In May 1945, during the Battle of Okinawa, Cpl. Eugene B. Sledge and his comrades in K Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, were advancing across some muddy hills just past the southern highlands of Shuri when they came across a group of about 20 Japanese prisoners. An army language officer ordered the prisoners to make way for the filthy, weary column of Marines as they trudged toward the sound of distant firing. Then one defiant prisoner blocked the Marines’ path, and things heated up quickly.
Sledge’s buddy, a fellow rifleman, shoved the prisoner and “sent him sprawling into the mud,” as Sledge wrote in his 1981 classic “With the Old Breed.” Sledge — known as “Sledgehammer” to his fellow Marines — described how the prisoner sprang up quickly to again block the path.
“What’s that crazy bastard doing?” Sledge yelled, dropping his mortar ammo bag and reflexively reaching for his .45 pistol.
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Sledge described his buddy as “the picture of bearded ferocity”as he faced down the prisoner. The army officer,a lieutenant Sledge remembered as “spotless except for some muddy combat boots,” hurried forward to assess the problem. As he lectured the Marines about mistreating prisoners, a K Company officer intervened to tell the lieutenant that he’d better get his prisoners out of the way. He did.
“There was a flurry of cursing and grumbling from the column of raggedy-ass Marines as we had to double time to catch up with the rest of K Company,” Sledge recalled. In that small moment, amid the obvious enmity between two groups of enemies, was an undercurrent of friction between two groups on the same side.
Interservice rivalry during the war was not uncommon. Certainly there were a plethora of examples of such behavior between the Marine Corps and the U.S. Army. The most notable was the infamous “Smith vs. Smith” clash on Saipan in June 1944, when the senior officer ashore, Marine Lt. Gen. Holland M. Smith — believing the army troops there had moved too slowly on an important attack — abruptly relieved the commander of the army’s 27th Infantry Division, Maj. Gen. Ralph C. Smith, and ordered him off the island.
A bitter Marine Corps-U.S. Army dispute developed, lingering even beyond the war and coloring our collective understanding of the fighting in the Pacific to this day.
Yet — at least if Sledge’s experiences serve as any barometer — those instances were exceptions. While a certain amount of interservice rivalry is to be expected and probably even encouraged in organizations where unit pride and cohesion are essential, events during the battles of Peleliu and Okinawa that Sledge recounted both in “With the Old Breed” and in unpublished sections of the manuscript show that under that rivalrous veneer, there was a consistent layer of mutual respect and willingness to work together to achieve a greater goal.
In September 1944, just before three regiments — the 1st, 5th, and 7th Marines — of the 1st Marine Division were to invade tiny Peleliu in the western Pacific’s Palau Islands on the 15th, news correspondents were issued a sealed letter from the division commander, Maj. Gen. William Rupertus, predicting a rough but fast fight of three days. “His forecast colored the tactical thinking ashore for much of the next month,” Sledge wrote in “With the Old Breed.”
“Because of his optimism, many of the 36 news correspondents never went ashore; of those who did, only six stayed through the early critical stages of the battle.”
Thus, he concludes, the reporters — and the rest of the world — saw little of what actually happened.
What happened was a protracted slaughter-fest. On Peleliu the Japanese took full advantage of the island’s coral ridges, canyons, and ravines to construct a vast, interconnected network of caves and tunnels. They deeply fortified these positions and made the Americans pay dearly for every yard of the island. It was defense in depth. It was brutally effective, well executed, and a harbinger for what lay ahead in the Pacific.
In a series of ridges on the western side of Peleliu, known collectively as the Umurbrogol, the Japanese defenders exacted horrific casualties. Yet, disdainful of his 81st Infantry Division colleagues on the same task force, the III Amphibious Corps, and convinced the Army troops were not needed, Rupertus refused to ask for reinforcements. The men of the 81st went on to a tough fight of their own on an island six miles to the south, Angaur, securing it on Sept. 20. At the same time, after a little more than a week on Peleliu, more than half the Marines there — 1,749 of them — became casualties. The overall commander of the task force, the Marine Corps’ Maj. Gen. Roy Geiger, overruled Rupertus, ordering the army in for help. Soldiers, having already fought at Angaur, landed on Peleliu on Sept. 23.
Some two days later, Sledge and his comrades of the 5th Marines were shocked as they walked along a narrow road and saw the shattered remnants of the 1st Marines — who had been the first to go into the ridges — filing past them to return to Pavuvu Island, some 2,000 miles to the southeast. The 5th Marines, having set up defensive positions on a southern beach, were about to board trucks that would take them up to a new position along the ridges’ western side. As they arrived onsite shortly thereafter, Sledge saw the 1st Marines’ replacements — the Army veterans of Angaur — digging into their positions.
“As I exchanged a few remarks with some of these men, I felt a deep comradeship and respect for them,” he wrote in “With the Old Breed.” “Reporters and historians like to write about interservice rivalry among military men; it certainly exists, but I found that front-line combatants in all branches of the service showed a sincere mutual respect when they faced the same danger and misery. Combat soldiers and sailors might call us ‘gyrenes,’ and we called them ‘dogfaces’ and ‘swabbies,’ but we respected each other completely.”
Finished as a Force
By Oct. 5, the 7th Marines were finished as an effective fighting force after taking their turn in the ridges of the Umurbrogol — and suffered still more casualties as they moved out of their positions the following day. It was now the 5th Marines’ turn to relieve them. Two days later, the 5th Marines assaulted up a large draw on the east side called Horseshoe Valley. Since the 1st Marine Tank Battalion had been relieved a week earlier, six tanks of the Army’s 710th Tank Battalion supported them.
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Sledge reflected on the symbiotic relationship between the army tankers and his fellow Marines: “In the estimation of the Marines, the army tankers did a good job. Here the tanks operated with our riflemen attached. It was a case of mutual support. The tanks pulled up to the caves and fired into them point-blank with their 75mm cannon—wham bam. Their machine guns never seemed to stop. A tank unattended by riflemen was doomed to certain destruction from enemy suicide crews carrying mines. And the riflemen got a lot of protection from the tanks.”
The battle wore on, with the 7th and 5th Marines ultimately suffering nearly as many casualties as the 1st Marines, as the regiments tried to eliminate Japanese resistance in the ridges. At last, after the overall battle had been underway for 30 days, soldiers of the 81st Division moved in to take over for the 5th Marines. During the morning of Oct. 15, men of the 2nd Battalion, 321st Infantry Regiment, began moving single-file into Sledge’s location.
“I couldn’t believe it! We were being relieved at last!,” he rejoiced in “With the Old Breed.” “As the soldiers filed by us into position, a buddy squatting on his helmet eyed them critically and remarked, ‘Sledgehammer, I don’t know about them dogfaces. Look at how many of ’em wearin’ glasses, and they look old enough to be my daddy. Besides, them pockets on their dungaree pants sure do look baggy.’”
“They look fine to me,” Sledge responded. “They’re our replacements!” And then to one of the soldiers he added, “We sure are glad to see you guys.”
Despite suffering horrifying casualties all the while, the three regiments of the 1st Marine Division had compressed the enemy holdouts in a particularly rugged section of the central ridges — the Umurbrogol Pocket — into an area of about 400 by 500 yards. Even so, and with the soldiers of the 81st Division now applying constant pressure and inflicting incessant attrition on the Japanese as they advanced, the fighting for Peleliu would not end for another six weeks — on Nov. 27, 1944 — and the U.S. Army would pay its own steep price in blood.
Closer to Japan
In April 1945, the war in the Pacific came closer to the Japanese home islands when U.S. forces invaded Okinawa. This island — many times larger than Peleliu and only 350 miles from Japan — was defended by approximately 110,000 troops of the Japanese 32nd Army under Lt. General Mitsuru Ushijima. The commander of all U.S. ground forces at Okinawa, Lt. Gen. Simon B. Buckner, had more than 500,000 men at his disposal. Yet the Japanese had a distinct advantage in the terrain, and the defense-in-depth strategy that had been so costly to U.S. forces at Peleliu would be practiced to an even higher degree within the topographical opportunities Okinawa’s mountains and ridges offered.
Marines and soldiers would be working together in this epic battle to a larger degree than ever before. While Japanese infantrymen were no longer sacrificing themselves in banzai charges, suicide tactics were still very much a part of their overall strategy. In a section of Eugene Sledge’s unpublished writing, he noted: “As our convoy neared our objective, we began to hear Japanese propaganda messages in English over the radio loudspeaker in the galley (aboard USS McCracken). There were threats that Kamikaze aircraft would cripple our fleet. There would also be massive attacks against our ships by suicide torpedo boats driven by men dedicated to their emperor. Knowing the Japanese willingness to die, we didn’t take the threats lightly — although we acted as though we did.”
Mastering the Menace
Early on, the U.S. Army’s 77th Infantry Division took a significant step toward reining that menace in. The day before the invasion, the 77th raided a group of small islands off Okinawa and destroyed hundreds of Japanese “Shinyo” kamikaze boats hidden there. Sledge praised the 77th for erasing a major threat to the invasion fleet.
The campaign’s early stages called for Marine and Army forces to come ashore at the mid-section of Okinawa’s west coast. Two Marine divisions from Gen. Geiger’s reorganized III Amphibious Corps, the 1st and 6th, would advance to the north, and two army divisions, the 7th and 96th of the XXIV Corps,would advance to the south until they cut the island in two, at which point the Marines would turn left and move north, and the Army forces would turn right and move south. A third Army division, the 27th Infantry Division, would be held in floating reserve until needed; backing up the XXIV Corps was the 77th Infantry Division.
The landing on Okinawa went virtually unchallenged, a pleasant surprise for Marines after what had happened on Peleliu.
“The amtrac crewman and his driver filled us in on what they had seen — there was practically no Japanese opposition!” Sledge recorded. “When we overcame our astonishment, everybody started laughing and joking.”
As they dug in the first night ashore, every Marine and soldier who had experienced the enervating heat of earlier campaigns like Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Bougainville and Peleliu delighted in the cooler weather. Sledge had to put on his wool-lined field jacket.
“Temperatures in the sixties seemed cold to us who had been in the tropics for months and months,” he noted in another unpublished section of his manuscript. “Several men commented that they felt pity for the army infantrymen fighting in cold weather in Europe. We realized that regardless of how hot it was (with the possible exception of Peleliu’s 115-degree temperatures) living conditions would be even more miserable in colder climates. The field jacket felt mighty good.”
Back to Work
The reprieve would not last long. Shortly after the men learned of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death on April 12 — as the 1st Marine Division secured central Okinawa and the Eastern Islands on the edge of Chimu Wan Bay — the 6th Marine Division moved north to secure the upper part of the island. It was on this terrain that they encountered strongly fortified enemy positions on the high ground of the Motobu Peninsula. It was a costly seven-day campaign. To the south the three Army divisions, including the 27th Infantry Division, were also having
a tough fight. They had all they could handle and were making little progress.
Around the middle of April, the 1st Marine Division’s artillery regiment, the 11th Marines, moved south to assist the army offensive. Sledge noted that the “Japanese defenses were so strong that all available artillery was needed to support the infantry.”
When 30 U.S. Army tanks, along with the 27th Infantry Division, attacked one of the main Japanese defensive lines on southern Okinawa, Kakazu Ridge, they suffered extremely heavy losses. As the tanks separated from their infantry, 22 of them were destroyed. This would turn out to directly affect the 1st Marine Division. Said Sledge: “It drew us into the abyss.”
It became necessary to commit the 1st Marine Tank Battalion to assist the 27th Infantry Division. Naturally, this invited sardonic comments from Marine infantrymen who did not want to see their fellow tankers employed piecemeal after such disastrous losses. Both the overall force commander, Gen. Geiger, and the ground force commander, Gen. Buckner, believed that Marine tanks and infantry should be deployed intact, so the entire 1st Marine Division was to relieve the 27th Infantry Division.
“We were not elated at this,” Sledge noted, “but it meant that our division would fight as a unit and not as a battalion put into the line here or there. I heard some remarks from my buddies that amounted to strenuous and bitter objection to sending our Marine tankers to join an Army division that had lost so many of its own.”
As the Marines moved along a road bordered by shell-pocked potato fields toward what Sledge called the “crash and thunder of Japanese mortar and artillery shells, the rattle of machine guns, and the popping of rifles,”they saw the weary men of the 27th Infantry Division they would be replacing coming toward them.
“These men,” he wrote, “were obviously dead beat.”
The dismal cycle of every Pacific battle fought against the Japanese thus far repeated itself in the ridges and mud fields of southern Okinawa: fighting strongly emplaced Japanese troops and rooting them out in attritional fighting — only on Okinawa this took place in torrential rains and muddy conditions that Sledge reckoned were much like the trenches of Flanders in World War I.
One day in early May, not long after a failed Japanese offensive in the approaches to Shuri, three or four Shermans from an Army tank unit halted near Sledge’s foxhole, and he had a revealing conversation with one of the tankers. In another unpublished section of his manuscript, Sledge recorded what happened:
“I sat on my helmet near the rear of the tank. He put aside his helmet and stripped to the waist. As he stood behind the turret, we talked while he began various maintenance chores on his tank. He was a friendly sort of fellow and said they had just come back from up front where they had been supporting Marines. He said the Japanese opposition up there was as rough as ever. His tanks now had orders to leave and return to an army infantry division for its support.
“’I guess you’ll be glad of that,’ I said.
“’Why, no I won’t,’ he said.
“’Well, I’ve heard that Marines have a bad reputation for being too aggressive and trying to push too hard on an attack.’
“The soldier stopped his work, straightened up, and looked at me, and said, ‘Buddy, you guys got a great outfit and I like working with Marines. When things get tough with you guys and anybody has to haul ass, everybody hauls ass together. It ain’t none of this crap of infantry getting separated and every man for himself.’”
Band of Brothers
The combined might of the U.S. Marines and the U.S. Army went on to carry the day on Okinawa — which, by the time the bloody fight ended on June 22, 1945, had become the costliest battle in the Pacific. For Sledge and his company, though, the horrors were not yet over: they were ordered to bury enemy dead and salvage equipment from the battlefield. When they got word of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Japan and, finally, on Aug. 15, news of Japan’s surrender, he and his comrades reacted with a mixture of disbelief and extreme relief. Sledge did a short spell of occupation duty in China and, in early 1946, returned home.
On his way home, Eugene Sledge came through the Atlanta railway station.
“Shortly after I stepped off the car for a stroll, a young army infantryman walked up to me and shook hands,” he recalled. “He said he had noticed my 1st Marine Division patch and the campaign ribbons on my chest and wondered if I had fought at Peleliu. When I said I had, he told me he just wanted to express his undying admiration for men of the 1st Marine Division.”
He explained that he had fought with the 81st Infantry Division, which had come in to support the Marines on the island. A machine gunner, he had been hit by Japanese fire in the ridges and became separated from his Army comrades. He knew that when darkness fell, either his wound or the Japanese would kill him. Then some Marines, risking their own lives, moved in and carried him to safety. Wrote Sledge: “The soldier said he was so impressed by the bravery, efficiency, and esprit of the Marines he saw on Peleliu that he swore to thank every veteran of the 1st Marine Division he ever ran across.”
With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa
by E.B. Sledge, Random House Publishing Group
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Sledge noted similar sentiments when, several years after the war, he was introduced to Maj. Gen. George W. Griner Jr., the commanding officer of the 27th Infantry Division during the Okinawa campaign. In an unpublished anecdote, Sledge described a dinner he and his wife, Jeanne, had with Horace and Mabry Spotswood, some friends in Mobile, Alabama. They were introduced to Mabry’s mother and her father — Gen. Griner.
“Mrs. Griner and I were chatting pleasantly together, and the conversation drifted to the war, a subject then still very much on everyone’s mind. She asked me what unit I had served with. I told her, and she expressed great interest, interrupting the general with, ‘Mr. Sledge was in the 1st Marine Division on Okinawa.’
“’Oh, your division relieved mine on Okinawa,’ General Griner said.
“My wife told him she had heard it was always the other way around, with the army relieving the Marines. He laughed at that.”
The conversation turned to the Pacific War and the Smith vs. Smith matter — a subject the two men, who formed a friendship, would repeatedly revisit over the years. Gen. Griner had been particularly impacted, as he was the officer assigned to replace Maj. Gen. Ralph C. Smith as 27th Division commander. But there was no trace of animosity in him toward the Marine Corps. “I was always impressed with his fairmindedness regarding the matter,” Sledge remembered. “He told me he had great admiration for the Marine Corps, and I believe he held absolutely no bitterness toward Marines at all. However, he told me he felt General Holland Smith was prejudiced against the army.”
The general also took pains to mention his high regard for the 1st Marine Division troops who relieved the 27th on southern Okinawa. Sledge quotes the army commander as saying: “I told a member of my staff that’s the finest bunch of young men I have ever seen in uniform.”
While certainly the relationship between the U.S. Marines and the U.S. Army was not perfect, on both Peleliu and Okinawa the dedication, training, and bravery of these fighting forces united them in their common goal of defeating the Japanese. Sledge’s experiences belie the common misconception that most Marines in World War II looked down upon soldiers and vice versa. In truth, Marines like Sledge and his comrades forged a strong partnership with their U.S. Army cohorts based on mutual respect, and occasionally admiration. With great frequency, they ate together, drank together, fought together, and sometimes even died together.
this article first appeared in world war II magazine
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Henry Sledge September 29, 2022 at 02:41AM