melissa muses (or maia, you choose) (melissamuse) wrote,
melissa muses (or maia, you choose)

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a netherworld of horror

Bluejacket, I mean, aged 20, in August strolled
Among the little bodies on the sand and hunted
Souvenirs: teeth, tags, diaries, boots; but bolder still
Hacked off this head and under a leopard tree skinned it

“The US Sailor with the Japanese Skull” by Winfield Townley Scott

over the winter break i finally had an opportunity to watch The Pacific in its entirety.

yes, like a WW II glutton, i watched it all straight through with lots of popcorn and a mug full of awe.

i'd previously read With the Old Breed, one of the books on which it was based (I still need to read Leckie's A Helmet for My Pillow). of the WW II accounts i've read, and despite his apologies for poor writing, Sledge's account is no doubt the most moving. like the accounts of the battle of attu i wrote about last week, the hate for the Japanese is a prominent theme in the book and we have the opportunity to witness it develop through the once innocent eyes of Sledge.

Eugene Bondurant Sledge, “Sledgehammer,” was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1923 and joined “The Old Breed,” the 1st Marine Division and the first in Marine Corps history, in June 1944. Upon his assignment to the 1st Division, Sledge writes with great pride that, given the option, he would have chosen the Fifth Marines, 1st Division and thus felt he had “rolled the dice and won.” Considered by many to be one of the best memoirs of World War II’s Pacific Theater, With the Old Breed is Sledge’s unapologetic memoir of the brutality of Japanese resistance at Peleliu and Okinawa. Sledge prefaces the horror of the Pacific by addressing the “undeserved criticism” of the Marine Corps for not understanding “the magnitude of stress and horror that combat can be,” the propensity of modern technology to turn war into “prolonged, subhuman slaughter,” and the necessity for “realistic” training to prevent “breaking mentally and physically” (41). The harshness of training, unforgiving war propaganda, and the “savage, brutal, inhumane, exhausting, and dirty business” (41) of war in the Pacific created a theater of an exterminationist war that was without mercy on either side.

In the introduction to With the Old Breed, Victor Hanson writes of the Pacific struggle of annihilation and killing as “fueled by political, cultural – and racial – odium in which no quarter was asked or given” (xix). From basic training, Sledge was infused with hatred of the Japanese, called “Japs” and “Nips” among other racial slurs. Even before hitting the jungle front, Sledge was fed “accounts of Japanese sadism and brutality” that “fueled an attitude of murderous hatred for the enemy” (12). Because these accounts were truth, survival required hatred of the enemy. The Goettge patrol incident, as well as Japanese tactics of playing dead or wounded in order to slaughter nearby soldiers, served to negate any semblance of mercy or compassion for the Japanese. The distrust and hatred was mutual, making the Japanese and Americans “like two scorpions in a bottle” (157). This “collective attitude,” Sledge writes, was not the “dispassionate killing” of other wars, but a “brutish, primitive hatred as characteristic of the horrors of war in the pacific as the palm trees and the islands” (34). In the Pacific, hatred was survival, kill or be killed. As Sledge’s drill instructor warned him, "Don't hesitate to fight the Japs dirty. Most Americans, from the time they are kids, are taught not to hit below the belt. It's not sportsmanlike. Well, nobody has taught the Japs that, and war ain't sport. Kick him in the balls before he kicks you in yours" (18). In order to avoid being killed and tortured, one must first kill and torture.

Both sides, on and off the front, digested government controlled propaganda that fueled hatred of the enemy. One Marine observed, “the Japanese made a perfect enemy. They had so many characteristics an American could hate. They were small, a strange color and, by some American standards, unattractive . . . Marines did not consider they were killing men. They were wiping out dirty animals" (Weingartner, 1996). The Japanese, in American eyes, were buck-toothed, slanted eyes, sneaky, small men with large, round glasses. Contrastly, the German enemy was confined primarily to Hitler and Goebbels and not all Germans (Sapre, 2004).

The Japanese representation of Americans was that of imperialist beasts and devils that must be slaughtered in order to free Asia, including the Philippines, that was blanketed in propaganda as Americans approached. The Japanese did not hold back their propagandist tactics from the Americans either, often dropping leaflets right over the troops. Some slogans printed on the leaflets urged soldiers to go home, others utilized fear tactics warning of snakes and jungle hazards, and others were “surrender cards” that soldiers could turn in to guarantee a safe surrender. Japanese also employed tactics designed to create a rift between black and white soldiers, dropping flyers that reminded blacks of the oppression of slavery and predicted their return to a segregated United States, if they survived.

In the Pacific, hatred played itself out in a most alarming way – through the defilement of enemy corpses. Sledge tells of a Japanese machine gunner killed where he sat, skull open and collecting rainwater. A fellow mortar-man sitting near Sledge tossed coral pebbles into the “ghastly receptacle” (123). There was no malicious intent according to Sledge, “The war had so brutalized us that it was beyond belief” (123). Some acts, however, were indeed malicious and more than looting – “It wasn’t simply souvenir hunting or looting the enemy dead; it was more like Indian warriors taking scalps” (120). Sledge describes his initial horror of a Marine extracting gold teeth from a dying Japanese soldier, an act to which he eventually became accustomed. The Japanese soldier’s thrashing about made it difficult for the Marine to retrieve the gold, so he cut each of his cheeks open, ear to ear (121). Sledge also writes of Mac, an officer - “gentleman by the act of Congress” - who would go out of his way to urinate in the mouth of Japanese corpses (198-199). When one of Sledge’s buddies shared with him a “unique souvenir” of a shriveled Japanese hand, he thought of his friend as a “twentieth-century savage” while he worried what he may do himself if the war went “on and on” (152-153).

Skull trophies were most common in the Pacific Theater where some Marines would go so far as to dig up corpses to take skulls (Harrison, 2006). Marines would use them to decorate the front of trucks while deployed and then carry them home as souvenirs.

However, despite all the atrocities of American Marines upon Japanese corpses, Sledge argues that he “never saw a Marine commit the kind of barbaric mutilation the Japanese committed if they had access to our dead” (148). Sledge witnessed the barbarity of Japanese defilement while passing a shallow defilade in which American Marine bodies were hideously mutilated. “From that moment,” Sledge never again felt “the least pity or compassion for them” (148).
No mercy.

The Pacific
The book is always better than a film, but HBO’s production of The Pacific is an excellent companion to the stories from which it is drawn, the memoirs of Sledge, Robert Leckie and John Basilone. Though Sledge’s account is exceptionally graphic, the visual special effects of The Pacific feed into the imagination where words may not. The visualness of the production reminds us constantly that this is not the European front; men have more than the war enemy, but that of heat, disease and dehydration.

The Pacific follows Sledge’s training, providing visual examples of de-humanization of the Japanese training. Episode four opens with target training against Japanese dummies tagged with the names “Tojo” and “Fuckface.” Officers instill in the soldiers a solid “it’s us or them” mentality. The harshness of the jungle, the terrifying sounds of mortar and rounds, the bloody loss of limbs, and the cruelties of the enemy all become very real through the eyes of Sledge. If it is overlooked in the book within Sledge’s narrative, throughout The Pacific we witness Sledge change from an innocent boy to a war hardened young man.

The beginning innocence of Sledge is not easily conveyed in his own words. He takes off his shoes “what cha gonna do in your stocking feet when the Japs bust through the line?”

No words can capture the look on young Sledge’s face as he first goes for the golden teeth of a corpse and is saved by Doc Caswell, “a fine friend” who helps him, in that one moment, to retain some of his sensitivity.

The close of The Pacific most poignantly captures the return home more than any other scene. WW II soldiers didn't have PTSD. They didn't go to therapy. They went home. They moved on. Most didn't talk about it.

And at the very end, Sledge, young but battle aged, stands in line to register at Alabama Polytechnic. The pretty young woman taking his information asks him repeatedly what skills he learned in the war. Accounting? Journalism?
“Isn’t there anything the Marine Corp taught you that you can continue at ‘Bama Poly,” she asks, exasperated.
Finally, Sledge leans over and tells the woman, “They taught me how to kill Japs. I got pretty damn good at it.”
The woman sits at a table set aside specifically for registering veterans. Her ignorance represents the lack of understanding many at home had of the lives of jungle soldiers.
"We existed in an environment totally incomprehensible to men behind the lines – service troops and civilians." (120-21).

Harrison, Simon. 2006. "Skull Trophies of the Pacific War: Transgressive Objects of remembrance./Les Trophees De la Guerre Du Pacifique Des Cranes Comme Souvenirs Transgressifs." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 12.
Sapre, Erin E. 2004. "Wartime Propaganda: Enemies Defined by Race." West Virginia University Philological Papers.
Sledge, E. B. 2007. With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa. New York: Presidio Press.
Tim Van Patten, David Nutter, Jeremy Podeswa, Graham Yost, Carl Franklin, Tony To. 2010. "The Pacific." United States, United Kingdom, Australia.
Weingartner, James. 1996. "War against Subhumans: Comparisons between the German War against the Soviet Union and the American War against Japan, 1941-1945." The Historian 58.
Tags: wwii

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