Eugene Sledge was born in November 1923 in Mobile, Ala. He attended Murphy High School, from which he graduated in the spring 1942 and joined the Marion Military Institute in Alabama that fall. A few months later, he enlisted in the Marine Corps as a private instead of continuing with his plans to become an officer—he feared that he might not be able to join combat efforts in World War II if he waited until graduation.
In the Marine Corps, Sledge joined the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division. He served as a mortarman in Peleliu, Palau, in September 1944. The battles there were often described as “the Marines’ toughest, bitterest fight of the war.” For the first 15 days of battle against Japan on the island, Sledge and his unit were consistently attacked. The climate was also inhospitable, with temperatures rising to 115 degrees. Describing his experience on the island, Sledge said, “[i]t was an alien, unearthly, surrealistic nightmare like the surface of another planet.”
Sledge remained in Peleliu for about a month, leaving for Pavuvu, Solomon Islands, on October 15, 1944. In spring 1945, he moved to Okinawa, Japan, where he took part in Operation Iceberg. As with the battles at Peleliu, Sledge lived in “dread” at Okinawa, experiencing a tough climate and combat zones he described as a “meat grinder.” Nearly half of the 1st Marine Division was killed or wounded by the end of the battle.
After the war, Sledge served in China before returning to the U.S. Although his return to civilian life was difficult, he was able to establish a successful career in academia. He attended Alabama Polytechnic Institute, presently named Auburn University, and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1949.
In 1953, he worked as a research assistant before earning a Master of Science degree in 1955. He then attended the University of Florida in 1956, from which he graduated with a Ph.D. in 1960 and, in 1962, became an assistant professor of biology at Alabama College, presently named the University of Montevallo. He finally became a professor in 1970, working in that role until his retirement two decades later.
Sledge published his World War II memoir in 1981, a book called “With the Old Breed: at Peleliu and Okinawa.” His book is a staple of reading within the Marine Corps and was the basis of his portrayal in HBO’s “The Pacific.”
Eugene Sledge died in March 2001. He was 77.
We honor his service.