Helmet for My Pillow By Robert Leckie

    I recently read the analog to this book, With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge, about many of the same Marine engagements in the South Pacific during WWII. I thought HFMP would be a rehash of the same, but its told by a different kind of writer: While Sledge is thoughtful, simple in his prose, and sees most things through a moral lens, Robert Leckie is profane, writes brilliantly, and celebrates situational morality: he and his fellow jarheads carouse callously in Melbourne; steal from each other in combat; display no sensitivity to death; fake illness to be removed from combat; and bitterly hate both the enemy and their own officers.

    Nevertheless, both are truly powerful. The myth of the greatest generation has been flogged ad nauseum and I've partaken in it (my own father flew B-24s in the Palaus), but after these two fine books, I see these men more as they truly were: young scared soldiers who were asked to do the most terrible things mankind is capable of (sometimes wilfully, sadly), and they were necessarily scarred thereby. Sledge went on to a quiet life as a college biology professor; Leckie became a prolific novelist (40 or more). Both survived into their 80s and both, from what I've gathered, were fine, upstanding men after the War.

    But only Sledge's weaknesses were not hardened by the War. He entered the Marines an honest, good boy, experienced horror, rejected it as best he could, and left it behind when the War was over. He never put the uniform on again.

    From Leckie's book, I wonder: Was he able to do the same? Unless his book is full of hyperbole (which I doubt; he and Sledgehammer were in the same conflict on Peleliu), his casual acceptance of the brutality in which they engaged HAD to have devastating longterm consequences for his own life.

    There is no GOOD war, from the soldier-on-the-ground's perspective; the only good war is a short war where you survive and Robert Leckie suffered through the entire, endless Pacific campaign. My heart goes out to his suffering, privations, and the inevitable damage he suffered; indeed, Leckie himself wonders in the book who was hurt more: those who died or those who lived. Yet his own moral failings (which undoubtedly preceded the War) reveal his lack of true understanding of the conflict: the book's epilogue is a meditation about the wrongfulness of the atom bomb, yet Leckie had to know the projected American casualty rates had we invaded Japan itself -- Leckie might have been one of the men on those beaches facing tens of thousands of fanatical emperor-worshipers. His lack of comprehension that the atom bomb saved untold American AND Japanese lives betrays a moral blindness that is the root cause of his many smaller moral failings he so eagerly and definitively recounts in the book.

    In addition, HFMP was published more than ten years after the end of WWII and the horror of the atom bomb had kept the peace until then. It still keeps the peace today; our conflicts are sporadic and small. There are no wars anymore where 7000 men die in a fortnight.

    True, war still exists and probably always will. I don't believe in the perfectablility of man and therefore have little hope he will improve drastically in my lifetime. Leckie and Sledge saw the proof of this in dramatic, unforgettable terms and both lived to tell about it. Both men exhibited courage and honor, but only Sledge proved that War doesn't always bring out the worst in a man as well.

    Nevertheless, this book is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for the serious student of WWII, or any war for that matter. Robert Leckie Robert Leckie was a reporter before enlisting in the Marines shortly after Pearl Harbor. The book follows him from his training at boot camp at Parris Island until his return to the States after being wounded at Peleliu, one of the bloodiest battles fought by the Marines in the war. In between this is a beautifully crafted story where Leckie tells how life as a Marine in the Pacific was really like. It follows him where he fought in the dark days on Guadalcanal, had a memorable shore leave in Melbourne, Australia, where the Marines really lived as though it would be their last, then went through the hell of New Britain where the worst enemy was the jungle and on to Pavuvu where he spent time in the psych ward by accident before the horror that was Peleliu.

    The book is very well written and has a very poetic air to it for me, and we are introduced to a rich cast of characters, where all are called on their nicknames they had in the Marines. Many of these men did not come back from Peleliu and the book in the end is a tribute to those who gave everything. One of my top war memoirs read and highly recommended to all readers. Robert Leckie The Pacific Theatre in World War II is not as well known to armchair historians for a number of reasons, among them the much larger collection of works about the war in Europe. Toss in the non-linear aspect of campaigns, which hopped from obscure island to island. On top of that, the brutality of the fighting and the racial/racist dynamic of fighting the Japanese versus Germans who looked just like Uncle Joe make the Pacific War a dark, dark topic.

    I came across Leckie's book by virtue of watching HBO's The Pacific series a couple of years back. Leckie is played by the brooding James Badge Dale, if you watched that production. Much of the HBO storyline comes from this book, which is Leckie's story of his life from induction through boot camp at Parris Island and then on to fighting in the Pacific. Leckie is unusual, an intellectual and writer who volunteers for the front-line job of a Marine scout and machine gunner. His book is easy to read yet deeply profound about life as a young marine, struggling among other young men, trying to make sense of the military, of life, and of the hellish jungles of Guadalcanal and Peleliu. It's a war book about killing and patrols and campaigns, but also one about being thrown in the brig, sybaritic shore leave in Australia, and the thievery and corner cutting required to keep the First marines in food and comfort, such as could be had in those awful places.

    Leckie had respect for his enemy, and some of the most effective anti-war statements I've ever read are passages in this book where he recalls the cold-stone sadness of dead bodies sprawled about, a man's hand, severed, no longer a divine spark.

    This book will allow you to taste, smell, and feel what it was like for the brave young men who beat back the Japanese Empire, fighting atoll to island, far from the hoopla. Bless Robert Leckie, who could have served honorably in the rear echelon, but chose to fight up front: Keep it up, America, keep telling your youth that mud and danger are only fit for intellectual pigs. Keep saying that only the stupid are fit to sacrifice, that America must be defended by the low-brow and enjoyed by the high-brow. Keep vaunting head over heart, and soon the head will arrive at the complete folly of any kind of fight and meekly surrender the treasure to the first bandit with enough heart to demand it. Robert Leckie Helmet for my Pillow is quite unlike other biographical accounts of war that I have read. It does not delve into the technical nor does it have the staccato-like narration I usually relate with history, specially war. In using nicknames instead of military rankings the author reminds readers that they who fought bravely were just ordinary men. By chronicling their escapades on the islands and in Australia he showed that their needs did not differ from other men who are not at war.

    Robert Leckie was being a poet when he wrote this. The atrocity of war is present in the book but not so much as the sadness that permeates through his descriptive passages. In retrospect I think that was what he wanted the readers to feel. After all the victories have been celebrated, all the losses mourned, it is sadness for a multitude of things that linger on.

    One must read this book in order not to forget history. To remember other less popular battles that were waged by equally courageous men. It is to sacrifice that men go to war. They do not go to kill, they go to be killed, to risk their flesh, to insert their precious persons in the path of destruction. And with Leckie's closing thoughts on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to think about what war means to us. Robert Leckie I wanted a book that would give the story of what it was like being a grunt [that is a ground pounder -- infantry --- the ones who have to close with the enemy on foot and do the worst of the effort to win the ground] fighting in World War 2, and, on this, Robert Leckie's memoir, Helmet for My Pillow did not disappoint.

    This is not a book on war heroics. Nor is this a history of the South Pacific campaigns. It is Leckie's personal account of his experiences as a Marine assigned to the 1st Marine Division during its battles in Guadalcanal, New Britain, and Peleilu, starting from basic training to his final battle that would ultimately make him a war casualty.

    Basic training was, well, basic. Only 5 weeks. With the nation thrown by Pearl Harbor into WW2, there must have been little time to mobilize millions of volunteers and, later, conscripts from civilians into trained servicemen. Then, with just that, Leckie and his fellow newly minted Marines were assigned to 1st Marine Division which seems to have been activated short notice and given the task of training its new Marines for combat --- a task in today's military that likely would have had more of that done during boot camp. That an entire division of men could be assembled together and become the effective fighting force that the 1st Marine Division became really is a tribute to the quality of men that were in it, its leadership from the NCO level on up --- and, I think, that x-factor --- ethos --- that intangibly can wield men together in a common culture that's cohesive, tough, and motivated.

    In Leckie's story, to be a grunt is to be on the lowest level of the totem pole. The officers, in the beginning, seem distant. Even the senior NCOs do. The locus of the world is his squad, and the fellow men in it. They would train, go on liberty, fight, stand the watch, patrol --- and die within this. To be a grunt is to be one who's fate lies very much in the hands of others and where uncertainty about what happens next is common.

    Of the three battles in which Leckie experienced, each had its own challenges. At Guadalcanal, there was the isolation and uncertainty --- supplies being cut off, the Marines for some time on their own in a state of siege with respect to the Japanese. A perimeter defense was set up --- and for grunts like Leckie, that meant days and days of manning the perimeter always on guard --- long hours of boredom and hunger with moments of intense combat that, almost seem relief from these.

    After Guadalcanal, the Marines were spent, needed rest and refitting --- and Australia was their destination. If there was a paradise, Australia to these young men must have seemed so after the hell of Guadalcanal. It was because of the Aussies. I do think that Australia's hospitality and friendliness did play a significant role in rebuilding Leckie and his exhausted colleagues to the point that they could go out and do it again. [and, for what it's worth, decades later, that hadn't changed --- when I was making ports of call in Australia during my Coast Guard icebreaking days, the Australians were great --- really helped the morale of our crew with the same hospitality and helpfulness!)

    After Australia, the First Marines shipped out to New Britain for what would become known as the Battle of Cape Gloucester. In some ways, I think, that, at least from what Leckie's recollections are here, this would resemble, decades later, our experiences in the Vietnam ---- the enemy relatively unseen, skirmishing in squad level actions against Marines in the same numbers --- the thick jungle and its endless rains and heat making itself a daunting and relentless adversary for both sides. It wore men down --- and Leckie doesn't dress it up --- breaking some men beyond what their sanity could bear. Even commonplace items would become prized as the rain forest ate personal items and equipment. Leckie recalls even seriously thinking about killing one of the junior officers over him for taking a war prize --- a modest clothing cabinet he captured from the Japanese --- without asking, then pulling rank on him for having done so. In the end, the Marines would overcome both their foes and the jungle too, but at a price.

    The climax of this book is Peleilu. Not taking anything from the other battles, but Peleilu would become a meat grinder --- a horrifying place in which Leckie and his fellow Marines would be forced into charging enemy in prepared, hardened defensive positions with little cover and little in the way of equipment in which they as infantry could combat ---- in 115 degree heat --- and, thanks, to logistical incompetence --- given water contaminated due to being stored in empty gasoline drums. The attack force would rely upon naval gunfire support and attack aircraft to deal with these, but so hardened were they that the Marines were forced to send their men by the thousands to attack them anyway in the effort to take them out. It's a moving account. Men that were close to Leckie, that he'd been with from the beginning through all up to this point --- wounded, killed -- the sacrifice against seemingly hopeless odds. This is what ultimately brought this book up from a 4-star to a 5-star for me.

    This is an outstanding book. As the last of our WW2 generation passes from the scene, all the more necessary is that their stories be told --- that we remember those fought against evil so profound. And it's book like Helmet for My Pillow that tell that --- what it was like, what it felt like for those at the leading edge of closing with the enemy who did the suffering, deprivation, trauma, fighting, and dying. I highly recommend this book. Robert Leckie

    Now the inspiration behind the HBO series THE PACIFIC

    Here is one of the most riveting first-person accounts to ever come out of the Second World War. Robert Leckie was 21 when he enlisted in the US Marine Corps in January 1942. In Helmet for My Pillow we follow his journey, from boot camp on Parris Island, South Carolina, all the way to the raging battles in the Pacific, where some of the war's fiercest fighting took place. Recounting his service with the 1st Marine Division and the brutal action on Guadalcanal, New Britain and Peleliu, Leckie spares no detail of the horrors and sacrifice of war, painting an unsentimental portrait of how real warriors are made, fight, and all too often die in the defence of their country.

    From the live-for-today rowdiness of Marines on leave to the terrors of jungle warfare against an enemy determined to fight to the last man, Leckie describes what it's really like when victory can only be measured inch by bloody inch. Unparalleled in its immediacy and accuracy, Helmet for My Pillow is a gripping account from an ordinary soldier fighting in extraordinary conditions. This is a book that brings you as close to the mud, the blood, and the experience of war as it is safe to come.

    Helmet for My Pillow is a grand and epic prose poem. Robert Leckie's theme is the purely human experience of war in the Pacific, written in the graceful imagery of a human being who - somehow - survived - Tom Hanks Helmet for My Pillow

    I am not now, have never been previously, and most likely never will be a big fan of the first-person accounts of any war. At higher ranks, there is always the question of what it is that the individual is trying to gloss over to maintain or improve their reputations. At the lower ranks, there is, sometimes, a great deal of immediacy but at the loss of understanding of what is going on in the overall sense. I have never been one to desire to live my life vicariously through another's actual experiences. That is what Fantasy is for.

    So why fives stars? Simple. First off Robert Leckie is unusually honest, not just about others but about himself. Second, he writes at levels far beyond that of other first-person accounts. In fact, sometimes he writes so well that it makes it hard to believe that the author is the one that lived through these experiences. The details though make it clear that he was there, but he has the eye of a poet more than most other soldiers who write about their experiences and that makes this book all the more worth reading.

    The epilogue is especially moving. He names friends and others that he knew and then asks...'of all these and the others, dear Father, forgive us for that awful cloud.' Robert Leckie Those of you that are my GR friends or simply follow my reviews know that I have a fondness for those histories that recount the experiences of the common man that lives through the great events that history memorializes. I especially enjoy reading about the exploits of the common frontline soldier in any history of any battle or war. When I found this book I gladly placed it on my TBR shelf expecting it to add to my knowledge of the ordeal that was WWII in the Pacific. Several years ago I read Adam Makos' book, Voices of the Pacific and was quite moved by it. I expected this book to do the same and it did but it was also a different perspective of the same experiences and the same events.

    Helmet For My Pillow is an autobiographical tale about a journalist that volunteers for the Marine Corps shortly after Pearl Harbor. Voices of the Pacific is a collection of the stories of several Marines and biographical and anecdotal in scope and far more graphic and, at times, horrific. Helmet is very different even though both books detail much of the same experiences and events. You would expect any book written by a Marine veteran about his war time experiences would be written in coarse graphic detail and peppered with profanity but that is not the case with this book and that is one of the things that surprised me about the book and its author. The author's prose is astonishing at times. Parts of this book read like an epic poem and in other portions the author lapses into thoughtful reflections about life and death, war, heroes, victims, and the worth of it all. This is a combat Marine veteran and his words are frequently haunting. I can only speculate that these thoughts and words are the result of Mr. Leckie's experiences and the memories he has of those men with whom he lived those experiences and especially the men that didn't return. This is a very moving book and for reasons I did not expect. If you would like to know what it was like for a civilian to enter the Marines at the beginning of WWII and go through Boot Camp then further training only to then be shipped off to the Pacific to endure a combat experience never before known then this book is something you should pick up and read. Probably the most unsettling difference between the Army's war in Europe and the Marine's war in the Pacific was that in the Pacific there was no safe rear area. In Europe troops could be regularly rotated to the rear for R&R while in the Pacific that wasn't possible. The Marines were on the line and in jeopardy for months at a time without rest and their war was truly a hell on earth ordeal. This book will help the reader understand what we owe those men. Robert Leckie It’s easy to forget that wars are fought by individuals. Even then, those that are singularly remembered are typically those with sweeping powers and responsibility. Their individuality gets merged with the goals of a battle or the policies of a nation.

    But here resides the memoir of Robert Leckie; a private in the US Marine Corps during World War II. Leckie brings forth the perspective of a common soldier. He represents the life of the lowest class of fighter during a time when he and countless others were needed for a singular purpose: to fight the war with body and weapon.

    Leckie does a remarkable job in recording his experiences. The pace of the account deliberately follows the pace of the war. He starts with his enlistment and proceeds to tell his experiences with the First Marine Division up to the end of the war. There are invasions, R&R in Australia, smaller missions, and the final fanatic resistance of the Japanese Army during the final months of the war.

    My issues with the book stem mostly from Leckie’s style in telling of his experiences. He never quite conveys the feeling of a real cutting truth. It’s like listening to a grandfather telling war stories to his teenage grandchild or a veteran telling of his experiences to his non-military friends. The real truth is masked by a dull edge so that that grandchild or the friends can be saved from the savage, sometimes inexplicable, nature of war. But that’s what I want to hear so that it can at least be known for what it is.

    Along these same lines, the non-combat portions of Leckie’s account seem a bit boastful and larger than life. He is the heroic challenger of authority residing in incompetent officers and an uncaring military machine. One has to wonder why every person in the book is referred to by a nickname. Those without real names cannot dispel tall tales.

    In total, however, there is truth in Leckie’s account, which makes Helmet for my Pillow a resource for the generations to come. These children of the present and future will be completely detached from the veterans that fought in WWII. Without books like Helmet for my Pillow they may forget that wars of a global scale were ever fought at all, and combat with a somewhat dull blade is still combat. Robert Leckie If you watched all ten episodes of HBO’s 2010 special, “The Pacific,” you’re most likely already aware that Robert Leckie’s journal, “Helmet for my Pillow” was one of three soldier memoirs Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and the other producers used to create that epic miniseries. Chuck Tatum’s “Red Blood, Black Sand” and Eugene Sledge’s “With the Old Breed,” were the other two, both of which I’ve personally read and reviewed here previously.

    If you saw “The Pacific,” you also know that Leckie is played by 36 year-old actor James Badge Dale and has a prominent role in all ten episodes. In fact, in the first scene of the first episode, Leckie meets a next-door-neighbor, Vera Keller in church prior to his departure for the Marine Corps. That reportedly begins an intensive letter-writing campaign displayed prominently throughout the series. There’s just one small problem. The romance by mail didn’t happen. The author’s daughter, Joan Leckie Salvas told North Jersey.com, Her dad is shown writing letters to my mother all the time, which is interesting, since she's about the only one he never really wrote to, according to Salvas. They didn't really date until after the war, but in the series, it's really quite lovely the way they have him writing to her. In fact, in his book, Leckie never mentions his Rutherford, New Jersey neighbor. He does imply a steamy sex scene with Sheila while on leave in Australia. That encounter does make the film, but the Aussie woman has another name.

    Executive producer Tom Hanks called Leckie’s memoir “a grand and epic prose poem . . . written in graceful imagery.” I have to agree with Hanks. Page 48 is a prime example of Leckie’s writing style. Here he describes the training he experienced on Parris Island, South Carolina. Leckie manages to stretch those “days, days, endless grinding days” into just one sentence containing at least 298 words and just one period. This stream-of-conscience technique is effective in illustrating the endless nature of military basic training in 1940’s America. If you put Leckie’s take on the Pacific war alongside Tatum and Sledge’s versions, you can’t help but notice the difference. Leckie is much more cerebral. Leckie’s tone is much more novelesque. He provides fewer details. Here, you won’t find a lot of military jargon, battle strategy or platoon, company, battalion letters and numbers moving on a map. What really creates a fictionalized feel to these real-life events is Leckie’s penchant for never referring to his fellow Marines by their real names. Instead we meet Sergeant Bellow, Captain High-Hips, Corporal Smoothface, Sergeant Thinface and Lieutenant Ivy-League. These and a host of other characters in Leckie’s world are known to the reader only by their most prominent physical or personality feature. If you want to know the true identity of Leckie’s “trinity of friends” while in the corps, Hoosier, Chuckler and the Runner, you have to find their pictures scattered throughout the 305 pages.

    While still in training, Leckie “proposed stealing a case of beer” from a tavern. There on page 43, the author seems to reveal his dark side. That shoplifting episode is followed by the theft of oranges aboard ship on page 58. Twenty-eight pages later, Leckie stripped a dead Japanese soldier of his bayonet and field glasses. Nineteen pages later, we find Leckie applauding his friend Chuckler for the “solid swag” items he stole from retreating U.S. infantrymen. Nineteen more pages later, we find Chuckler and Leckie stealing more food from the U.S. Army. Thirty-five pages later, Leckie goes AWOL. Twenty pages later, Leckie goes AWOL again. Eleven pages later, Leckie is incarcerated in the brig for the second time. The author steals more military food stuffs fourteen pages later. When Leckie is left out of a “stateside lottery,” (awarded to only those Marines who had never been in trouble), he decides to fake an illness so he could be hospitalized and avoid more combat duty. In the HBO series chronicling the author’s role in the battle of Guadalcanal, New Britain and Peleliu and in this book, Leckie may come off as a hero. In my book, morally speaking, he comes off as a big zero.
    Robert Leckie Helmet for My Pillow

    This is probably the best WWII memoir that I’ve read. There is a surprising amount of humor, mostly dark, in this book about a Marine’s experiences in Guadalcanal and Peleliu.

    Shore leave and the stint in the brig in Australia were exceptionally well drawn.

    4.5 stars. Robert Leckie

    Review Helmet for My Pillow