By Charles Layton
If you’re like me, you enjoy going on reading binges. When I find a really meaty subject, I’ll spend many months on it. My current topic is World War 2 — more specifically, biographies and memoirs of individuals who fought in it. I started out reading about the air war, then the submarine war, then the Battle of the Bulge – mainly first-person accounts by ordinary men who experienced those events. I must have read about 30 books by now; I find the subject that compelling.
What I’ve come to realize is that the heroism of those who fought for our country in that important war is not at all captured by patriotic speeches or war movies or TV documentaries or scholarly histories. The real experience of combat is more profound than most of those sources are able to convey. And most heroism is not glorious; it is not leading a charge up a hill or across a beach; it is, more often, enduring physical and psychological discomfort for days and nights on end, punctuated, of course, by life-threatening horrors.
Here is how Eugene Sledge, a World War 2 Marine, describes daily life on the small, relatively unimportant Pacific island of Peleliu. This is from his memoir, With the Old Breed; At Peleliu and Okinawa:
“Except along the beach areas and in the swamps, digging into the coral rock was nearly impossible. Consequently, thousands of men … couldn’t practice basic field sanitation. This fundamental neglect caused an already putrid tropical atmosphere to become inconceivably vile.
“Added to this was the odor of thousands of rotting, discarded Japanese and American rations. At every breath, one inhaled hot, humid air heavy with countless odors …
“In this garbage-filled environment the flies, always numerous in the tropics anyway, underwent a population explosion. This species was not the unimposing common housefly… Peleliu’s most common fly was the huge blowfly or bluebottle fly. This creature has a plump, metallic, greenish-blue body, and its wings often make a humming sound during flight…
“With human corpses, human excrement, and rotting rations scattered across Peleliu’s ridges, those nasty insects were so large, so glutted, and so lazy that some could scarcely fly. They could not be waved away or frightened off a can of rations or a chocolate bar. Frequently they tumbled off the side of my canteen cup into my coffee. We actually had to shake the food to dislodge the flies, and even then they sometimes refused to move… It was revolting, to say the least, to watch big fat blowflies leave a corpse and swarm into our C rations.”
Sledge’s book contains equally vivid descriptions of the sand crabs that crawled over the Marines’ bodies during the night. And of the heat – add 10 or 15 degrees to our worst recent day in Ocean Grove to get a sense of it. And of the maggots that consumed the countless unburied bodies. And of the experience of enduring a Japanese artillery barrage with the expectation that it might soon be followed by a “human wave” banzai charge.
“Filth and fear went hand-in-hand,” Sledge wrote. “It has always puzzled me that this important factor in our daily lives has received so little attention from historians…”
The 1st Marine Division lost more than 6,500 men, killed or wounded, during one month on Peleliu — more than one-third of their entire force.
To immerse oneself in the actual details of such battles is to appreciate in a different way, at a different level, the sacrifices made by men and women in behalf of America. And while it’s great, on a holiday such as this, to celebrate our country’s birth and survival by cheering the brass bands and throwing candy from the shiny convertibles and firing up the barbecues and thrilling to the fireworks, we all know how inadequate that is. We Americans owe debts we cannot even fully comprehend.
I expect to enjoy myself today and have all the fun I can. But maybe I’ll also steal a private moment or two for contemplation. It seems like the least one could do.