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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.



( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 7th, 2011 02:02 am (UTC)
My only comment is that the comparison between the European/Pacific theaters isn't quite correct when you say the weather/climate was an enemy in one, but not the other. The seasonal changes in Europe, esp. the cold, wet, autumn and winter were as much an enemy (as one can tell from the memoirs) in Europe as the heat and wet were in the Pacific.

The real difference was the tropical diseases, denque (breakbone fever), malaria, etc.
Mar. 7th, 2011 02:29 am (UTC)
the tropical diseases are related to the tropical conditions. by comparing the weather, i meant it more as a constant. i know there was a harsh winter in the ETO, especially the battle of the bulge.... but you have to admit the ETO had many more beautiful days (weather wise!) comparatively than the PTO. (bear in mind too, i am talking about the americans)
it was something Sledge talked about and weather seems to be mentioned much more in Pacific narratives as contributing factors (weapons that rust quickly, humidity deteriorating things, jungle rot, etc). i wouldn't debate with Sledge that someone in the ETO, even Fussell, had it worse weather-wise than he did.
Mar. 7th, 2011 02:47 am (UTC)
I might, but that's because I think some of the weather complaints are actually standing in for the lack of rear area. In Europe there was some chance at getting off the front. Not as much as one might think, because of the insane divisional policies of the US Army, but there was an awareness that there was a "rear" one might to.

Not so in the Pacific. There were ships, and islands. When I compare the narratives of shore-based Pacific pilots, who didn't have the same sense of only being ashore when people were trying to kill them, because they were on atolls which were secure, there is a lot less complaint about the weather, even though the same problems of mildew, rust, etc. existed.

I know that in Iraq we complained about the weather/dust a lot. The nature of the beast is such that the inescapable aspects of existence are the things one rails against, and the nature of the island hopping made weather a more notable enemy, because there was no respite from the line.

I suspect that is little less coherent than I intended.
Mar. 7th, 2011 03:03 am (UTC)
it isn't incoherent. i actually try not to make a practice of comparing the fronts, nor any other war because i just don't think we can. i have read Pacific accounts where they wonder what happened to the navy (this is where my grandfather was), so there were not always ships... it was constant hot and rain of about 10" a day. i do know that i'd be likely to complain of it :)
i've not read any shore based narratives by pilots. what would you suggest? i definitely believe Sledge's is one of the best. Have you read it?
Mar. 7th, 2011 06:17 am (UTC)
Yes, I have. Pilot's narratives are harder to find, and, oddly, what I'd recommend first is a collection of cartoons, "There I was..."

Bob someone, I can't recall off the top of my head. He was an AAF/AF pilot, from about 43 to the late 60s, and did cartoons for the whole time. There is a bit of sanitizing, and it's possible I'm reading more into it than otherwise, as a result of experience.

What narratives there are tend to be sporadic. There is less, in terms of timescale, not least because there was something of a sense of "in and out" because of the use of missions to account for how long one was in theater (this was not the case for the Navy" and the sense that AAF in the Pacific was a sideshow.

I think Dick Bong did some writing of his time.
Mar. 7th, 2011 06:29 am (UTC)
Weather in Europe gets less consistent mention, than it does in the Pacific/N. Africa (BTW... the rains in the Pacific were seasonal, and probably not 10" a day except in rare events. averages for the Solomons run between 3-6 feet a year, and most of that in the 6 months of the monsoon, with about 32 inches a month in a high average year).

I suspect this is because, for all that weather is the single thing troops think of most, after actually being shot at, the European theater was more of what they were used to, so the "abnormal" aspect was living in it, nonstop.

If you look at Bill Mauldin ("The Brass Ring" and his Willie and Joe cartoons, you will find he rates weather pretty highly. The cartoons, in particular are interesting because he has weather as a background in some which are topical to other aspects of the war.

I'd also (not that I want to add to your plate) commend comments on the Hurtgen Forest campaign (mostly the 29th "Keystone" division). I don't know if recollections from WW1 would help or hinder, because those were people who were, by and large, fighting in their home climate, but the conditions were, in some ways, very different, because of the way unit's were rotated through the stages of the line.

It's interesting, to me, as I try to may cogent comment to see just how much reading on various wars I've done, in particular of of the 20th century; and how it all relates itself in my head.
Mar. 7th, 2011 06:56 am (UTC)
i really have little interest or time to dive into WWI right now. my focus is WWII and the Yugoslav wars. maybe when i have some..umm...spare time.
i am decently versed in the hurtgen forest.... bear in mind i come from Ambrose's school (Millet and Bischof too)...we are held to certain knowledge standards. ;)
i certainly do not think the Pacific was more propagandized. Not at all. The difference is that in the Pacific it was aimed at an entire ethnicity, while in Europe the bulk of the blame landed on Hitler and his elites. there has been some really good work done on that topic.
i certainly respect your argument, though i think the general consensus is that the weather was worse in the Pacific. many academics argue that the war was generally worse in the Pacific (as do officers who served in both theaters), but that is one of my issues - i don't think we should compare which was "worse." i think it is enough that both were bad. but, i'll concede to your argument because i certainly do not know enough about the weather data for both theaters. :)

And yes I have seen the photo - did you know the skull was eventually returned to the Japanese? the return was quite controversial.

i don't think there is resistance to Stevens... there are folks who focus on war comics as narrative.... (i think there is a focus for everything from dogs in the war to makeshift latrines) just not me. and on that note, it wouldn't be something i would assign because it isn't my area, so i could not properly deal with it. (but honestly, no, i do not think his *work* is academic and that doesn't give it any less merit).

***wow. no more mixing Mardi Gras punch and writing....didn't make much sense at all, did i?

Edited at 2011-03-07 08:26 pm (UTC)
Mar. 7th, 2011 06:30 am (UTC)
Bob Stevens.
i'll make a note to look up Bong....especially if you are saying his is a different view than Sledge - i've been looking for varying accounts for students to read, but something a little more academic than Stevens. :)
Mar. 7th, 2011 06:35 am (UTC)
Yeah, Stevens. It's not that he's not "academic" it's that his work is different, and some of it is colored by his being more retrospective, and his audience. He was aiming at "funny history" but some of it has some pointed social comment at AF culture.

I suspect the work of making its relevance clear is more than you have time for, given the resistance you are likely to face.
Mar. 7th, 2011 03:28 am (UTC)
as much as i preach not comparing personal experiences because it reduces taking each on its merit, now you have me curious to actually compare the mentions of weather in each theater's narratives.... because i don't have enough on my research list...
damn, especially since that isn't what this was about at all... it was about exterminationist war and propaganda... not enough hours in the week....

Edited at 2011-03-07 03:30 am (UTC)
Mar. 7th, 2011 06:33 am (UTC)
Certainly the Pacific was a much more propagandised war. Part of that, I think, is because it was both against a group which was already suffering from propaganda/organised racism before the war (Wash. State in particular. Dave Neiwert as some very good material if you wanted to contact him), as well as being secondary.

That made, I think, the need to keep the home front really angry more important. If you add the "sneak attack" aspect of it, well there is a lot of animosity.

Have you see the Life Magazine photo of the young woman looking at the skull her fiancée sent her from the Pacific Theater?
Mar. 11th, 2011 04:35 am (UTC)
omg Melissa u bitched about the weather all the time when we were in the army.
I have a flea collar with ur name on it too. Come see!
I am glad to see u are writing again. I am catching up.
See you in a bit!
Mar. 11th, 2011 05:12 am (UTC)
hah...LOL. those things have warning labels on them now. i wouldn't even put one on a dog or cat!
and, yeah, see you saturday morning, bright and early, chipper!
Mar. 11th, 2011 07:34 am (UTC)
They can be used, carefully, to get rid of mites on snakes/in snake enclosures.
Mar. 11th, 2011 07:51 am (UTC)
learn something new everyday! i didn't even know snakes got mites.
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )


don't fear death
melissa muses (or maia, you choose)


wandering does not make you a "gypsy."
why would you call yourself
after those who have no home?
long skirts and hoop earrings
do not make you a "gypsy."
why do you call yourself after
those who have no clothes?

"gypsy" is pejorative. please don't perpetuate the stereotype. educate yourself on what it really means to be a "gypsy" in this world.

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