“With the Old Breed” running notes

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).

“With the Old Breed” running notes

Going to start reading autobiographies by random old-timers

One of the most amazing books I’ve read was “The Trail Led North,” which I first heard about in The Seattle Times in their series of articles regarding the 1897 Alaska Gold Rush  This book was dictated by an older man to his grown granddaughter in the 1940s, and it was about his journey to the Yukon to search for gold in the 1897.  Not in a million years would I have heard his story, but it was interesting and I learned a lot of things.  (Note: I think this is the book, although it has been 20 years and I got it for free from the library).

For example, he worked in a Portland timber mill when Portland was a young and small town, and at one point a man shot another man in cold-blood when the first man issued an insult to the man; the man went to trial for murder but the jury ruled that the killing was justified, since the man had it coming to him for issuing insults like that. 

Later, he decides to try his luck in the gold fields, so has to purchase many many crates of supplies to house him while he was there, then took a steamer to Skagway.  Along the way, a steamer ahead of them just sank and disappeared without a trace – all the riders were drowned and forgotten in time.

When he journeys to the fields, he relies a lot on pancakes, but can’t find the syrup, so has to eat his pancakes dry. He promises to exchange words with the shopkeeper when he returns home, but then later finds the syrup in another crate.  

Finally, at the fields there are many people he meets (in fact, it seems quite crowded out there with people hoping to find their fortune).  At one point they are crossing a frozen lake, and a man and his young son fall break through the ice and drown. 

These are just some stories I remember off the top of my head outside of facts that I already know about the Yukon Gold Rush.  It was a fascinating book, like having an old man tell you about his experiences of long forgotten days.  How many books are out there like that?  Of interesting stories told by forgotten people?

I’d like to — and plan to — invest some time in the coming months/years to read these kinds of stories.  The first one – for the simple reason it is already on my kindle – is With the Old Breed, a book written by a World War II marine about his experiences in the Pacific.  I believe this book was used to research for The Pacific, which is why it’s on my kindle, but still, a book written by someone I’ll never meet or hear of again about his personal experiences as an everyday person in The Pacific.  

Going to start reading autobiographies by random old-timers

Finished Of Mice and Men by Steinbeck

At 48 years of age, finally read Of Mice and Men on the recommendation of daughter L.  In short, loved it. Like so many of the classics, it made me think, and did it in less than 100 pages.

The book follows giant but simple Lenny and small but cynical George, two drifters who have signed on to work on a farm.  We learn that Lenny is a good person but has a long history of hurting things, and there is foreshadowing by the way he inadvertantly kills mice, how the two men are on the run after Lennie inappropriate touched and scared a woman, and how George tells Lennie where they’ll meet if anything bad happens.  

We gradually meet the work men on the farm, all down-and-out and flawed men (and the new bride) in the early 20th century who are essentially alone and scared in the world, and cautious with each other.  GEorge more or less befriends one of the men, and they plan to buy a farm together, with the three men living and working on the land.  We also get a taste of foreshadowing when a beloved dog who was once a great sheep herder (just like Lennie is a great farm worker) but now too old to be of use is shot in the back of the head.  

Later, Lennie — like he has done before — inadvertently kills the young bride of the boss’s pugnacious son and flees into the hills.  The three men’s dream of owning a farm is now over, and George concludes that Lennie will always be a risk to people of the world.  George finds him in their previously agreed upon hiding spot, and shoots Lennie in the back of the head, like the old dog earlier in the story.

It is a heartbreaking story that seems to capture friendship, pity, loneliness and the life of a poor working class American 100+ years ago.  It is a story worth reading.

Finished Of Mice and Men by Steinbeck