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Auburn’s Sledgehammer hits the beaches of ‘The Pacific’

Some of the men in Company K-3-5, 1st Marine Division. Eugene B. Sledge is in the center of the front row, with his dungaree cap pushed back; his buddy George Sarrett is behind his right shoulder. This is the company that Sledge fought with in the Pacific in World War II.

I’m kicking myself for not writing our own feature about HBO’s “The Pacific,” a series about the Marines’ experience during the Pacific theater of World War II. The series gets under way tonight and one of the main characters is E.B. Sledge, author of the incredible book “With the Old Breed.” Sledge was a native of the Mobile area and an Auburn man.

The Opelika-Auburn News posted a feature yesterday on their site.

I offered some details about him last Veterans Day and tried to point folks toward the wonderful site and archives that Auburn University keeps online.

And al.com offered a story back at the beginning of the month about Sledge and the upcoming miniseries.

Damn, that al.com story offers a haunting quote from E.B. Sledges’ son about his father:

It wasn’t horrific combat footage that upset Henry Sledge at a Hollywood screening last March. It was the likeness of his father, played by actor Joe Mazzello, breaking into tears and unable to pull the trigger at a quail hunt after the war.

“That is hard to watch, to watch your father breaking down like that,” his 42-year-old son said.

You see, when you read “With the Old Breed” you can see why E.B. Sledge would have trouble pulling that trigger. You can understand post-war why he seems to be such a gentle soul that teaches biology at the University of Montevallo. One thing comes across crystal clear when you close that book: War is hell.

Hell on Earth.

I’ll be interested in seeing how the series tonight (if I decide to order HBO today … but, man, I’ve gotta see my new hero Sledgehammer) handles the some of the horrifying things that Sledge writes about in his memoir. For example, when Sledge was involved in the campaign on Peleliu, he was deep in the shit. The hard rocky coral surface of that island made burying or moving the dead impossible with the changing battle lines and under constant heavy fire. The random, seemingly unending explosions day and night all around those guys … I can’t imagine living through that and keeping your nerves. The human costs (Japanese and Americans) of that war piled up all around the living and Sledge describes the smells and sights in a way that will churn your stomach. And please note: He doesn’t do it for a shock value. He does it so the folks back safe in the states can understand what TRULY went on during that campaign. Stinking, rotting corpses baked by the sun. Some of them were his countrymen. His brothers in the corps. Hollywood, at that time, glossed over all that.

The flies. The maggots. The land crabs eating away at the bodies. The bodies laying there for days, weeks. It is horrifying in its description. How in the hell can a person make it through something like that and not be changed or damaged?

Writing “With the Old Breed” had to be a way for Sledge to deal with what happened back on those islands. He doesn’t boast or brag. If he does brag, it is about fellow Marines. He just tells it like he saw it. I highly recommend taking the time to check his book out. It might change the way you look at war’s costs. It changed the way that I looked at some of our veterans and current, active soldiers. God, they have to be tough as nails. Tougher in spirit, mind and character than I’d ever imagine myself to be. It’s amazing. And Auburn’s lucky to have him as an alumni. Be proud Auburn!

My grandfather, Pa, passed away two weeks ago. During that war, he was a young, green Marine on a troop ship to the Philippines for training on taking the fight to mainland Japan. In the middle of the ocean, the captain came over the loudspeaker to announce that the United States had defeated Japan. The war was over. The troops were all allowed to drink two beers from the vast supply of brew being brought along with them. The captain jokingly said that if any Marine told about the celebration once they reached their destination they’d be in big trouble. That night those Marines celebrated the end of a war that could have well ended their young lives.

If it wasn’t for Sledge and the Old Breed, my Pa would have been thrown into the meatgrinder in the Pacific. I might not be here today.

Hopefully, I’ll be watching tonight and keeping a running weekly post where we can all discuss “The Pacific.”

War Eagle! And God bless Sledgehammer!

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About J.M. Comer

J.M. graduated from Auburn in 1998 and again in 2000 with bachelor's degrees in English and journalism. He is currently a copy editor in Washington, D.C., and lives in Baltimore, Land of Pleasant Living. If you find yourself in beautiful Baltimore, he recommends Faidley's crab cakes, a stop at Atomic Books, an O's game at Camden Yards and plenty of Natty Boh.

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