In 2010, HBO shared with the world a ten part mini-series that intertwined the experiences and lives of three Marines, during America`s The Pacific Theatre of World War II. The series centres on Eugene Sledge, Robert Beckie and John Basilone.
Eugene Sledge entered the world on November 4, 1923. He was born in Mobile, Alabama, to Mary and Edward and grew up at Georgia Cottage. Eugene was a sickly child, losing two years of schooling due to rheumatic fever. The condition left him with a heart murmur.
Eugene`s father Edward spent time with him and raised him to be accustomed to the outdoors. Having learned how to fish and hunt from his father, he was not afraid to go out and into the woods with his best friend Sidney Phillips.
There is an underlying claim that Eugene did not enlist due to his heart murmur, but that cannot be verified in his book “With the Old Breed”. His father and brother had tried to suggest to him that going to college and becoming an officer was the best way to move forward for Eugene. However, being in school, while a war was being fought, frustrated him and after flunking classes, Eugene and several others enlisted to the United States Marine Corp.
Eugene’s father displayed some initial reluctance, but eventually relented and allowed him to enlist. Concerns about physical and emotional scarring were raised but Eugene was determined, his character showing through. He became an enlisted man in K Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division. (K/3/5) where he served with Corporal Burgin and Private First Class “Snafu” Shelton.
Eugene rose to the rank of Corporal during the Pacific Theatre of War. He saw combat as a 60mm mortarman at both Peleliu and Okinawa. During his service with the Marines, Sledge kept notes. Those notes were everything that had happened, and they were written in his pocket-sized New Testament. When the war ended, he compiled his notes, ensuring that when he was ready, when he needed them, they were there for him. Eugene was initially posted to Beijing after the war, however, was discharged in February 1946, with the rank of Corporal.
Eugene was recognised through his military career. He received a Combat Action Ribbon; Navy Presidential Unit Citation; Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal; China Service Medal; American Campaign Medal; Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two battle stars; World War 2 Victory Medal, and the Navy Occupation Service medal.
Eugene Sledge struggled with life post his war career. As he walked the streets of Mobile, the people of his town, the civilians, were running around dealing with life issues. Those issues seemed so insignificant to him. He found they seemed to have no comprehension of ‘being free’ and the ‘sacrifices of war’ that had happened to allow them that freedom. To the public, it was a case of “a veteran is a veteran”
A casualty of Eugene’s life post war was his love of hunting. He had seen enough suffering, and to wound an animal while hunting, was too much for him. Eugene relayed these fears and worries to his father who pointed him in the direction of bird watching. As a result of this, Eugene began to assist the conservation department of Auburn University, this being the origin of his passion for ornithology. Eugene already had a Batchelor of Science degree in Business Administration under his belt and added to it, a Master of Science Degree in Botany.
Eugene attended the University of Florida (1956-1960) and while there, worked as a research assistant. He published numerous works on helminthology and received a Doctorate in Biology from Florida. Eugene continued to learn his whole life and shared his learning. He was appointed assistant professor of biology at Alabama College in 1962. In 1970 that assistant professor, became a professor. He taught here until he retired in 1990. Zoology, Ornithology, Vertebral Anatomy. Those were just three of his teachings.
In 1989, he received a wonderful accolade. An honorary degree and rank of Colonel from Marion Military Institute.
Eugene married Jeanne Arceneaux in 1952. The couple were blessed with two sons. John, born in 1957 and Henry born in 1965. He passed away following a long battle with stomach cancer and is buried near his parents and brother, in Mobile, Alabama.
It was his wife Jeanne, that encouraged him to compile the memoirs of his war experiences to help him cope. As a result of that, “With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa” was published in 1981. In 2007, it was announced that the very same book, along with Robert Leckie’s book “Helmet for my pillow” would form the basis for the HBO series “The Pacific”
A posthumous publication, “China Marine: An Infantryman’s life after World War II” came out in 2002
Eugene Sledges books were very well received. The reviews that ‘With the Old Breed’ received, cement it in military history as one of the most raw, brutal and horrific books of the Pacific Theatre. Eugene did not sugar coat anything. He told what he saw, what he and his his unit had to do, and the conditions that they had to put up with. While the writing may have been hard to bear for some, the honesty was appreciated. It brought the war home to those who may not have realised what these marines had been through.
Of course, I never met Eugene, much as I would have loved to shake his hand.To me, he comes across as a quiet achiever. He comes across as a man who knew what he wanted from life, and set out to get it. That was abundantly clear from his books and from watching The Pacific. He comes across as a Marine who ‘had your back.’ He comes across as a hero.
Eugene Sledge – Thank you for your service.
To Eugenes family – thank you for continuing to share his story.