Part 3: Sledge post World War II

Published 2:14 pm Saturday, March 28, 2020

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In his book, “With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa”, Eugene Sledge was able to capture some of the horror and life changing experiences of a Marine infantry man. Writing the book was cathartic for Sledge but it only happened after time had helped heal the burdensome memories he carried from the war. In his words, “Time heals and the nightmares no longer wake me in a cold sweat with pounding heart and racing pulse….In writing it [the book], I’m fulfilling an obligation I have long felt to my comrades in the 1st Marine Division, all of whom suffered so much for our country….Many gave their lives, many gave their health, and some their sanity….We owe those Marines a profound debt of gratitude”.

The late Stephen E Ambrose, nationally known WW II historian and scholar, was very complimentary of Sledge’s first book: “ I said to E B Sledge that his book was one of the best, if not the best, books on combat in the Pacific Theater during the Second world War….So I asked Sledge, when are you going to write another?” Sledge replied, “I only had one book in me”. Some 20 years after his first book, Sledge was able to write a sequel. China Marine.

Shortly after completing the manuscript for the book, Eugene Sledge died in 2001. His wife Jeanne had it published in 2002.

Not much had  been written about those  few months when  Marines were sent into China to help guard trains and supplies from lawless gangs. As it turned out, Sledge and the Marines were most in danger from the rival forces of Gen. Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist Chinese and Mao Zedong’s Communists battling for post war control of China.

The 1st Marine Division had 3 infantry regiments, the First, Third and Fifth, sent in to guard the cities of Tientsin, Peiping and Chinwangtao. Life for the Marines in these 3 areas varied greatly. The First and Fifth regiments had it pretty good in Tientsin and Peiping. They were housed in steam heated buildings. Their duties involved patrols and railroad escorts that ran through territory occupied by guerrillas, roaming outlaw gangs and the occasional Communists. The men of the 7th Regiment drew duty in Chinwangtao. Their quarters were often tents in the snow – a particular misery for men who had been living in the heat of the South Pacific. To make matters worse, the outlaw groups in their area were more dangerous and prone to violence.

North China was a powder keg during late 1945. In addition to the ongoing conflict between the Chinese Nationalists and the Communists, the people themselves had been dispossessed and were starving. The tragedy in China had started in 1931 with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. The nationalist expansion of Japan had caused them to look to nearby China as a source of raw materials and slave labor. After the invasion, the puppet state of Manchukuo was created by Japan and was occupied by them until the Russian invasions of 1945.

In 1937, Japan invaded Nanking to further their hold on Chinese raw materials. The actions by the Japanese armies in late 1937, is sometimes referred to as the Rape of Nanking. During a six week period in late 1937, as many as 300,000 civilians and surrendered troops were killed. In addition, some tens of thousands of women were raped. The ruthless, barbaric actions by Japanese troops under their commander, Matsui Iwane, is still considered one of the major atrocities of the 20th century. Into this seething turmoil of desperate humanity, the US Marine Corps was sent in to help keep the peace.

Sledge [with the K/3/5 Marines] considered himself lucky to be able to have a near normal life in Peiping. The city was somewhat exotic for the Marines, so soon back from the hell pit of Okinawa. Sledge immersed himself into this abrupt change. He found the Chinese fascinating and soon learned their language, as well as lots of their history and culture. The highlight of Eugene Sledge’s  China experience was making friends with the Soong family. That will be discussed later.

The most dangerous incident for Sledge [and the detachment from K Company], happened  when they were sent to protect a radio relay station halfway between Peiping and Tientsin.

A company of Japanese troops were stationed nearby the Marine encampment. The relations between the Marines and the Japanese were cordial. The Japanese respected the Marines because they had defeated Japan’s best troops.

The incident began innocently enough. One late afternoon, a Chinese messenger arrived seeking permission to test-fire a light machine gun from the roof of a nearby building. After permission was given, the Chinese proceeded to aim their machine gun at a nearby group of mustard colored uniformed troops of the Communists. Not long after, there was return rifle fire from the troops being fired on. Pretty soon, there was the sound of 81mm mortar shells landing in the village near where the Marines were staying. Sledge and his buddies were scared. Quoting Sledge, “Here we were, about 40 US Marines , in the middle of what could explode into a vicious battle between two opposing Chinese forces numbering in the thousands. We had survived fierce combat in the Pacific and now none of us wanted to stretch his luck any further and get killed in a Chinese civil war”.

Fortunately for the Marines, the Japanese were able to resolve the Chinese fire fight. The Marine Commanding Officer sent word to the Japanese commander that the Marines were neutral and that if any Marines were injured, the US government would hold him responsible. The Japanese sent out two tanks to quell the disturbance which lasted until after midnight. The next morning, several Chinese soldiers came to the Marines for treatment of their wounds.

As mentioned before, the most pleasant experience for Sledge while in China, was his friendship and interaction with the Soong family and a friend of theirs, Father Marcel von Hemelryjck [a Belgian Priest]. One of Sledge’s buddies, Paul Wachendorfer, introduced him to the Soong family and Fr. Marcel. The head of the Soong family was Soong Taifoo or as he was known to Sledge, Dr. Soong. Dr. Soong was the Head Surgeon at Peiping General Hospital. Dr. Soong and Fr. Marcel had met while both were students at the Sorbonne in Paris. The had met again, years later, when Marcel had been sent to China as a missionary. He had spent the last 10 years in a prison camp during the Japanese occupation.

After his first introduction, Sledge was invited back to visit over food and wine. Dr. Soong , along with his wife Margaret and her sister, Anna, lived in a comfortable, well furnished small home. Visits with the Soongs always included their mutual friend, Fr. Marcel. Said Sledge of Dr. Soong, “Only a few minutes conversation with Soong Taifoo left no doubt that he was  a man of great intelligence and depth…..He was soft spoken and almost always spoke in French to Fr. Marcel, who translated it into English.”

As to Fr. Marcel, “One felt better about just visiting with Fr. Marcel. He was one of the finest men I ever knew….He had a marvelous wit and wonderful laugh. I never heard him laugh longer or more heartily than the time Margaret asked him…if I was  Christian,  even though I was a Presbyterian.”

Eugene Sledge would be forever grateful for the friendship of these wonderful people during his time in China. They all shared an appreciation for the music of Mozart, Beethoven and others. This blessed and unlikely friendship helped make up for the recent hell that Sledge had experienced. When it came time to say goodbye, the normally dignified Dr. Soong, had tears for his friend, Eugene Sledge. In French, he told Fr. Marcel to tell him that he was very sad to see him leave. Fr. Marcel mentioned that he planned on visiting his mother in Belgium and would try to visit Sledge in the states. That visit happened right after Sledge had returned to Mobile in early 1946.

On his return, Sledge had this to say, “My adjustment to civilian life was not easy. The freedom to come and go as I pleased was a novel experience for a former rifle company Marine. Things civilians considered necessities seemed luxuries to me [50 years later, I still keenly appreciated the simple luxury of dry socks and clean clothes, a roof over my head, and sleeping in a bed with clean sheets”. Eugene’s father, Dr. Edward Sledge, had some keen words of advice for his son. “I know you have been through an awful experience….I’m tremendously proud of both you and Edward [Eugene’s brother who had served in the Army]. You did your duty ….and survived in one piece….but take my advice. First never become embittered because other men had safe, comfortable war assignments…Two, never feel sorry for yourself because of what you endured. On the other hand, feel fiercely proud that you served with the finest and fought against the fiercest enemy, and lived to tell the tale”.

Eugene Sledge’s first try at a college education was at Auburn where he obtained a business degree. He returned to Mobile and worked in an insurance office for a couple of years. Feeling unsatisfied, Eugene sat down and had a talk with his father. His father knew of his son’s keen interest in biology and the natural sciences, and advised, “Why don’t you write Auburn and inquire about entering one of their graduate biological programs?”

The words of his father pointed Eugene in a path to becoming a biological scientist. Before he would return to Auburn, he met a young lady at a wedding in Mobile. There he met Jeanne Arceneaux. They were married on Mar 12, 1952. They moved to Auburn where Eugene earned his Masters Degree in Botany. They then moved to Gainesville, FL and the University of Florida, where Eugene worked as a research assistant while obtaining his doctorate in biology. After receiving his PhD, he was employed by the Florida State Department of Agriculture from 1959-62. In the summer of 1962, Sledge was appointed Assistant Professor of Biology at  Alabama College [now the University of Montevallo]. He became a full professor in 1972 and held that position until his retirement in 1990. Dr. Sledge and his wife had two sons, John Sturdivant and William Henry. Dr. Eugene B Sledge died in 2001 after a battle with stomach cancer.

In closing, I have saved a passage from Dr. Sledge’s book that says much more about the MAN  that he had become after returning from the war.

Sledge and his father were always avid hunters. Eugene was a particularly good shot when hunting dove. On this one dove hunt, he had shot ten times and brought down ten birds. With his limit, Sledge went to pick up the last bird he had shot.

“ I had as usual , marked where the last dove fell. I went out to pick it up. This bird was still alive – it was lying on its side with its head erect and I knew it was badly injured because I could see it gasping for air. Slowly, I picked up the dove, my hand was wet with blood. I looked at the dove’s head. The bright sun shone clearly on the beautiful dark brown eyes bordered by the pale blue fleshy eyelids as the bird gasped for air. MY LORD! YOU POOR THING – AND YOU COULDN’T EVEN SHOOT BACK!”.

After that trip, Sledge told his father that he was through with hunting. His father said, “You don’t need to apologize to me or anyone…..You’ve just seen too much suffering. Why don’t you take up bird watching as a hobby – and nobody gets hurt. After that, Sledge said that he took his father’s advice and never shot another dove. He banded them for the Conservation Department and fed them in his backyard.

John Vick

[Sources: The University of Montevallo; The Encyclopedia Britannica;  the Museum of the United States Marine Corps; papers of Adm. Ernest J King; The Encyclopedia of Alabama {Aaron Trehub, Auburn University};  “China Marine: An Infantryman’s Life after World War II” by Eugene B Sledge; “With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa” by Eugen B Sledge]