Peleliu, October 1944
Eugene Sledge is still in the thick of battle as the troops assault the enemy fortress in the cliffs. He keeps tickmarks of the days on Peleliu and writes down "fear and filth." He and his companions are surrounded by dead bodies of fellow Marines and the enemy, but they keep pressing forward, and he writes in his Bible. We're shown scenes of flame, explosions, violence, guts hanging out of the bodies of the fighting men. In a word, hell.
One morning at sunrise, the Marines are burying bodies and slowly walking back to camp, which is on the conquered airfield. Snafu, Haldane and the rest look like their spirits have been ripped out of them. One of the men lights a cigarette and lends it to Sledge to light his. He reminds Sledge that he didn't use to smoke. "Guess I do now," Sledge says.
Captain Haldane gives orders to each unit and tells them to be ready to fall in at 1100, hours away from that moment. Haldane tells them that hot chow awaits, and they have time to savor every bite. Snafu is overjoyed to have the morning off.
Later the men are checking their weapons when another group of newbies in clean dungarees and pith helmets arrives with fresh supplies. One of them approaches the group and asks if anyone has any Japanese souvenirs -- weapons, anything -- and says he'll pay good money for it. Sledge's pal Private Leyden invites the guy to check between his butt cheeks and take what he wants. The guy is persistent, saying he can't go home from war empty-handed. Snafu grins. "Ain't nobody going home." The man is quiet for a moment, then moves on to another group.
Haldane approaches the men and greets them, taking off his pack and laying down his weapons. "Never run when you can walk. Never walk when you can stand. Never stand when you can sit. Never sit when you can lay down," he says with a grin. "And never pass a supply of clean water."
Sgt. Elmo "Gunny" Haney grins and this and says, "Amen."
Haldane chats up Sledge, pointing out that he's a Southern man, and wonders how many of their ancestors shot at each other at Gettysburg or Bull Run. Sledge says his great grandfather fought with Grant, and that his father is a doctor who patched up vets in World War I. Haldane shares that his father is a foreman at a textile mill in Massachusetts, a mill that weaves fabric for the military. He likes the idea that his father might have had something to do with the blankets they use. He tells Sledge he has a detail for him: Wake him up in 20 minutes. Then he lays down in the dirt for a nap. Sledge smiles.
At 1100 the men come together, ready to march back up to the front. Bombers fly overhead to soften the targets, and the men they're relieving slowly march back past them. The men shake one another's hands as they pass, sharing cigarettes and moral support. Sledge sees a man on a stretcher with one of his legs apparently blown off, and recognizes him from Phillips' old bunk -- it's Chuckler. He's alive, smoking a cigarette, but not responding. Sledge, at a loss for words, can only ask how he's doing. Chuckler can only blink, and the men carrying him keep moving as Sledge stiffens with resolve and heads to the front line.
Back in the States, John Basilone is sitting in a room full of Shriners as one of the men makes a hyperbolic speech enumerating his battlefield achievements. A man wheels a cake to the front festooned with stars and stripes, urging them to purchase war bonds. Basilone does not look happy.
Later, Basilone is at the driving range, hitting golf balls as men watch him. He drives for hours, passing so much time that his palms start bleeding, as he tries unsuccessfully to get the battlefield images of his friends Manny and J.P. out of his head. He drives the golf balls past nightfall, and the men watching him turn on their cars' headlights so he can continue.
Under a full moon on Peleliu, Sledge is struggling to stay awake, but wakes up when he sees two men run into the camp. One jumps into a foxhole, and he hears the cries of a struggle. Sledge can't tell what's going on. The man jumps out of the foxhole, and another Marine shoots him. Cpl. R.V. Burgin asks what happened, and Sledge relates the story as best as he can. Burgin tells the men to stay alert.
In the morning, Gunny chews them out, saying that this is the reason that you don't get out of your foxholes at night. Inside the foxhole is a dead Marine and dead Japanese soldier. The Marine is the one that has been shot through the head, and the man that shot him is crying uncontrollably.
While they're marching, Leyden wonders what kind of man gets out of his hole at night. Snafu grimly deadpans in reply: a man who has two of the enemy up his ass. Leyden still can't comprehend it, and keeps mouthing off when suddenly a sniper shoots one of the Marines in the leg. It's an ambush. Haldane orders his men to run to a cleared bunker and take cover. The mortar squad gets close and begins to set up, but Sledge suddenly calls for the men to be quiet -- he hears something in the bunker. He alerts Burgin, who insists he's hearing things, that a previous unit had cleared it with grenades.
But soon, he can hear movement too. Burgin creeps up on the bunker, hears whispering inside and fires into an opening. A machine gunner fires back, strafing the area blindly. Sledge, Snafu and Leyden get into position against the outer side of the bunker, and Burgin orders Sledge to peek over into the entry. He does, and sees a gunner look back at him. Sledge ducks before the man fires.
Chaos breaks loose as the Marines fire into the bunker, desperately trying to take out the enemy. Then Leyden sees a pipe up top, and opens it, dropping a grenade inside. There's a blast, and the cries of the enemy, followed by men coming out of the bunker towards them, one shot while holding a live grenade. Leyden warns the rest of the men, who are able to get clear. But Leyden does not. The grenade goes off, blasting him in the face and blinding him. Sledge joins his friend on the ground and tries to help him as Leyden frantically calls his name, crying that he can't see.
A Sherman tank rolls up, and someone yells to Sledge to get Leyden away from the bunker. Sledge pulls his friend as clear as he can, then leans over him to protect him as the Sherman fires a round into the bunker.
Japanese soldiers are firing at the Marines, and a sergeant comes out of the bunker and draws down on Sledge. The man shoots and misses, then his rifle jams. He draws his sword and charges. Sledge panics, but gets his rifle into action at the last possible moment and blasts a hole in the man at almost contact distance. The Japanese soldier slumps onto Sledge's rifle, then falls down nearly on top of him. Sledge stares into the man's eyes as the life drains out of them. Then he turns, shocked, and sees what his fellow Marines are doing.
A flamethrower unit has come in and is lighting up the bunker. Japanese soldiers scream as they come out, and the Marines shoot them. Snafu screams for them to die as he empties his submachine gun into one of them.
When the battle ceases, Sledge asks Burgin why they don't just surrender. "Because they're Japs," is all Burgin offers for an answer. "That's why we have to root them out one by one." He claps Sledge on his shoulder and continues makes his rounds. Snafu finds a Japanese flag and claims it as a souvenir.
Sledge picks up the bayonet of the man who tried to kill him while behind him, another Marine drags the body of a Japanese soldier to a log. The Marine pries open his mouth to take his gold teeth, which is when the soldier wakes up and begins struggling. Sledge barks at the Marine to put him out of his misery, but he ignores him. Snafu walks up, pulls the man off of the Japanese soldier and shoots him in the head. To save face he explains, "easier that way." Burgin pretends not to notice. Sledge looks at the enemy bayonet in his hand and tosses it on the ground in disgust.
At night, it's raining and Sledge is ignoring Snafu and Burgin as they make small talk about engines. He can't stop staring at the body of the man who tried to kill him. Haldane walks up and offers the boys coffee. Then, when he sees how Sledge is faring, Haldane hands over his own cup. Sledge asks for word on Leyden, and he tells Sledge that they've already patched him up and he'll be back. Sledge nods, relieved. Haldane relates that they're moving into the hills come dawn. He tells Burgin that he'll need a few from the mortar squad to volunteer as stretcher bearers. They're all silent for a moment. Haldane looks Sledge in the eye and says, "You can't dwell on it. You can't dwell on any of it."
Sledge exchanges a look with Snafu. Haldane urges them to try and get rest.
The next day: It's still rough in the hills, and Haldane orders the stretcher volunteers to go get the wounded -- Private Jones, aka "Hillbilly," among them. Sledge hauls his down to get the wounded and sees other stretcher bearers get shot through. One man loses his leg as he picks up a stretcher. The men get to Hillbilly and the corps man patches him up enough to move him. They get him on the stretcher and start to fall back when the group is strafed with bullets, one ripping through Hillbilly. Sledge's group gets him back to safer ground, but he's lost.
Gunny, meanwhile, has taken off his helmet and is stumbling about, disconnected with the world around him. Haldane gently leads him off the field. Later Private De L'Eau points out that Gunny is of the old breed. "If a guy like that breaks... and Hillbilly's dead." De L'Eau trails off.
Sledge tells them not to dwell on it. De L'Eau shares that he knows if he goes into the hills again, that he's going to get hit. Suddenly shots ring out, and they hear Japanese soldiers coming closer to camp. De L'Eau, frightened, aims toward the hills. But the Marines in the hills take care of the attack, and it's over before it begins. De L'Eau shudders and breaks down in tears. Sledge holds him to quiet him down.
In the morning, the boys wait in rocky crags, and De L'Eau heads off to a cave to find some privacy to go to the bathroom. No sooner are his pants down than a group of Japanese soldiers hiding inside the cave charge him. De L'Eau takes out the first, but then runs as a couple more give chase. The Marines around him let the chase go for a bit, then shoot the Japanese. They get a good laugh at De L'Eau, who not only still has his pants down but has soiled them in fear. Haldane orders him to go back and get a clean pair.
The boys head into the coral hills knowing that the caves and passages in them hide 100s of Japanese soldiers, and Haldane tells to hang back as he and the NCOs move forward to put eyes on their objective. Sledge and the rest of the men sit down for a moment, then beyond the hills there's a call for a corps man. Burgin comes back, helmet in hand. He announced to the men that "a sniper got the skipper."
Haldane is dead.
They bring a stretcher to get him, and as his men slowly walk Haldane's body off the battlefield. The stretcher stops by Sledge as one of the men puts a blanket over Haldane's body, and the men salute one by one. Sledge starts to cry. They take a moment, and then Burgin calls them to move out.
The men march in the hills, past the decaying, burned bodies of the enemy, then stop for a rest. Snafu climbs up a ridge, and Sledge finds an area next to a dead Japanese soldier and sits down. He starts to open his rations, but hears a dripping sound behind him. He turns around to see Snafu making a game out of skipping pebbles into the bloody skull of a man who has had the top of his head blown off. The stones that get in make a sickeningly, gloppy sound. Sledge turns and looks at the dead man near him, then stands up and pulls out his blade. Snafu suddenly stops and asks what he's doing. Sledge informs him that he's going to get himself some Japanese gold and Snafu stops him, telling him he can't do that.
Sledge asks him tersely why not, and Snafu, clearly invested in making sure the most morally centered member of his company stays sane, makes up a story about Japanese germs being contagious. "Bad germs," Sledge mutters, then repeats himself. "Bad germs." He asks Snafu if it's OK to take the man's insignia as a trophy, and Snafu says he can't see a reason why not. Sledge slices the Japanese insignia off of the man's uniform and turns back around, shaking.
The company makes it back to camp, walking like the dead. The flag is at half mast. Everyone looks changed; only Snafu seems to be a bit more thoughtful. They head to a Naval transport to return to Pavuvu.
On the open deck, Gunny lights a cigarette for Sledge, then hands him his Zippo. "Keep it," he says.
Sledge and Snafu arrive at Pavuvu and are shocked to see pretty ladies serving them lemonade by a sign that says, "Something sweet for you." They can't figure out what they're doing there. Sledge walks up to one of the women, a beautiful blonde, who greets him with a friendly "Welcome back, nice to see you." Sledge stares at the woman for a few silent moments. One of the clean shaven officers nearby, 2nd Lt. Mac (Sledge & Snaf's future CO) jokingly tells Sledge that he's gotten his eyeful, and tells him to move along. Sledge turns his cold, dead gaze to the man, whose smirk immediately fades into a chastened expression. Sledge drinks his lemonade and walks off with Snafu.
Later under the sun, the Marines strip off their clothes and wade naked in the warm waves off the beach where Sledge had a final conversation with his best friend Sidney Phillips not long ago. Sledge strips down and joins the men in the ocean.