Comparison of two WWII memoirs


E.B. Sledge. With The Old Breed. New York: Ballantine Books, 1981. Pp 315.

Philip Ardery. Bomber Pilot. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1978. Pp 226.


With the Old Breed, E. B. Sledge’s memoir of his time as a Marine in the South Pacific, begins as Sledge leaves college to enlist in the Marine Corps’ officer training program in December 1942. Finding officer training not to his liking, Sledge volunteers to go immediately to boot camp in San Diego. After this, he progresses through infantry training, where he trains as a member of a 60mm mortar crew. In February of 1944, Sledge moves to New Caledonia for field training; in June he is in Pavuvu, home base of the 1st Marine Division.  In August, he ships out for the Japanese-held island of Peleliu.

On September 15, 1944, Sledge’s experience in combat begins as the Marines storm the beaches at Peleliu. The island turns out to be made almost entirely of coral, making it nearly impossible to create foxholes that might offer protection from snipers or shelling. Sledge relates the intensity of the island heat, which sometimes reaches 115 degrees during the afternoon and fells many troops with heat stroke. Equally terrible are the nights, when Japanese infiltrators creep into the Marines’ lines and brutal hand-to-hand combat ensues. In the total darkness, the event is noted only by the screaming of the combatants in their death struggle, and the results are often unknown until morning.

As the battle lines move across the island, the Marines are under constant fire from Japanese artillery and mortars, and the dead of both sides are left where they fall, as digging in the rock is almost impossible. The stench of rotting bodies fills the air, intensified by the swelter. Sledge notes that it became possible to reckon the approximate time of death by noting the stage of decomposition of the corpse. Sledge would be stuck in unending combat of this sort until the end of October 1944.

After surviving Peleliu, the Marines get a respite before again being called on in the Okinawa campaign, which would begin in April of 1945. Okinawa is different from Peleliu in that the landings are unopposed; the Japanese conserve their strength entirely for a “defense-in-depth” of the island. Okinawa is particularly mountainous, and the Japanese convert every hill or ridgeline into a bastion. Once again, Sledge and the other Marines are forced to clear every pocket of resistance individually. As bad as Peleliu was, Sledge considers Okinawa worse. Okinawa is not declared secure until June 21.

When reading Sledge’s account, what stands out is the personal nature of his war. The enemy is always close at hand (sometimes too close), and he usually gets to see the faces of the dead as they swell, explode and then melt away in the tropical sun. When a member of Company K becomes a casualty, it often happens in the presence of the others, and that man’s suffering, and the way that suffering could have easily been anyone’s, makes it easy to hate the Japanese. Wounded discovered by the Japanese are known to have been tortured and killed; Marine dead are often mutilated and defaced; as a result the Marines think of their enemy as subhuman.

Much of the memoir describes the terrible strain that soldiers are under when exposed to continual combat conditions for weeks and months at a time. The soldiers in the South Pacific enjoy things that are often taken for granted, such as sleep, food and bodily functions, infrequently. More than once, Sledge describes soldiers who crack under the pressure and have to be evacuated, if possible. One night, a Marine loses his mind while on forward duty near the enemy and begins to shout hysterically, threatening to alert the Japanese to his unit’s position.  Eventually his comrades kill him. Sledge’s war is an ugly war.

Another view of the Second World War is visible in Philip Ardery’s Bomber Pilot. Ardery is a lawyer in Frankfort, Kentucky before hostilities are declared when he decides to train as an Army pilot. After induction at Ft. Knox, he attends flying school in Lincoln, Nebraska where he flies two-seater biplanes. Life in Nebraska is decidedly disconnected from the war in Europe, and much of Ardery’s off duty activities seem more collegiate than military. Having fared well in flight school, Ardery progresses on to Randolph Field, Texas for basic training on more complicated aircraft and later still to nearby Kelly Field for more training. After this, he is ordered to Goodfellow Field in San Angelo, Texas where he becomes an instructor. While stationed at Goodfellow Field, Ardery meets his future wife, Anne.

When the war breaks out, he becomes a pilot of B-24 Liberators and is assigned to North Africa, where he is a captain and squadron leader. From his base in Bengasi, his squadron runs missions over Sicily, Italy, Romania and Austria, usually targeting enemy industry. These missions are conducted during the daytime, and the enemy subjects the planes to heavy anti-aircraft barrages. Rarely do planes escape unscathed from these attacks, but often the damage inflicted is not enough to bring down the ship.

As the focus of the European theatre shifts to Northern Europe in late 1943, Ardery’s squadron is moved to Norwich, England. From here, now Major Ardery will raid Oslo, the Netherlands, Berlin and occupied France. He also takes part in the predawn bombing of the French coast at Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Not long after D-Day, Ardery, having completed his tour of combat runs, asks for and receives permission to be reassigned to duty in the United States. In July of 1944, he returns to his wife and child in San Angelo, Texas.

 Philip Ardery’s perspective on World War 2 is both literally and figuratively 15,000 feet above the action. While he participates in the war, and doubtless does a great and necessary service to his nation, he never seems entirely engaged with the enemy. After dropping tons of explosives, all he can see of the result is smoke and flame. He believes his missions were accomplished, but he is never quite sure. He never reports actually seeing the face of his enemy, even when Luftwaffe fighters are trying to shoot him down. When he loses a friend in combat, he usually becomes aware of it after the fact, when the pilot fails to return from his mission. For Ardery, the most moving reminder of the lost is their empty bunks at the base, or perhaps an empty chair at the officer’s club. It is as if the dead simply vanish.

Ardery’s memoir spends an inordinate amount of time dwelling on individual personalities, such as the wife in Texas he misses terribly, his fellow pilots (whom he either likes or dislikes), and General Ted Timberlake, whom he idolizes. He speaks of fellow operations officer Jimmy Stewart, the Hollywood actor turned bomber pilot who was stationed at his base doing very much the same work at the same time as Ardery. He mentions his time spent with Edward R. Murrow and Larry LeSueur at CBS studios in London, and he tells the story of the time he was interviewed on CBS about his bombing raids. His is a life of officer’s quarters, hotel rooms, hot food and operations planning, punctuated by gut wrenching bombing missions.

 Many pilots are lost during the air war, and Ardery benefits by being a survivor, receiving frequent promotions during his tour of duty; he begins the book as a second Lieutenant in the Air Corps and finishes as a Lieutenant Colonel. His superiors often praise him, and his service is rewarded by being promoted to operations officer in General Timberlake’s wing. Ardery is granted occasional leave to go to London, where he enjoys the nightlife for a few days at a time. While he is there, he witnesses German rocket attacks and the stoicism of the British people, but he himself is never in danger.

While both memoirs come from the same war, the experiences related are worlds apart. With the Old Breed is as honest an account of twentieth century ground war as one could reasonably expect. There is little glory or bluster, instead what the reader gets is fatalism and an intense hatred for the enemy.  From the time Sledge and his comrades step onto the beach at Peleliu to the time they leave Okinawa, suffering and death relentlessly shadow them. The reader follows along as they are directed from one nightmare to the next, often without rest or reinforcement. That Sledge survives the war seems nothing short of a miracle.

Philip Ardery’s story of his life as a bomber pilot stands in stark contrast. Much of the first half of the book is spent stateside, in training or instructing. The flyboys go to clubs at night, try to use their uniforms to pick up girls and debate politics in their bunks. Even after he enters the theatre of combat, Ardery usually sleeps in relative comfort, perhaps after having unwound at the Officer’s Club. People die, but there are no bodies, no stench, and no cries from wounded comrades. Occasionally, he might hear the anguished calls of air crews trying to save their crippled ships, but even the fates of these men is uncertain, as they might save themselves and become prisoners of war. Ardery’s war is bloodless and almost antiseptic. There is no hatred toward the enemy.

No war has just one story. It is a complicated mosaic, reflecting the varied and diverse experiences of millions of men. Few men get to choose the experiences they will have or the challenges they will endure. While some are selected to crawl on their bellies through the slushy remains of those who have gone before them, others are asked to rain death on ball bearing plants from 15,000 feet. The fear they all seem to share is that they will be shown to be a coward once the shooting starts; they fear humiliation more than death. When it was over, both E. B. Sledge and Philip Ardery had done the duty they were called to do, and lived to tell the tale.


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