THe smell of rotting coconut was so bad, EB could never eat coconut — even fresh coconut — again. And the entire island was infested with hand-sized crabs that got into everthing. Showers were completed during the many intense showers, which started immediately but ended immediately; the trick was to soap up and rinse off before the rain stopped (without warning). They also felt completely isolated on this tiny island so far from home, like they were cut off fromt eh rest of theworld.
They spent their time training (invasion and combat exercises as well as weapons training) with more training, and on labor duty to clean up the island. They saw many veterans, and they friendly but were all thin, exhausted looking with that distant detached look. Their was an esprit de corp, and the men felt an intense bond with each other that helped some of the misery, plus the veterans did not tolerate complaining from new marines who had not yet experienced the hell of combat. In the group was an infamous marine who had fought in World War I, taught school in Arkansas, then returned to the marines to fight in the jungles of World War II. The man was a gruff seargant, but seeemed beyond rank to the point he once physically confronted a careless lieutenant during weapons training, and seemed to occupy his own world.
As D-Day approaches (for their attack on Peilelu), training intensifies as does discipline. A veteran explains discipline always increases before an attack, since the Marines want the men bitter/angry. They are reminded repeatedly — get off the beach fast; they are told to expect four days of intense fighting (like Tarawa) before victory, but the men worry about an extended campaign (like Gaudalcanal). As the sun sinks on the eve of their attack, EB is stricken to think it may be the last time he sees the sunset. They are given final instructions by a drawn-looking lieutenant, then sent to bed. They rise early, have traditional steak and eggs, then prepare to depart. The men are nervous, and it may be the last chance to “move their bowels” for awhile, so there is a long line for the toilets.
EB spends some time describing the setting as the battle begins: including the stench of diesel and explosives, the defeaning noise of the big guns that requires them to shout, the explosions and fire that make the approaching beach seem like an erupting volcano, the strong nervousness that makes his knees buckle and chokes his throat, and the fury that is felt as he helplesssly watches marines slaughtered in the first minutes on the beach. He realizes all of them are afraid, even the veterans. He trips and falls just as machine guy bullets spray the area around him, and as he lays in the sand a worried-looking marine leans over him to make sure he wasn’t hit by the bullets. He scampers for cover off the beach and waits while the NCOs try to herd the men. After 15 minutes, they are given the orders to move out.
Every man on the front lines spends time every day as a stretcher bearer (a few behind the lines volunteer, too). Because of the terrain, heat and because the Japanese snipers try mercilessly to pick off stretcher bearers, it is a dangerous job that requires four men at a time. It is a terrifying and exhausting job, but they do it and very few men are dropped. He is amazed at how trusting the injurred men on the stretchers are of their comrades.
The men at the front occassionally encounter men from behind the lines. It is strange, since the men from the front are so haggard, filthy dirty (hans are black from oil, clothes have holes and are coated in gray coral dust, eyes are sunken from fatigue and horror) and the support staff are so clean. They resent the souvenoir hunters, men from behind the lines who sneak up to find souvenoirs from the dead Japanese; one front line officer Shanghais these men, forcing them to serve time on the front line.
Every single night, starting almost immediately at dark, Japanese infiltrators sneak into their fox holes. Becuse it is so dark, and because of strict fire discipline, they often hear struggles of hand-to-hand combat but have to wdait before shooting. One man, going off to relieve himself, steps on an enemy soldier, and both react immediately in a furious hand-to-hand duel; another time, a marine has to kill his attacker by poking his fingers through the man’s eyes. These are brutal, to-the-death fights that occur nightly. (Oh my God, if you were involved in this, how could you ever sleeep in the dark again without nighmares?? The answer is, probably couldn’t).