Early in the morning of 15 September 1944, Eugene B. Sledge and his buddies scrambled down the netting hung on the side of the troopship and into an amtrac. When all the men had boarded, the amtrac headed out into the open sea. As the vessel circled, awaiting the signal to head shoreward, long jets of red flame mixed with thick black smoke belched forth with the roar of a thunderclap from the muzzles of 16-inch guns on nearby battleships. The odors of diesel fuel and gunpowder tainted the smell of the salt air. Sledge broke into a cold sweat, his stomach knotted, and his knees nearly buckled with tension.
Suddenly the amtrac engine revved as the driver made for the beach. “We moved ahead, watching the frightful spectacle,” Sledge recalled. “Huge geysers of water rose around the amtracs ahead of us as they approached the reef. The beach was now marked along its length by a continuous sheet of flame backed by a thick wall of smoke. It seemed as though a huge volcano had erupted from the sea, and rather than heading for an island, we were being drawn into the vortex of a flaming abyss.”
“This is it, boys,” yelled the lieutenant as he passed around a half-pint of whiskey.
Sledge refused the offer, afraid he would pass out. At that moment a large shell exploded, barely missing the amtrac. The engine stalled and the amtrac lurched to the left and slammed into the rear of another amtrac. With shells raining down around them, the driver restarted the engine and the amtrac moved forward again. Soon the amtrac came ashore and moved a few yards up the gently sloping sand.
“Hit the beach!” yelled a sergeant.
Sledge and the others piled over the sides as fast as they could. A burst of machine gun fire with white hot tracers snapped through the air at eye level, barely missing Sledge’s head. Sledge tumbled forward onto the island of Peleliu. With shells and bullets tearing at the air above and behind him, Sledge scuttled forward. “The world was a nightmare of flashes, violent explosions, and snapping bullets,” he recalled. “Most of what I saw blurred. My mind was benumbed by the shock of it.”
Amtracs were burning all along the beach. Japanese bullets made long splashes on the water as though flaying it with giant whips. Marines fell as bullets ripped through them. “I shuddered and choked,” Sledge recalled. “A wild desperate feeling of anger, frustration, and pity gripped me.”
Sledge got up, crouched low, and raced forward, meeting up with several buddies. Together, they moved inland. Soon he came across the first enemy dead he had ever seen, a Japanese corpsman and two riflemen. The corpsman lay on his back, his medical kit strewn about him, his abdominal cavity laid open, the glistening viscera bespecked with fine coral dust. A couple of Marine veterans came up and stripped the bodies of souvenirs. The spectacle shocked Sledge. Would he, too, become so callous toward death? He continued advancing.
U.S. Marines have always been considered “naval” infantry, although they would be loath to admit it. Nevertheless, Marines’ experiences have been intimately related to those of sailors, as many Naval Academy graduates choose to become Marine officers, sailors drive the landing craft that put marines ashore, and Navy Corpsmen, Chaplains, and Seabees routinely serve with marines.
World War II provided the Marine Corps with the greatest role in all of its history as the Marines put into action the amphibious doctrine their leadership had been developing since World War I. Sledge, who had enlisted in the Corps on 3 December 1942 and shipped out to the Pacific with the 5th Marine Regiment, First Marine Division after more than a year of training, symbolizes World War II “island hopping.”
How was Sledge able to press on through the horror of his baptism of fire and muster the courage to fight on at Peleliu and later at Okinawa? A friend of John McCain who had received the Medal of Honor explained that it was “a kind of madness” that came over him, enabling him to fight for his own life and the lives of his buddies. It was rage that sustained Sledge in face to face combat with the enemy. But he also needed the kind of courage that infantrymen from time immemorial have had to muster—the courage simply to lift their exhausted bodies from wet foxholes, to put one foot after the other, to endure one more day. Sledge’s courage demonstrates that no matter what kind of ships and aircraft are available to support them, infantrymen experience a kind of combat that most sailors never experience—crawling through muck and filth and fighting the enemy hand to hand.