Wednesday 9 September 2015

Book Review: Helmet For My Pillow - Robert Leckie

Part of the source material for the superb Pacific, this also makes a great companion to HBO's landmark series.

If you liked HBO's Pacific mini-series, built for the most part around the memoirs of marine corps privates Eugene Sledge and Robert Leckie, you'll almost certainly enjoy this book. Sledge's book is almost dry in its clarity, and his language spare. Leckie, a professional writer both before and after his WWII service, is more self-consciously 'literary'. Both are, a slightly strange thing, to my mind, assiduously polite: so much horror and suffering but, please, no cuss-words!

Leckie in wartime.

Despite his training, Leckie is a wilful and even sometimes rebellious character, and where Sledge always uses full rank and proper name, Leckie favours nicknames. Such small differences give the two memoirs very different flavours. There are moments where Leckie's self-consciously prosey style seems overdone - to me, at any rate - but sometimes it really works, as when he evokes the paranoid flesh-crawling fears of sitting in a jungle foxhole in the dark of night, his floridly evocative description contrasting with the bald conclusion: 'I know now why men light fires.'

Where Sledge's detached coolness might be said to foreshadow his later vocation of biology professor, Leckie's wilful nature and flighty language might be also said to have the zest and poetry properly becoming a sports writer turned author. It's certainly interesting to see the differing nature of their responses. In the end these differences make the two books excellent complimentary companions: they cover much the same ground but feel different. Leckie took part in Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester and Pelelieu, whereas Sledge saw action at Pelelieu and Okinawa, so their stories overlap, together building a fuller picture of the Pacific theatre.

On TV in 2001, the year of his death.

Whilst I think it should be noted that the visceral impact of the audio-visual experience is very different from reading about the conflict, nevertheless, as with the HBO series, one marvels at the sheer unrelenting horror of it all. It seems to me good that we have such writings from the 'common soldier'. Both Leckie and Sledge profess horror at the waste of war, and shock at the nature of their Japanese foe. Quarter is never asked for nor given, the Japanese cult of Emperor worship combining with what was, at that time, an insular and deeply ingrained patriotism, along with a cult of 'death before dishonour' that makes Europe's medieval knights look positively lily-livered.

Leckie says some interesting things about irrationality and courage: 'How much less forbidding might have been that avenue of death that I was about to cross had there been some wholly irrational shout - like 'Vive l'Empereur,' or 'The Marine Corps Forever!'' And several times throughout the book he laments a lack of contemporary American songs or music that would generate courage and esprit d' corps, all of which makes for an interesting reflection on the workings of the human mind in extremis.

After the war Leckie resumed his journalistic career, embarking on these memoirs in 1951. According to his wife Vera he did so in response to seeing the film adaptation of the Broadway musical South Pacific, saying 'I have to tell the story of how it really was. I have to let people know the war wasn't a musical.' [1] Definitely a good companion to the Pacific series, and nothing if not interesting!


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