With The Old Breed

Jules Crittenden on  E. B. Sledge’s  With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

“If all war is hell, Sledge had the great misfortune to land in a couple of the worst corners of it, in the deadly fight for the coral ridges of Peleiu and in the corpse-strewn muddy approachs to Shuri Castle in Okinawa. Take whatever experience you have with discomfort, filth,violence, death and human rot, and start multiplying

I read With the Old Breed over Christmas and highly recommend this memoir. What started out as private account intended only for family was shaped over the course of twenty years into a riveting read. Crittenden also mentions “Helmet for my Pillow” by Robert Leckie. I read Leckie’s account immediately after Old Breed and frankly couldn’t wait to put it down. I found it instantly forgettable, in large part due to Leckie’s overblown, (if not outright pompous), style which pales next to the sense of intimacy and credibility conveyed by Sledge’s spartan delivery. Reading “Helmet” was a bit like watching the “The Thin Red Line”, you soon “get” the idea that you’re supposed to be impressed that every damn swaying palm is somehow vested with a deep mystical meaning. This wears thin after the first 30 times or so, or about page 10 as I recall.

I do recommend “Parachute Infantry” by David Kenyon Webster. Fans of “Band of Brothers” will recognize the name. Webster died young and unable to find a publisher willing to take on what is an often acidic account of his WW II experience.  Thanks to Stephen Ambrose, Band’s author, his manuscript finally saw print. Webster’s account of his time in Easy Company is refreshingly not a hagiography, rather it offers unvarnished glimpses of many of the officers, noncoms, enlisted men & events now so widely familiar and introduces us to others passed over in more popular books.

What I found especially interesting were the “letters home”. Webster was very much a product of his time and place. A well-bred Harvard man, respectful & proud of his parents, family and country, he was burdened by what he perceived as the ill treatment of the common man by his “society”. He became a “traitor to his class” democrat, albeit with strong concerns about Roosevelt’s more radical policies. These issues did not prevent him from excitedly casting his first ever ballot for FDR when ironically he came of legal voting age on the battlefield, having already earned that right in the campaigns of Normandy and Holland. Conflicted on many fronts, whether about the war, the army, politics or life in general his decency and a growing sense of self emerge. Never once did he attempt to leverage his social standing or connections. His sense of duty, combined with an english major’s youthful fantasy to live a “writers life” compelled him to volunteer for the parachute infantry rather than take an easy, and easily available, way out.

A letter to his mother displays the self-righteous indignation young men possess when decisively winning an argument with a parent. I wonder if looking back Webster ever regretted being so harsh in accusing her of wanting to win the war by sacrificing the life of every mother’s son save her own. Some arguments should never be won by cold reason if it can be avoided. An interesting read of themselves his letters reveal the marked and often poignant contrast between the voice of the author as a man and the son on the road to manhood. Oh and one other plus – he really really hated the French, his opinion echoing Albert Speer’s response to a question about the impact of the French Resistance – “What French Resistance?”

Reading: “Those Devil’s in Baggy Pant’s” by Ross S. Carter who passed away only 3 years after the 1951 publication of what I can so far only describe as “Mickey Spillane’s Vernacular Goes To War”. It’s a good read.

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