After the success of Band of Brothers, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and the others behind it turned their attention to the other fight in World War II. Made nearly a decade later, audiences got to follow the men of 1st Marine Division in The Pacific, an equally ambitious and excellent show. The Pacific was also based on the real-life writings and recollections of those who served in the war. Instead of adapting a book, as Band of Brothers did with Stephen Ambrose’s work of the same name, The Pacific draws on several different memoirs, showing a wider swath of the war than just that of a single Army company. 

It also showcased a different war. Instead of jumping out of air planes to seize key parts of Europe, The Pacific followed Marines in a grueling island hopping campaign, fighting battles of attrition to seize bits of land on the path toward Japan. Although it did not have as big an impact as Band of Brothers, the show has a dedicated fanbase with many saying it’s even better than Band of Brothers. 

The series followed several real Marines, including a hero of the Marine Corps, Lewis “Chesty” Puller. More than a decade since the show first aired, and more than seventy years since the war in the Pacific came to a close, let’s look at some of the real-life people featured in The Pacific.

Eugene Sledge

The man eventually nicknamed “Sledgehammer” was, as the show depicted, a sickly guy from Mobile, Alabama. His health conditions initially kept him out of the war; his brother went on to fight in the Army in Europe. Sledge eventually joined, serving as a Marine with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division. During his time in the Marines, Sledge fought at both Peleliu and Okinawa, surviving weeks of brutal close quarters combat. After the war, Sledge was regularly haunted by his time in combat, reportedly having nightmares often. Eventually he documented his time in the war, writing the memoir With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa in 1981. It provided much of the material that The Pacific would be based on. Joseph Mazzello played him in the series. He also earned a doctorate in biology and became a professor. He died in 2001 at the age of 77. 

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Robert Leckie

Depicted on screen as a smart but working class grunt in the war by James Badge Dale, Robert Leckie was in many ways that in real life, by his own admission. He was already an experienced journalist when he joined the Marine Corps after Pearl Harbor. He took part in the brutal combat in Guadalcanal and the Battle of Cape Gloucester. He was wounded at Peleliu, but survived and made a full recovery. After the war, he worked as a journalist for several outlets. Leckie eventually became a military historian, covering American military history including colonial conflicts and contemporary fights such as the Gulf War. His book, Helmet for My Pillow, told his story and gave a straightforward look at the brutality and everyday life of enlisted Marines in the war. Like Sledge’s recollections, the book did not shy away from the horrors of the war. It was also one of the other major sources Spielberg and others drew on when creating the series. Leckie died in December 2001. 

World War II photo

John Basilone

If there is a third central character in The Pacific, it was Basilone (played by Jon Seda). By the time of World War II, the Buffalo, New York-born Basilone had already served three years in the Army in the Philippines. After some time as a civilian, he reenlisted, this time as a Marine. He fought at Guadalcanal, and as the show depicts, held off thousands of Japanese soldiers almost by himself, braving enemy fire to resupply and then hold the line. The show actually downplayed his heroism: in real life Basilone did this for three days. For his actions, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, becoming a hero among his fellow Marines and across the United States. It also took him back to the United States, helping to sell war bonds. After several tries, Basilone eventually returned to the front, taking part in the landings at Iwo Jima. After several missions on the island, he was eventually killed on Feb. 19, 1945. He would posthumously be awarded a Navy Cross for his actions in Iwo Jima. For his storyline the show drew both on the writings of his comrades as well as Basilone’s Medal of Honor citation. 

Merriell Shelton

The Pacific did not exaggerate the thick Cajun accent from Shelton, better known as “Snafu” and played by future James Bond villain and Freddie Mercury impersonator Rami Malek. According to veterans of the Pacific theater, Shelton really was hard to understand at times, as well as argumentative. He fought alongside the other Marines of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines at Peleliu and Okinawa. Shelton ended his service as a corporal in 1946, returning to Louisiana. Although he and Sledge did not speak for several decades, they reconnected later in life. When Shelton died in 1993 at the age of 71, Sledge was one of his pallbearers. 

Sidney Phillips

A childhood friend of Eugene Sledge, Sidney Phillips signed up for the Marine Corps soon after Pearl Harbor. He would eventually serve in the same company with Leckie, linking those two stories in real life and in the show. His mortar crew also fought in Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester After the war he became a physician. He also was one of the veterans who the show’s researchers consulted for accuracy and details on the war. Phillips died in 2015 at the age of 91.  

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