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William March and Eugene B. Sledge: Mobilians, Marines, and Writers

From: Alabama Review
Volume 66, Number 1, January 2013
pp. 30-66 | 10.1353/ala.2013.0005

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At first glance, william march (1893–1954) and eugene b. Sledge (1923–2001) would appear to have had little in common. March was a businessman, bachelor, world traveler, and professional man of letters who was at home in the literary and artistic circles of New York, London, and New Orleans. Sledge was a scientist, family man, lifelong Alabama resident, and university professor. March was an enigmatic man of apparent contradictions who took great care to shield his private life and deepest beliefs from public scrutiny and whose family and literary executors scrupulously honored his reticence in this regard. “William March was a private person,” the trust officer of the Merchants National Bank of Mobile wrote to March’s biographer, Roy S. Simmonds, in 1977, “[h]e did not indulge himself with confidants, and retained no scrap of writtten [sic] documentation of intimate quality.” “His work will stand on its own,” she concluded, “and his private life will remain his own. For all practical purposes, he took it with him.”1 By contrast, the main elements of Sledge’s personal history and opinions are in the public domain, and he has posthumously become a celebrated public figure with his family’s support and endorsement.

Despite these differences of circumstance and temperament, however, there are interesting similarities between the two men. March and Sledge were both born in Mobile. They both served in the same regiment of the United States Marine Corps, March in France in World War I and Sledge in the Pacific in World War II. They both wrote well–known books based on their war experiences. And they were both haunted for the rest of their lives by what they had seen and done in battle. Although one book is fiction and the other is a memoir, March’s novel Company K (Smith and Haas, 1933) and Sledge’s memoir With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (Presidio Press, 1981) are recognized today as classics of their type, distinguished by their graphic, unsentimental depiction of combat, war atrocities, and the physical and psychological effects of battle. Proof of these books’ enduring appeal is the fact that both works have been used in feature films, documentaries, and a television miniseries. Company K was turned into a feature film by Alabama–born filmmaker Robert Clem in 2004, while Sledge’s With the Old Breed figured prominently in Ken Burns’ World War II documentary The War (PBS, 2007) and is one of two World War II memoirs (the other is Robert Leckie’s 1957 memoir Helmet for My Pillow) that served as the basis for the Home Box Office miniseries The Pacific, which aired in 2010.2

In examining March’s and Sledge’s books, I will look for common themes as well as differences, and will discuss the degree to which their works were informed by their southern heritage and by what is widely but controversially perceived as a distinctively southern military tradition. This piece is a preliminary examination of the factors that led two men from the same city but very different circumstances to join the same branch of the armed forces and produce two iconic works on the same subject: men, violence, and what Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his farewell speech as president, called “the horror and the lingering sadness of war.”3

March and Sledge came from very different backgrounds and social circumstances. William March was born William Edward Campbell on September 18, 1893 in Mobile, “on the corner of Broad and Conti Streets,” as the late literary scholar and March specialist William T. Going put it.4 March was the second of eleven children. His father, John Leonard Campbell, was the orphaned son of a Confederate soldier and worked as an itinerant timber cruiser in the lumber towns of south Alabama and the Florida panhandle. March’s mother, Susan March Campbell, was the well–born daughter of Mobile gentry. The family was poor, and William March left school at fourteen to work in the office of a Lockhart, Alabama lumber mill.

At sixteen, March moved to Mobile, where he took a job in a law office to earn money for school. He spent a year...

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