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How is it that some soldiers, Marines, sailors, some units and even some armies and navies just won’t quit? Ever. It’s an important question, and the answers are complicated.

You won’t find the answers to that question in conventional military histories that focus on firepower, training and tactics. You will find the answers in one special kind of military history—the combat memoir. These first-person, eyewitness accounts describe what actually happened to the authors, what they saw and felt and did, with all the attendant sights, sounds, smells and strong emotions.

But there’s more: Common to the best combat memoirs is a subtext that demonstrates the spirit, strength, raw courage or just plain grit that enable the best to survive the worst, to prevail over their enemies, to conquer their fears—and damn near everything else in their path.

Here are excerpts from great war memoirs of the 20th century. For those devoted both to military history and to exploring the mysteries of the human spirit in extremis, these are the indispensable texts—and rattling good reads, as well.


Siegfried Sassoon was 27 when he enlisted at the start of World War I. By 1915 he was an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers on the Western Front. Twice wounded, decorated for gallantry and hospitalized for shell shock, Sassoon (nicknamed “Mad Jack”) acquired a reputation for nervy exploits, including night raids on German trenches. His memoir, published in 1930, includes this account of action at Mametz Wood, France:

 We passed no one until we came to a bombing post—three serious-minded men who said that no one had been further than that yet. Being in an exploring frame of mind, I took a bag of bombs and crawled another 60 or 70 yards with Kendle close behind me. The trench became a shallow groove and ended where the ground overlooked a little valley, along which there was a light railway line. We stared across at the wood. From the other side of the valley came an occasional rifle shot, and a helmet bobbed up for a moment. Kendle remarked that from that point, anyone could see into the whole of our trench on the slope behind us. I said we must have our strong-post here and told him to go back for the bombers and a Lewis gun. I felt adventurous, and it seemed as if Kendle and I were having great fun

together. Kendle thought so too. The helmet bobbed up again. “I’ll just have a shot at him,” he said, wriggling away from the crumbling bank, which gave us cover. At this moment, Fernby appeared with two men and a Lewis gun. Kendle was half kneeling against some broken ground; I remember seeing him push his tin hat back from his forehead and then raise himself a few inches to take aim. After firing once, he looked at us with a lively smile; a second later he fell sideways. A blotchy mark showed where the bullet had hit him just above the eyes.

STORM OF STEEL, by Ernst Jünger

Jünger’s memoir, first published in 1920, focuses on the trench warfare he experienced in 1915 and 1916 as a young lieutenant in the 73rd Hanoverian Fusiliers. He was ultimately awarded the Pour le Mérite by Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm.

You cower in a heap alone in a hole and feel yourself the victim of a pitiless thirst for destruction. With horror you feel that all your intelligence, your capacities, your bodily and spiritual characteristics have become utterly meaningless and absurd. While you think it, the lump of metal that will crush you to a shapeless nothing may have started on its course. Your discomfort is concentrated in your ear that tries to distinguish amid the uproar the swirl of your own death rushing near. It is dark, too; and you must find in yourself alone all the strength for holding out. You can’t get up and with a blasé laugh light a cigarette…nor can you be encouraged by the sight of your friend clipping a monocle into his eye to observe a hit on the traverse close behind you. You know that not even a cock will crow when you are hit.

Well, why don’t you jump up and rush into the night till you collapse in safety behind a bush like an exhausted animal? Why do you hang on there all the time…there are no superior officers to see you.

Yet someone watches you. Unknown perhaps to yourself, there is someone within you who keeps you to your post by the power of two mighty spells: Duty and Honor. You know that this is your place in the battle and that a whole people relies on you to do your job. You feel, “If I leave my post, I am a coward in my own eyes, a wretch who will ever after blush at every word of praise.” You clench your teeth and stay.


U.S. Marine Private Eugene Sledge (aka “Sledgehammer”) was a mortarman with K/3/5 (Company K, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment) during the 1944–45 Pacific Theater campaigns on Peleliu and Okinawa. With the Old Breed, published in 1981, draws on notes Sledge kept in a pocket Bible during combat. It includes his account of the Sept. 15, 1944, amphibious landing on Peleliu:

Our amtrac spun around and headed back out as I reached the edge of the beach and flattened out on the deck. The world was a nightmare of flashes, violent explosions and snapping bullets. Most of what I saw blurred. My mind was benumbed by the shock of it.

I glanced back across the beach and saw a DUKW (rubber-tired amphibious truck) roll up on the sand at a point near where we had just landed. The instant the DUKW stopped, it was engulfed in thick, dirty black smoke as a shell scored a direct hit on it. Bits of debris flew into the air. I watched with that odd, detached fascination peculiar to men under fire, as a flat metal panel about two feet square spun high into the air, then splashed into shallow water like a big pancake. I didn’t see any men get out of the DUKW.

Up and down the beach and out on the reef, a number of amtracs and DUKWs were burning. Japanese machine-gun bursts made long splashes on the water as though flaying it with some giant whip. The geysers belched up relentlessly where the mortar and artillery shells hit. I caught a fleeting glimpse of a group of Marines leaving a smoking amtrac on the reef. Some fell as bullets and fragments splashed among them. Their buddies tried to help them as they struggled in the knee-deep water.

I shuddered and choked. A wild desperate feeling of anger, frustration and pity gripped me. It was an emotion that always would torture my mind when I saw men trapped and was unable to do anything but watch as they were hit. My own plight forgotten momentarily, I felt sickened to the depths of my soul. I asked God, “Why, why why?” I turned my face away and wished that I were imagining it all. I had tasted the bitterest essence of war, the sight of helpless comrades being slaughtered, and it filled me with disgust.


William Slim, a thrice-wounded career officer who after World War I transferred to the Indian army and rose from battalion to division commander at the outbreak of World War II, fought in Burma from 1942 to 1945. Leading the British Fourteenth Army, Field Marshal Viscount Slim combined aggressiveness, tactical innovation and mastery of jungle warfare to rout Japanese land forces there. His detailed memoir, published in 1956, includes this account of the endgame in Burma:

Back at Cowan’s headquarters, we followed the general progress of the assault on Meiktila. It had not everywhere gone as smoothly as the fight we had watched. The enemy had not wasted the few days allowed him for preparation. Every house was a strongpoint, every water channel had its concealed bunkers, every heap of rubble its hidden machine gun or antitank gun. Snipers lurked in every ruin. It was costly fighting, and jeep ambulances shuttled between the battle and the airstrips, carrying the wounded to quick and merciful evacuation. Progress, if slow was, however, steady.

Throughout the 1st March and the following night, there was hand-to-hand fighting as savage as any yet experienced in a theater where close combat was the rule rather than the exception. By evening, when we left for Monywa, our troops were well into the town, but the Japanese resistance showed no signs of breaking. They died where they fought, and as darkness fell, even in the sectors we had gained, survivors emerged from cellars and holes to renew the battle.

On the 2nd March in Meiktila East, 48 Brigade, with artillery, tank and air support, slowly forced the enemy from house to house, until they were penned in the southern end of the town with their backs to the South Lake. 63 Brigade, in two strong attacks, cleared the whole of Meiktila West with great loss to the enemy. During the 3rd, after intense fighting, Meiktila East was finally cleared by a series of converging attacks. Enemy 75mm guns engaged our tanks and infantry at point-blank range, but were gradually eliminated, one by one, until the last 50 Japanese jumped into the lake and were drowned or killed. The slaughter had been great. In one small area of the town alone, which measured only 200 by 100 yards, 867 Japanese bodies were collected. Meiktila was a shambles, but by 6 o’clock on the evening of the 3rd, it was ours.

COMPANY COMMANDER, by Charles B. MacDonald

U.S. Army Captain Charles B. MacDonald took command of a rifle company in the 23rd Infantry Regiment in September 1944. He was just 21. MacDonald was awarded a Silver Star for his defense of a key crossroads during the Battle of the Bulge. Later wounded, he returned to lead another rifle company through war’s end. Following is an account MacDonald wrote within days of entering combat:

A shot rang out.

It seemed to come from the very entrance of the pillbox and was the cue that set off a fusillade of small-arms fire that reverberated back and forth among the hills. I could discern the slow chatter of one of our heavy machine guns, then the intermingling of the guttural tone of a burp gun. All the sounds seemed to emanate from the area around the farmhouse, as if every conceivable type of small arms vied to be heard above the accompanying noises.

The explosion of a German-type concussion grenade joined the uproar. An American grenade exploded, and its fragments whined through the air. A few rounds of mortar fire exploded above the din. I heard the guards scuffle and curse as they tripped on the entrance to the pillbox.

I was suddenly more afraid than I had ever been before. My body seemed weak all over, and I wondered if I had the strength to stand up. I opened my mouth to sound the alarm, and I wondered if anything would come out.

“Wake everybody up!” I shouted, surprised that words actually came forth. “I don’t want anybody caught asleep in this damn pillbox.”

We had waited long enough. The Germans had come.

QUARTERED SAFE OUT HERE, by George MacDonald Fraser

After enlisting in the British Border Regiment at 18, George MacDonald Fraser fought with the Indian 17th Infantry during the 1944–45 Burma campaign. After the war he worked for newspapers in Scotland and Canada and later achieved renown as a satiric novelist with his antihero “Flashman” series. Following is Fraser’s account of combat during the pivotal battle for Meiktila:

As I fetched up at the tree, its trunk between me and the bunker, Stanley ran forward, firing from the hip at the firing-slit. Dust flew from the bunker as the Bren burst hit it—and then the bloody gun jammed, Stanley yelled and tugged the magazine, I thought I saw movement inside the firing-slit, and as Stanley jumped aside, I found myself running forward, firing into the slit— three shots, I think, and I believe there was a return shot, and then I was diving down beside the bunker wall, fumbling for a grenade.

I yanked out the grenade pin, let the plunger go, forced myself to count one-thousand-two-thousand and stretched sideways to whip the bomb through the firing-slit. One-thousand-two-thousand-three—an ear-ringing crump, and I was snatching for a second grenade when Gale came running past, gesturing, and I followed him round the bunker side. There was the bunker entrance, a low narrow doorway, and Gale had a green 77 phosphorus grenade in his hand.

He threw aside the black safety cap as he reached the doorway and was in the act of tossing the grenade inside when he suddenly stood straight up, his bush-hat fell off, and the side of his face was covered with blood. He fell full length, landing almost at my feet, and someone grabbed him and pulled him away. I was at one side of the doorway, and a small sharp-faced sergeant who I didn’t know was at the other, with a tommy gun. Gale’s phosphorus bomb hadn’t exploded, but I had my second 36 grenade; he nodded, we pulled our pins together, he waited three seconds that seemed like hours, and we tossed them in, flattening against the bunker. On the heels of the double explosion, he darted in, Thompson stuttering; two quick bursts, and he was out again.

“Three on ’em!” he shouted, and his jaw dropped as he stared past me. I turned to see a Jap racing across in front of the bunker, a sword flourished above his head. He was going like Jesse Owens, screaming his head off, right across my front; I just had sense enough to take a split second, traversing my aim with him before I fired; he gave a convulsive leap, and I felt that jolt of delight—I’d hit the bastard!

THE COLDEST WAR, by James Brady

In 1947, 19-year-old college student—and future journalist—James Brady signed up for Marine Corps ROTC to avoid the draft. Three years later, to his surprise, he found himself leading a 1st Marine Division rifle platoon in combat against North Korean and Chinese troops.

Like most people my age, I’d been brought up on Hollywood’s idea of a Marine platoon: a demographically, ethnically balanced blend of WASPs and the rest of us. You know, a Brooklyn Jew, streetwise but sensitive; a big-city Italian talking baseball and making obscene gestures behind your back; a dumb hayseed farmboy with a girl back home; a heroic black man; a Puerto Rican or a Mexican with a rosary muttering Spanish wisdom; a feisty little Jimmy Cagney Irishman with a chip on his shoulder. A goulash of stereotypes.

The reality in Korea was somewhat different.

My platoon had no Jews, one black, no Hispanics, one Indian, surly and sullen. There were Protestants and Catholics and a few who were nothing, and that was it. Some Irish, some Poles, some Italians, a few French. You never saw a French enlisted man in a movie, did you? And the Irish were sober, and it was the Midwest rubes who got emotional, while the Italians were being methodical and phlegmatic.

Nor were the battalion’s officers what the Marine Cops had traditionally been, Southern gentlemen. Now we were Easterners, Ivy Leaguers, college kids, Californians, men from Detroit and Chicago and Seattle.…In 1951 and 1952, you never saw a negro officer. Maybe there weren’t any.

I suppose that should have bothered me, aroused decent, liberal instincts. It didn’t. I accepted the status quo.…What I cared about [was] would they do the job and not get anyone killed unnecessarily? Would I lead them well and not prove a fool or a coward?

A RUMOR OF WAR, by Philip Caputo

Lieutenant Phil Caputo arrived in Vietnam in March 1965 as part of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, the first regular U.S. unit committed to ground combat there. Following its 1977 publication, the unflinchingly honest A Rumor of War became arguably the best-known first-person account of America’s long and bloody war in Southeast Asia.

The rifle shot was deafening compared to the dead silence that had preceded it. The bullet kicked up dust a few yards from my face, and I whirled around on my stomach like a crab. Lying in a shallow dip in the ground, I made love to the earth.…I tried once more to make it to the edge of the clearing but was struck in the face by spraying dust as soon as I lifted my head to run.

The experience of being under heavy fire is like suffocating; air suddenly becomes as lethal as a poison gas, its very molecules seem to be composed of pieces of lead flying at 2,000 miles an hour. The bullets hissed and cracked over my head, and I yelled—no, screamed—“Allen, I’m pinned down, POUR IT ON ’EM!”…

An eerie sense of calm came over me. My mind was working with a speed and clarity I would have found remarkable if I had had the time to reflect upon it. I knew what I was going to do. …The whole plan of attack flashed through my mind in a matter of seconds. At the same time, my body was tensing itself to spring. Quite separate from my thoughts or will, it was concentrating itself to make a rush for the treeline. And that intense concentration was born of fear. I could not remain in the hollow for longer than a few more seconds.…I had to move, to face and overcome the danger. I understood then why a cornered animal is so dangerous; he is terrified, and every instinct in him focuses on a single end: destroying the thing that frightens him.

Without a command from my conscious mind, I lunged into the woods and crashed down the trail, calling for a machine gun and a 3.5-inch rocket team.

WE WERE SOLDIERS ONCE…AND YOUNG, by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore, U.S. Army (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway

In November 1965, then Lt. Col. Hal Moore commanded 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, at the Battle of Ia Drang. At the time, Joe Galloway was a UPI journalist covering the battle. Moore was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for successfully thwarting the NVA ambush at Ia Drang. Galloway rescued several soldiers during the fight, earning a rare civilian Bronze Star. Here is an account of the ambush:

Jack Smith’s world was being shot to death all around him. Then something happened that convinced him to keep fighting. Lieutenant Don Cornett, in agony from his wounds, told Smith he was going to do something to try to get his troops organized. Cornett crawled away into the high grass. A brave young lieutenant died doing his duty somewhere out there in hand-to-hand fighting.

Smith recalls: “Within a span of perhaps 20 minutes, everyone around me was dead or wounded, except me. You have to understand that in our area the elephant grass was chest-high; once you hit the dirt, your world was about as big as a dining room table. Your world was completely confined to that area and the six or seven men around you. At that point we were isolated. Alpha Company was in the same shape. Then the North Vietnamese swept through. I believe they came between Alpha and our company and began to shoot people. We didn’t know if the noise from five feet away, as they began to shoot people, was friendly or enemy.”

Smith saw soldiers take machine guns, lie flat on the ground, and begin firing into the grass. “Often they were firing right into the muzzles of other American machine guns. People were screaming to stop the shooting. It began to have all the elements of a massacre. Nobody was in control because all the officers were to the front, and our radio operators had fallen dead on their radio sets.”


Originally published in the July 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here