In remembering WWII, most think of the bombing at Pearl Harbor and our troops in Europe battling the German forces. The Japanese were responsible for bombing America, catapulting us into WWII, but images of war-torn London, Berlin, and Normandy are seared into our minds. Many do not think of our troops fighting the Japanese in a jungle or swamp or remote island in the Pacific Ocean. Helmet for my Pillow is written by a veteran who somehow survives gruesome battles in places like Guadalcanal and Peleliu Island. Readers will follow Leckie from boot camp to being from evacuated from Peleliu and experience what it was like to be an enlisted Marine during a ruthless and costly war in the Pacific.
Robert Leckie signs up for the Marines shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Basic training at Parris Island does exactly what it is supposed to do – destroy individuality and build a lethal fighting group that can withstand difficult conditions. Brawling Marines, drunken shenanigans, hope for a 72-hour pass, and disdain for officers become his new life. Leckie, like other Marines at Parris Island, does not form a lot of close bonds because he knows that they will all be sent to different places and most likely never see each other again. As he joins the others assigned to the Pacific, he notices that one of their commanding instructors looks at them sorrowfully as they deploy, foreshadowing what is to come for the Marines in the 1st Division.
The book follows Leckie through his entire stay in the Pacific. The reader experiences issues like jungle rot, fatigue, disease, terror, and discomfort like only an American Marine can endure. Unlike his comrades in Europe, Leckie cannot get a pass to a city like Paris or London and away from the constant moisture, blazing heat, mysterious jungle, and the temperaments of officers. Leckie and his friends are on a constant search and destroy mission on the islands, forced to endure some of the unnecessary and poorly planned positions picked by inexperienced officers, and have to dehumanize people in order to mentally cope with the brutality and randomness of war.
Throughout the story, Leckie only names his comrades and officers by personality traits or nicknames, such as Chuckler, Hoosier, the Artist, Runner, Souvenirs, Eloquent, and Scar-Chin. Leckie has to keep fellow Marines and his officers at arms length. He sees countless fatalities and grisly injuries that would probably make a civilian hurl and call it quits. He never knew when the enemy was going to attack or where their commanders were going to have them march off to next. New officers even transferred Marines they did not want in their divisions into other divisions. Even if they survived the fighting, they could get transferred to a new division and away from the guys they’ve been with since Guadalcanal. It was best to not form too many attachments, and Leckie demonstrates that in his book by keeping real names out of his narrative.
As a reader, I got the distinct impression from Leckie that he did not enjoy the eradication of individual personality that military life dictates. There are times that it seems the military looks the other way while the Marines get rowdy and boorish, like during their time in Melbourne, and while other times the officers punish men for showing any individuality and disrespect to authority, like in the lottery system instituted when some Marines got to be shipped off the island and others had to stay. I imagine I would become bitter and a little hard to work with, as Leckie does near the end of his time in the Pacific.
Injury and battle fatigue become his way out after two years of battling the relentless Japanese as well as the callous and droll commanders. Even after two years of enduring all of this, Leckie feels ashamed when he is evacuated from Peleliu Island on a hospital ship. He sees the torn up and dismembered Marines and cannot justify to himself that he should be considered for evacuation, until a doctor rushes him into surgery to treat Leckie’s unseen injuries. It becomes a validation for Leckie that he deserves to go home. Thankfully he survives the war in the Pacific, so that he could come home and publish such an amazing account of what it was truly like to be in Guadalcanal, New Britain, Peleliu, Pavuvu, and Melbourne Australia.
Helmet for my Pillow is a must read for anyone who can get their hands on it, or listen to the audio book. There are too many out there today that have no concept about what the men and women in WWII went through. HBO’s series The Pacific by Tom Hank and Steven Spielberg brings the stories from Leckie and other Pacific veterans to the screen, but reading their accounts feels more like holding a piece of history in your hands. Robert Leckie’s words are poetry and addicting. His account of his time in the war in the Pacific is vivid, emotional, and just what is needed for a generation that has forgotten what the cost of freedom really is.
“Too bad about Liberal: all the fine education, all the good humor on the blond, blunt face, all the good will in this socialist schemes for humanity – all and everything gone, trickled away through some unknown fissure in the frail vessel of life, while the man leaned against the tree and smiled and smoked and contemplated a future made safe by an Allied victory and sure by this temporarily incapacitating wound. And so he perished, may he rest in peace.” (Leckie, pg. 285)
Leckie, Robert. Helmet for my Pillow. New York: Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks, 2010. Print. Originally published by Random House Inc., 1957