In anticipation of watching the HBO mini-series The Pacific, I decided to read Robert Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow and E. B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed, the two WWII combat Marine memoirs on which the series was based. I elected to read Helmet for My Pillow first because Leckie focuses on Marine operations in the Pacific in 1942-44, whereas Sledge focuses on 1944-45.
Leckie enlisted in the US Marine Corps on the day following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Assigned to the famed 1st Marine Division, he participating in its first three major amphibious operations: Guadalcanal in 1942, Cape Gloucester (New Britain) in 1943-44, and Peleliu in late 1944. In addition to writing about combat operations, Leckie also wrote of boot camp experiences, rest and recreation time in Australia after four months of jungle warfare on Guadalcanal, numerous hospitalizations for malaria and war-related injuries, (he was evacuated from Peleliu after suffering a severe blast concussion), and even his time as a “brig rat.”
Having written sports stories for his local newspaper while he was a teenager, Leckie returned to journalism after the war and worked for the Associated Press and several newspapers. Some of his prose is so rich in imagery that it is evocative of Grantland Rice’s writing. For example, in describing an incident where he came across a hand which was no longer attached to its owner, he wrote,
“The hand is the artisan of the soul. It is the second member of the human trinity of head and heart and hand. A man has no faculty more human than his hand, none more beautiful nor expressive nor productive. To see this hand lying alone, as though contemptuously cast aside, no longer part of a man, no longer his help, was to see war in all its wantonness. . . .”
Those who have never read memoirs of combat in the South Pacific may find themselves appalled by the savagery described in Helmet for My Pillow, yet that was simply the nature of island jungle warfare in WWII. The book’s only weakness is the scarcity of dates, which forces the reader to rely on other sources in order to peg the timing of events.