Memories of his father sitting in front of the fireplace, writing on yellow legal pads, a small brown bible beside him, with pieces of paper that he referred to, seemingly lost in thought, as if in a faraway place. Henry Sledge was a witness to his father’s memoir writing and the recipient of listening to the experiences that he shared.
I had the pleasure of being able to interview Henry for Madhatterpress. Thank you Henry, this is an absolute privilege for me.
For anyone who might not know who you are, would you share a couple of sentences and let them know who you are.
My name is Henry Sledge. I am the younger son of Eugene B. Sledge who wrote “With The Old Breed.” I have a passionate interest in all aspects of WWII history. I have done some writing and co-host a WWII podcast called “What’s The Scuttlebutt.
Your dad and mum married in 1952 with you arriving in 1965. What are your first memories of your dad?
Some of my earliest memories of my dad are of him reading to me when I was just a few years old.
Would you be kind enough to share some words about your childhood
I had a very typical and happy childhood. My father taught Biology at the local university, and he was supportive, loving, and nurturing in every possible way. He enjoyed being outdoors, and his inherent love of nature fostered a similar appreciation in me. My older brother and I roamed the woods with Lady, our German Shepherd, and played alternately at fighting imaginary Germans and Japanese with our BB guns and plastic army helmets from the local dime store.
My father encouraged us to read from an early age, and I spent many hours sitting on the floor of his study looking through the Time Life Pictorial History of World War II. That was the beginning of my love of World War II history. I was intrigued by the airplanes, the tanks, and the equipment carried by the troops. The tilt of a Marine’s helmet, for example, or the way a German soldier wore his pack, were of more interest to me in those days than the larger geopolitical issues of a global conflict. My father was a loquacious man, and happily answered my endless questions about these things. The thing that impressed even then was his ability to recall the most minute details.
By the time I was a teenager, With the Old Breed was published and starting to make the rounds among historians and Marines, and I felt a keen interest in learning more about what happened out there so long ago, and maybe even going myself to see that tiny island on the fringes of the western Pacific with the lilting name that almost sounded exotic…Peleliu.
When did your dad start sharing his experiences?
Many people say that the veterans in their families never talked about their experiences; with my dad it was never that way. I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t aware that he had been a Marine in the Pacific and had fought in WWII. For example, I remember once when I was about five or six years old, he and my brother and I had gone into a military surplus store in Mobile, AL. We called them Army-Navy stores back then. I just remember walking around in the store looking at all the old gear they had in there, and seeing my dad pick various things up and say “we had these on Peleliu” or “yeah, the one they issued me was just like this”…. comments like that.
How did it feel to hear those experiences?
I didn’t really hear any of the bad stuff until I was an adolescent and began reading portions of the manuscript that would become “With the Old Breed.” The book was actually published when I was 15 and I immediately read it when we got the first copies. The feeling I had was immense pride in him… his description of vaulting over the side of the LVT when they went ashore at Peleliu, for example, I really could picture him in my mind’s eye as a young 19 or 20 year old Marine trying to survive that.
How was your dad when he was sharing those experiences?
Very matter of fact about it – they had a job to do and they had to see it through.
From my research and reading, I know that in the summer of 1999 your dad let you know about the 55th anniversary of the battle of Pelelui. What drew you to make that decision to go?
I had always been fascinated by the thought of Peleliu as a sparsely populated island on the western edge of the Pacific, a place where the detritus of war – rusted relics like the remains of amphibious tractors, Sherman tanks, machine guns, things like that – were still out there in the jungle. I was captivated by that. I remember telling my mom when I was about 16 or so – “Someday I want to go to Peleliu.”
What did you bring back from the trip, physically, emotionally, spiritually?
Incredible memories; when we stood on the section of beach (Orange Beach 2) where K/3/5 went ashore, I had tears in my eyes. When we went across the channel to Ngesebus and found the bunker where he and his squad had engaged with what ended up being 17 Japanese soldiers – he almost got killed there. I brought back a chunk of concrete from that bunker. I had always been fascinated by WWII history before that, but that trip sealed it for me.
How did watching the series and reading his words affect you?
It was incredibly exciting to see his book used as primary source material for “The Pacific.” At first I watched the series very critically, questioning every detail and every little thing they did – especially if it differed from the way my dad wrote it. But over the years I have grown to have a deeper appreciation of the whole project, a better understanding of artistic license, time compression, composite characters, things like that.
You continue to drive his legacy and ensure that his memory remains true and never forgotten. Can you share a few sentences on how you do that and what’s your way forward.
I try to be a presence in the WWII community. I wrote an article that was published in World War II Magazine – it was the cover story of the Autumn issue. Saul David wrote a book called “Devil Dogs” about my dad’s unit, K/3/5. He asked me to read the manuscript before it got published so I did. He was very gracious about the suggestions I had concerning the Sledgehammer story. He asked me to write the Foreword for the book and I was honored to do it. I was invited to the most recent International WWII Conference at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans back in November. I was on a panel with Richard Frank and Saul David and spoke about my dad.
My way forward in driving my dad’s legacy is to do more of what I have done – I want to do more writing, and continue to be a part of things such as the conference at the WWII Museum. I’d like to get more articles published. The biggest thing I’m doing is working on my own book that will bring to light the unpublished writings of Eugene Sledge coupled with my memories of growing up with him as my dad.
Thank you Henry for sharing your time and memories with me. It has been an incredible experience.
Henry can be found on instagram as @hsledgehammer and Facebook as William Henry Sledge.
He can also be found co-hosting “What`s the Scuttlebutt Podcast” (WTSP)