Thirteen years after his classic Marine war memoir, With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa, was first published, Eugene Sledge recollected his brutal baptism of fire on Peleliu in a September 1994 Proceedings magazine article. What follows is an excerpt from that piece.
I was a 60-mm mortarman in K Company, 3d Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, having joined the company as a replacement while the division was in rest camp on Pavuvu in the Russell Islands after the Cape Gloucester, New Britain, campaign. The division had fought the epic battle of Guadalcanal prior to Cape Gloucester, so I became part of a proud, high-spirited, elite veteran outfit. Even so, it was made up of very young men—85 percent had not become 21.
The assault on Peleliu and capture of the beach was my baptism of fire—and a shock it was. Our amtracs, carrying about 20 Marines each, formed up into waves after leaving the LSTs. The prelanding bombardment had been in progress for some time; the noise was thunderous. We, not being fools, were all scared to death about landing on that Jap-held beach—the veterans because they knew what to expect, the new men because we didn't know what to expect. I didn't know how I would react under fire—nobody ever does until he has experienced the madness of front-line combat. I hung weakly to the side of the tractor and prayed that I would do my duty, survive, and not wet my pants.
We were in the second wave, and our amtrac engine idled as we awaited the signal to go in. As we waited, we marveled at the awesome power of the barrage by battleships, cruisers, destroyers, rocket-firing LCIs, supported by Corsairs and dive-bombers strafing and bombing. The beach was a sheet of flame backed by a huge wall of black smoke, as though the island were on fire. The incredible power of the 16-inch salvos from the battlewagons was like nothing any of us had ever experienced. Even above the general din, we could distinguish the rumble of these huge shells as they tore toward the island. When they exploded, trees and debris were hurled high into the air. We had to shout to each other because of the tumult and cursed when the naval officer waved the flag for us to start in. The amtrac engines roared, and we lurched forward. Everything my life had been before and has been after pales in the light of that awesome moment.
My heart pounded as we churned toward that inferno. For all too many young Americans, it was into oblivion—before they had ever really lived. The fleet moved to the flanks and continued to fire as the tractor formations started in. As we moved onto the reef (about 500 yards opposite Beach Orange 2), Jap shells came screaming into the tractor waves. The sound of an incoming artillery shell is one of the most gut-wrenching, unforgettable sounds of combat. The smaller the caliber of the gun, the higher the pitch. The farther away the gun, the longer the excruciating agony of the approach tortures the mind. I saw several amtracs hit. Some burst into flame, and bodies of Marines were blown into the air. Some Marines escaped from the disabled vehicles and suffered the horror of coming in against relentless enemy machine-gun fire. I was sickened to see these helpless Marines slaughtered.
We hit a coral head and stalled for terrifying moments. Just as we started in again a huge shell came roaring in and exploded just off our bow. No damage was done, but had we not been slowed by the coral head, that Jap gunner would have hit us dead center. As it was, my heart nearly stopped.
Every Marine in that amtrac was sickly white with terror. We got to the beach amid erupting shell bursts and the rattle of enemy machine-gun bullets against the steel of our amtrac. Heavy Jap artillery and mortars were pounding the beach, and Marines were getting hit constantly. We piled out of our amtrac amid blue-white Japanese machine-gun tracers and raced inland a few yards. I hit the deck near my squad mates. Back on the reef I saw burning amtracs and struggling Marines. I felt like weeping over their fate, but we were in a maelstrom of crashing shells and snapping rifle and machine-gun bullets. Our own lives hung by a thread. We were ordered off the deadly beach, and I glanced back at the spot our amtrac had just left. A DUKW (amphibious truck) came in and stopped there, to be hit almost instantly by a large shell that exploded dead center, engulfing it in thick black smoke. I didn't see anybody get out.
We raced inland into the cover of the scrub growth. The company advanced in extended order, stopping at intervals to clear out snipers or Japs hiding in spider foxholes as they tried to fire at us. We reached our objective, the eastern shore, by afternoon. The heat was terrible, 110- to 115-degrees Fahrenheit. While on the eastern-shore cliffs, we could see Japs swimming and running along the reef. We killed most of them.
A runner came up with orders to fall back because the Japs had gotten in our rear. The veterans griped bitterly at having to leave such "good shooting." We fell back to the edge of the airfield with L and I Companies in the vicinity, but the thick growth precluded solid contact. We had no contact with the 7th Marines on our right and the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines on our left. The company formed a firing line along a coral trail just within the scrub with good visibility of the airfield and Bloody Nose Ridge beyond. Snafu Shelton (a veteran) and I set up our 60-mm mortar in a shallow crater bordering the trail. Vehicles of some sort were racing across the open field toward our line on the left.
"Snafu," I asked, "what are those amtracs doing out there in enemy territory?"
"Amtracs, hell," he snapped, "them's Nip tanks." I shuddered. "Stand by to repel counterattack," came the order. "Mortars stand by to fire."
R. V. Burgin, our squad leader and observer, turned around and yelled the range and direction to us. Snafu set the sight for range and windage. I readied a high-explosive shell. "Fire one!" yelled Snafu. I raised the shell with my left hand. Instantly a blast of .30-caliber machine-gun fire cracked just inches over my hand. The red tracers meant a U.S. gun, and it came from the rear.
"Goddamnit, fire, Sledgehammer!" repeated Snafu. I tried again with the same terrifying results and jerked my hand down. I had no desire to lose it or have that mortar shell explode and kill our squad. I looked to the rear and saw an American Sherman tank as it fired its 75-mm gun to our right around a bend in the trail. It was dueling with a 75-mm Jap field gun on the same trail we were on—we could not see the Japs for the scrub—and the tanker mistook us for Jap infantry supporting the artillery piece. The smoke and dust from exploding shells in the area made his error understandable, but we realized that once he knocked out that Jap gun, he would swing his main gun on us and we would be dead. Sergeant Hank Boyes ran back to the tank and identified us. The crew told him they were sure were glad they hadn't hit any of us. Boyes got on the turret and directed their fire. In addition to the Jap gun around the bend, they knocked out three more 75s, all the while firing their machine guns in a complete circle. There never was a front line on Peleliu. The whole island was a front line.
All this time the tank battle on the left raged until the enemy vehicles were destroyed. We were pinned down during the whole affair. Hank was exposed the entire time on the Sherman tank. The Nips fired everything they had at him, but he didn't get a scratch. When it quieted down in our area, four Jap 75s and about 200 infantry had been accounted for. They had all been secreted in the scrub in ambush. Had it not been for Hank's heroic actions, K Company would have been annihilated that terrible day. He was awarded a Silver Star—it should have been the Medal of Honor—and was promoted to gunnery sergeant. He was later wounded, but recovered and served through the long ordeal on Okinawa.
The next morning we were ordered to capture the airfield, and we started across at a trot in the searing heat, into the face of Bloody Nose Ridge. That attack was the worst experience any of us had during all of World War II. The Nips smothered the open ground with artillery, mortar, and machine-gun fire, and the company had to go about 200 yards through the thickest fire I ever saw. The ground rocked and swayed from shell concussions, and streams of machine-gun tracers streaked past our ears.
I expected to get hit any moment as I saw Marines crumple, pitch forward, or sag to the deck in death. I don't know how many losses any of the companies had, but it was an awful experience. Years later, a retired Marine Corps general who had witnessed the attack told me it was a foolish mistake by the division commander.
As we fought through that first week onto the ridges, we slowly realized that he had sent us into a death trap on Peleliu. Amphibious doctrine stated that the ratio of an assault force should be three-to-one over the defenders. The division's three infantry regiments—the 1st, 5th, and 7th Marines—each numbered about 3,000 infantrymen, excluding attached specialists who were not fighting infantry. We hit Peleliu with 9,000 Marine infantrymen. It was known that the Japs had more than 11,000 troops dug into those cement-hard coral ridges; rather than 3:1, we were outnumbered. The 1st Marines were shot to pieces the first week, and I lost many a good friend. A note from the commanding general was read to all units on the line about D+5 or D+6, stating that we didn't need Army help to finish the job. It was met with curses and fervent hopes that the commanding general would burn in the nether regions. Fortunately, Major General Roy Geiger, the corps commander, ordered the CG to relieve the 1st Marines, and the 321st Infantry came to our aid. We were glad to see those dogfaces, and they did a good job.
The fighting in the ridges was exhausting and costly. Flamethrowers were indispensable. Any cave we attacked was covered by heavy Jap fire from other mutually supporting positions, and all were interconnected within the ridges. The Japs fought like demons, and shot our stretcher teams—the corpsmen and the wounded. We hated them with a passion known to few antagonists. Some writers blame it on racism. I don't believe that. The Code of Bushido by which the Japs fought fostered brutality. We never took prisoners, even when some few tried to give up. They often tried to throw a grenade at us. After taking a position we routinely shot both the dead and wounded enemy troops in the head, to make sure they were dead. Survival was hard enough in the infantry without taking chances being humane to men who fought so savagely.
The shell-blasted ridges took on the character of a moonscape. They were also a garbage dump, what with rotting enemy dead that we couldn't bury in the hard coral, discarded rations, and human excrement from thousands of men in a restricted area. The stench was nauseating. Huge green flies swarmed off Jap corpses and covered our C-rations. Too fat to be blown away, they had to be picked off. We covered our dead with ponchos and put them behind our positions. Our body filth from sweat, rain, and dust made us miserable, but it was unavoidable.
The Japs raided our lines every night, but we always stopped them, though not before they caused casualties. The 1st Marine Division fought in this hell for 30 days and nights, and was shattered. It suffered 6,526 killed and wounded. My company sustained 64 percent casualties, including our beloved commander, Captain Andrew "Ack Ack" Haldane. The Jap garrison was all but wiped out; almost 11,000 were killed. Seven soldiers were captured and a few Korean laborers. It was all a criminal waste, because the island should have been bypassed. We realized that then, 50 years ago.