“Tme had no meaning; life had no meaning,” Eugene B. Sledge wrote in his 1981 masterwork, With the Old Breed, describing some of the brutal, dehumanizing fighting he and others faced in the Pacific at Peleliu in late 1944 and at Okinawa in spring 1945. “We existed in an environment totally incomprehensible to men behind the lines.”
His book was an effort decades after the war to make the incomprehensible comprehensible, first to his family and then—at the urging of his wife, Jeanne, who typed the manuscript—to the greater public, which led to its publication. The resulting work was swiftly recognized as a classic. British military historian John Keegan described himself as “haunted” by the book, which he called “one of the most arresting documents in war literature.” Historian and World War II veteran Paul Fussell termed it “one of the finest memoirs to emerge from any war.” Documentarian Ken Burns drew on it for his 2007 film, The War, and it was an inspiration for the 2010 HBO miniseries The Pacific, with actor Joseph Mazzello playing Sledge.
Yet for most of his life, Sledge—who died in 2001—was known not as a combat Marine but as a quiet and thoughtful family man, a lover of nature and music who taught biology at Alabama’s University of Montevallo. “My Pacific war experiences have haunted me, and it has been a burden to retain this story,” Sledge explained in the book’s preface. “But time heals, and the nightmares no longer wake me in a cold sweat with a pounding heart and racing pulse. Now I can write this story, painful though it is to do so.” On the following pages is a look at a rarely seen collection: Sledge’s personal artifacts from what he called the “abyss of war.”
this article first appeared in world war II magazine