The Old Breed used to refer to Marines before the expansion of WWII. In the 1930s, there were only about 18,000 Marines on active duty. By 1945, it was almost half a million. The Old Breed absorbed those hundreds of thousands and made them Marines.
In between those numbers is the history of the Marine Corps in the Pacific. When the Marines landed on Guadalcanal there only were 2 Divisions and those were understrength. It was August of 1942, the Japanese held most of the Pacific. Their navy controlled the seas and they had the best fighter plane in the world. Even the Wiki outline of events is enough to give you a feeling of the desperation of the fighting. The Marines were on Guadalcanal from August to December. In December they were relieved and the Army came ashore to take over the island.
Guadalcanal became the first in a series of islands whose names became part of the Marine Corps history. We look back now in awe, remembering Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and the rest. To the Marines on Guadalcanal, though, it was just a dirty, miserable, dangerous job. A place of rain and malaria and mud. A place of too much death.
Robert Leckie was a Marine Private on Guadalcanal. He wrote a book called Helmet For My Pillow. I read it recently and wanted to recommend it. It’s his story, of becoming a Marine, surviving Guadalcanal, enjoying liberty in Australia, and finally being injured on Peleliu and evacuated, surviving the war. Helmet On My Pillow was published in 1957.
I bring it up for a number of reasons. It’s a good read, real, no heroics, just a story of one man’s experience. It is a story of how the New Breed of 1942 became the Old Breed and a reminder of the sacrifice made for us. The epilogue is worth the price of the rest of the book.
And there was this, which will be my quote today. While recuperating in a hospital, he met with a doctor who suggested to him that he was too smart to have been a machine gunner and this was his response.
Now I was shocked! The old shibboleth, intelligence! Had not our government been culpable enough in pampering the high-IQ draftees as though they were too intelligent to fight for their country? Could not Doctor Gentle see that I was proud to be a scout, and before that a machine gunner? Intelligence, intelligence, intelligence. Keep it up, America, keep telling your youth that mud and danger are fit only for intellectual pigs. Keep on saying that only the stupid are fit to sacrifice, that America must be defended by the lowbrow and enjoyed by the high-brow. Keep vaunting head over heart, and soon the head will arrive at the complete folly of any kind of fight and meekly surrender the treasure to the first bandit with enough heart to demand it.
–Robert Leckie, writing in Helmet For My Pillow