Eugene Bondurant Sledge, Auburn ’48, was a United States Marine, university professor, and author. His 1981 memoir With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa chronicled his combat experiences during World War II and was subsequently used as source material for the Ken Burns PBS documentary The War (2007), as well as the HBO miniseries The Pacific (2010).
He returned to college and pursued the study of science, namely ornithology and helminthology, with several advanced degrees, followed by work with the Division of Plant Industry for the Florida State Department of Agriculture from 1959 to 1962.
Sledge was appointed Assistant Professor of Biology at Alabama College (now the University of Montevallo) retiring as a full professor in 1990, very popular with his students. He taught zoology, ornithology, and comparative vertebrate anatomy.
Sledge was enrolled in the Marion Military Institute, but instead chose to volunteer for the U.S. Marine Corps in December 1942. He was placed in the V-12 officer training program and was sent to Georgia Tech, where he and half of his detachment flunked out so they would be allowed to serve their time as enlistees and not miss the war.
Once he was out of school, he was assigned duty as an enlisted man and was eventually assigned to K Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division (K/3/5), where he served with Corporal R.V. Burgin and PFC Merriell “Snafu” Shelton. He achieved the rank of Corporal in the Pacific Theater and saw combat as a 60 mm mortarman at Peleliu and Okinawa. When fighting grew too close for effective use of the mortar, he served in other duties such as stretcher bearer and as a rifleman.
After being posted to Beijing after the war, he was discharged from the Marine Corps in February 1946.
After the war ended, Sledge attended Auburn University (then known as Alabama Polytechnic Institute), where he was a member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity, receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration in the summer of 1949.
Sledge, like many other war veterans, had a hard time readjusting to civilian life:
“As I strolled the streets of Mobile, civilian life seemed so strange. People rushed around in a hurry about seemingly insignificant things. Few seemed to realize how blessed they were to be free and untouched by the horrors of war. To them, a veteran was a veteran – all were the same, whether one man had survived the deadliest combat or another had pounded a typewriter while in uniform.”
Once an avid hunter, Sledge gave up his hobby. He found that he could not endure the thought of wounding a bird and said that killing a deer felt like shooting a cow in a pasture. His father found him weeping after a dove hunt where Sledge had to kill a wounded dove, and in the ensuing conversations he told his father he could no longer tolerate seeing any suffering.
Upon life changing advice from his father that he could substitute bird watching as a hobby, Sledge started to assist the conservation department in its banding study efforts, the beginning of a successful career in the science of ornithology.
When he enrolled at Auburn University, the clerk at the Registrar’s office asked him if the Marine Corps had taught him anything useful. Sledge replied:
“Lady, there was a killing war. The Marine Corps taught me how to kill Japs and try to survive. Now, if that don’t fit into any academic course, I’m sorry. But some of us had to do the killing — and most of my buddies got killed or wounded.”
He found his salvation in science, as it kept the flashbacks of Peleliu and Okinawa at bay. Close, constant study of nature prevented him from going mad; however, the war stayed with him, and he eventually began to put his thoughts on paper, at last allowing him to put his horrors behind him.
He returned to Auburn in 1953, where he worked as a research assistant until 1955. That same year he graduated from API with a master of science in botany.
Doctorate and later work
From 1956 to 1960, Sledge attended the University of Florida and worked as a research assistant. He published numerous papers on helminthology and joined the Helminthological Society of Washington. He received his doctorate in biology from the University of Florida in 1960. He was employed by the Division of Plant Industry for the Florida State Department of Agriculture from 1959 to 1962.
In the summer of 1962, Sledge was appointed Assistant Professor of Biology at Alabama College (now the University of Montevallo). In 1970, he became a professor, a position he held until his retirement in 1990. He taught zoology, ornithology, comparative vertebrate anatomy, and other courses during his long tenure there. Sledge was popular with his students, and organized field trips and collections around town. In 1989, he received an honorary degree and rank of colonel from Marion Military Institute.
With the Old Breed
In 1981, Sledge published With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, a memoir of his World War II service with the United States Marine Corps. In 1992, Sledge was featured in the documentary film Peleliu 1944: Horror in the Pacific. In April 2007, it was announced that With the Old Breed, along with Robert Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow, would form the basis for the HBO series The Pacific.
China Marine (memoir)
A second memoir, China Marine: An Infantryman’s Life after World War II, was published posthumously, which discussed his postwar service in Peiping (now known as Beijing), his return home to Mobile, and his recovery from the psychological trauma of warfare.
Awards and decorations
- Combat Action Ribbon (1 bronze award star)
- Navy Presidential Unit Citation with award star
- Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal
- China Service Medal
- American Campaign Medal
- Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal (two bronze campaign stars)
- World War II Victory Medal
- Army of Occupation Medal with ‘Japan’ clasp