CAMDEN — They fought in different wars, with different enemies, objectives and challenges, but Eugene Sledge and Philip Caputo both endured heavy emotional and physical tolls that came with serving in combat as members of the United States Marine Corps. In Sledge’s stirring memoir, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, he gives a raw, firsthand account of his time serving in the Marine Corps as a 60 mm mortarman in the Pacific. In Caputo’s memoir, A Rumor of War, he offers an unflinching look at his combat experience serving in the Marines in the early years of the Vietnam War.
While the authors’ voices and experiences are distinct, they provide parallel glimpses into the complex psychological, emotional and physical demands that war places on ground combat troops, according to Shaina Mitchell, a pre-med/history major with a minor in biology.
Mitchell examines the authors’ memoirs in depth in her research project, The Infantryman’s Account: A Comparison of the American Combat Experiences in World War II and the Vietnam War. Her research, performed under the guidance of Katherine Epstein, an assistant professor of history, will be on display at the Celebration of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity, to be held on Thursday, April 18, in the Campus Center’s Multi-Purpose Room.
“Though memoirs are incapable of presenting the totality of the two wars, it is for their valuable insight that Sledge’s and Caputo’s memoirs serve as vital instruments for comparing and contrasting the American combat experience,” says Mitchell, a resident of Shamong. “They are, thus, small windows into the similarities and differences of the Pacific theater in World War II and Vietnam.”
Mitchell initially explored the topic as a research paper for Epstein’s course, Modern U.S. Military History. Epstein lauds the paper for its meticulous research and nuanced arguments. “Her careful reading enabled her to make not only fairly obvious points, such as the fact that both wars were fought in difficult climatic conditions, but also more subtle ones, such as the fact that both memoirists discuss suffering from skin diseases,” says Epstein. “In short, her paper is an impressive piece of undergraduate research.”
Mitchell was drawn to Epstein’s course for its focus on the U.S. military experience. A veteran herself, she served as a U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman from 2007 to 2011, working primarily as a medical assistant in a dermatology clinic at
Camp Pendleton, the major West Coast base for the United States Marine Corps, in Southern California. During that time, she performed a variety of tasks, which included assisting wounded veterans and performing small surgeries. “There were some really profound things that I got to do,” says Mitchell. “It was much more than I ever could have done as a civilian without going to medical school.”
While she never served in combat, Mitchell could relate to the books’ central themes of camaraderie and the military mentality. “You go through so much together, so many hardships,” says Mitchell. “There is someone standing right next to you and, no matter where they are from, they understand what you are going through.”
Moreover, she notes that Sledge and Caputo are U.S. Marines, a branch of the military with whom she worked closely during her time as a Navy corpsman. “A lot of their combat buddies are Navy corpsman,” says Mitchell of the authors. “That was neat; I could relate to their experiences.”
Mitchell says that reading the books gave her a new perspective and an even greater appreciation for all that these men had endured. She notes that, in both wars, resources were much more limited than they are today, with men often going without proper food and hygiene. “I think that the elements that these men had endured would be shocking even to someone who has been in combat,” she says.