Summer Reading List for Days by the Sea

John Sledge recounts his dad's affinity for the water, and his favorite nautical books and movies.

Eugene B. Sledge

E. B. Sledge at Gulf Shores, 1948 // Photo Courtesy Sledge Family

My father had an abiding love of the sea. From childhood he knew it firsthand, studied its many moods, read widely about its natural and human history, and taught my brother, Henry, and me to likewise love and also respect it. I suppose he came by that love honestly, having been born and raised in Mobile at a time when its working waterfront was more accessible and colorful than now. Like any youngster worth his salt during the 1930s, Dad haunted the wharves and Bay shore garnering experiences I can only marvel at all these decades later. He met veterans of the Battle of Mobile Bay who vividly recalled the cannons roar, watched lumber schooners working their way into the Gulf, wandered the docks amid the work gangs and met Cajun moonshiners in the Delta.    

But it was his World War II service as a combat Marine infantryman, which he famously related in two books, “With the Old Breed” (1981) and “China Marine” (2002), that truly earned him his sea legs. His Pacific duty placed him on troop ships, Higgins Boats, amtracks and attack transports. Fortunately, seasickness never bothered him, a blessing always, but never more so than in the midst of Typhoon Louise, shortly after the Battle of Okinawa. 

Dad was part of a small detachment ordered to load the battalion’s gear onto a transport prior to their shipping out for China occupation duty. A typhoon barreling toward the island interrupted the job and forced the ship’s captain to hoist anchor and make for open sea.  There was no time to put anyone ashore. As Dad wrote in “China Marine,” “I had seen enough of hurricane damage in Mobile and the Gulf Coast to wish we were now elsewhere.” For the next three days, they endured what the vessel’s old salts grudgingly admitted was the worst weather they had ever encountered. Mountainous waves lifted then dropped and rolled the ship in a vertiginous maelstrom. At one point, Dad and several buddies opened a hatch to directly face the storm’s fury. That was a mistake. “Huge waves were breaking over the ship’s sides and torrents of sea water were running off the deck,” he wrote. “A deluge of rain swept horizontally across the deck, and we could scarcely see the ship’s superstructure. The wind was roaring like a locomotive.” Hurriedly, they manhandled the hatch shut “and never had the slightest desire to reopen it until the storm abated.” Louise sank 12 U.S. navy ships and damaged scores of others. 

Dad married after the war, and I arrived in 1957. Throughout the remainder of his life — he passed in 2001 — he communicated his maritime passion through storytelling, books, movies, constructing ship models and excursions. He was a superb raconteur with perfect characterization and pacing, all undergirded by years of deep reading. His range of nautical references was vast, informative and never pedantic. On the esoteric topic of a waterspout striking a ship, for example, he could cite accounts of sailors firing cannon into the funnel cloud to break the suction. He encouraged my own reading by giving books from the American Heritage Junior Library about pirates and whalers. Distinguished by lively prose and colorful illustrations, these gifts remain prized possessions.

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Sailing-ship movies presented a particularly fun way to bond. In primitive, pre-streaming days, these were rare but highly anticipated occasions with Errol Flynn, Olivia de Haviland and the incomparable Gregory Peck gracing the silver screen. I don’t think Dad would have appreciated Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, however — too far-fetched and silly. 

 Building models was another avenue to transmit sea lore. Though not a serious modeler, Dad was a careful craftsman who enjoyed the lively historical backstories that help make such projects so absorbing. I still have his model of Charles Darwin’s HMS Beagle. He got me started on a kit of Captain William Kidd’s Black Falcon, a handsome two-masted brigantine without too many parts that might frustrate a beginner.

But my fondest memories are of our waterborne trips. To take but one example, during the 1970s, I accompanied Dad and a University of South Alabama professor along with about eight marine biology students onto Mobile Bay. The trip’s purpose was to shoot sea birds for Dad’s specimen collection back at the University of Montevallo, where he was a biology professor. This was an activity that John James Audubon, one of Dad’s idols, routinely pursued to further his understanding of bird anatomy. We spent an unforgettable day on board a shrimp boat trolling the lower Bay, periodically winching up the net to spill its bounty — shrimp, eel, mullet, a pufferfish, crabs, small squid, rays — while Dad and his colleague stood at the bow with a shotgun and a net. Around mid-day, we broke for lunch and the students dove into the warm water — the depth gauge never read more than 12 feet — kicking down to the bottom to retrieve handfuls of mud to laughingly throw at one another. Predictably, a few jellyfish stings put an end to the fun. Near trip’s end, Dad called me up to the bow and pointed toward the southern horizon. There, I could see dancing waves that demarcated the much rougher Gulf. He admonished me never to venture onto those waters, or any water for that matter, unless properly prepared. That meant a “seaworthy” boat, one of his favorite words, plenty of water, a straw hat, life jacket and sunscreen.  

Besides the memories and books, I have a few of Dad’s nautical artifacts — a Mobile Bay chart drawn in 1937 by architect and family friend Nicholas Holmes Sr. illustrating local historical episodes like Álvarez de Pineda’s 1519 discovery, the destruction of the HMS Hermes, and the Clotilda voyage; a Napoleonic-era French naval cutlass with a nicked knuckle guard and curved blade; and a brass Marine Corps eagle, globe and anchor, enduring emblem of America’s soldiers of the sea. These treasures, more cherished than pirate gold, not only conjure Dad’s love but the sea itself, just as surely as a conch shell held to my ear. 

John S. Sledge’s “Mobile and Havana: Sisters Across the Gulf” with coauthor Alicia García-Santana and photographers Chip Cooper and Julio Larramendi is now available wherever books are sold.  

Sea Stories of the Page and Screen

Let Eugene B. Sledge inspire a summer full of pirates, salty captains and adventure on the high seas with this list of favorite nautical books and movies, as compiled by his son John.


Nautical-inspired summer reading books

“Two Years Before the Mast” (1840) 
By Richard Henry Dana
Dana left Harvard to enlist as a common sailor on a voyage around Cape Horn on the brig Pilgrim. Returning to Massachusetts two years later, he wrote this classic from his diary entries about the epic voyage.

“The Story of Yankee Whaling” (1959)
By the American Heritage Junior Library
This title recounts the adventures of American whalemen from early colonial days to the last voyage in 1921 of the Charles W. Morgan.

“The Bounty Trilogy” (1932-34) 
By Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
“Mutiny on the Bounty,” “Men Against the Sea” and “Pitcairn’s Island” tell the tale of the mutiny against Lieutenant William Bligh, commanding officer of the HMS Bounty in 1789 while on a voyage to Tahiti, and the fates of the sailors in the years that followed.

“Pirates of the Spanish Main” (1961)
By the American Heritage Junior Library
American Heritage Magazine published 41 titles for young readers on history and famous American figures, and while no longer in print, these books can be found used online and are well worth the trouble to add to your collection.


“With the Old Breed” (1981)
By Eugene B. Sledge
Eugene Sledge’s first memoir is a graphic account of two of the Pacific war’s bloodiest battles.

“China Marine” (2002)
By Eugene B. Sledge
The sequel to “With the Old Breed” describes Sledge’s postwar China service and Mobile homecoming, giving emotional closure to this local veteran’s harrowing journey. 


nautical-inspired summer movies

“Captain Horatio Hornblower” (1951)
Starring the incomparable Gregory Peck, this epic saga follows a British naval captain on a secret mission to Central America during the Napoleonic Wars.

“Captain Blood” (1935)
Starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Haviland, this swashbuckling black-and-white film follows an imprisoned doctor and his compatriots who escape to become West Indies pirates.

“Treasure Island” (1990)
This excellent version of the classic story stars Charleton Heston as Long John Silver, Christian Bale as Jim Hawkins and Oliver Reed as
Billy Bones.

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