August 14, 2015

"On the 70th Anniversary of VJ Day, Eugene B. Sledge Puts Your First World Problems Into Perspective"

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 taxed the mental and physical capacities of the men to their limits.

During the day, the Japanese poured mortars, grenades, and machine gun fire into the Marines’ positions. As Sledge remembers, it was the heavy shelling which was “by far the most unbearable”:

“There was nothing subtle or intimate about the approach and explosion of an artillery shell. When I heard the whistle of an approaching one in the distance, every muscle in my body contracted. I braced myself in a puny effort to keep from being swept away. I felt utterly helpless.

As the fiendish whistle grew louder, my teeth ground against each other, my heart pounded, my mouth dried, my eyes narrowed, sweat poured over me, my breath came in short irregular gasps, and I was afraid to swallow lest I choke. I always prayed, sometimes out loud.

Under certain conditions of range and terrain, I could hear the shell approaching from a considerable distance, thus prolonging the suspense into seemingly unending torture. At the instant the voice of the shell grew the loudest, it terminated in a flash and a deafening explosion similar to the crash of a loud clap of thunder. The ground shook and the concussion hurt my ears. Shell fragments tore the air apart as they rushed out, whirring and ripping. Rocks and dirt clattered onto the deck as smoke of the exploded shell dissipated.

To be under a barrage of prolonged shelling simply magnified all the terrible physical and emotional effects of one shell. To me, artillery was an invention of hell. The onrushing whistle and scream of the big steel package of destruction was the pinnacle of violent fury and the embodiment of pent-up evil. It was the essence of violence and of man’s inhumanity to man. I developed a passionate hatred for shells. To be killed by a bullet seemed so clean and surgical. But shells would not only tear and rip the body, they tortured one’s mind almost beyond the brink of sanity. After each shell I was wrung out, limp and exhausted.”

Compounding this manmade assault was a climate and landscape that proved equally inhospitable. During the day, a blazing hot sun constantly “bore down like a giant heat lamp” as the men patrolled, took cover, and spent hours hauling giant crates of ammo and supplies from drop points to their positions. Temperatures soared to 115 degrees, and the unrelenting heat brought even the strongest Marines to their knees. The men were perpetually soaked with sweat, and Sledge’s pack “felt like a steaming-hot wet compress on my shoulders and upper back.” When the perspiration dried, it left behind swatches of fine white salt that stiffened his uniform. One part of the body, the feet, unfortunately never dried. Because Sledge never knew when he would have to scramble over the rugged terrain, he could rarely remove his boots, though they grew so full of sweat that if he lifted his foot in the air while lying on his back, water literally poured out of each shoe. With every step, his soggy feet squished inside their casings.

As seen in greater detail on The Art of Manliness

The mud was knee deep in some places, probably deeper in others if one dared venture there. For several feet around every corpse [and there were thousands of those], maggots crawled about in the muck and then were washed away by the runoff of the rain. . .The scene was nothing but mud; shell fire; flooded craters with their silent, pathetic, rotting occupants; knocked-out tanks and amtracs; and discarded equipment - utter desolation.

The stench of death was overpowering. The only way I could bear the monstrous horror of it all was to look upward away from the earthly reality surrounding us, watch the leaden gray clouds go skudding over, and repeat over and over to myself that the situation was unreal - just a nightmare - that I would soon awake and find myself somewhere else.

I existed from moment to moment, sometimes thinking death would have been preferable. We were in the depths of the abyss, the ultimate horror of war. . . Men struggled and fought and bled in an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell's own cesspool. (Sledge, With the Old Breed, page 253.)

Posted by gerardvanderleun at August 14, 2015 6:39 PM
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