In 1957 Robert Leckie wrote a memoir of his service as a United States Marine in the Pacific theater, during the Second World War. The memoir is called “A Helmet for My Pillow”, and it is one of the best books about the war that I have ever read. Indeed, this book and a couple of others formed the foundatio on which the excellent HBO miniseries "The Pacific" is based.
Leckie enlisted in the Marine Corps immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and after his basic training and advanced training as a machine gunner, he was assigned to the First Marine Division, and took part in the invasion of Guadalcanal island in August, 1942. Bob Leckie, “Lucky” to his comrades, saw not only brutal combat, the likes of which were seen only in the Pacific theater of the war, but also horrible privation. The Marines of the First Division experienced near-starvation, shortages of ammunition, near-nakedness as their uniforms rotted off of their bodies in the tropical mold and damp, and deadly disease.
Helmet for My Pillow begins with a poem of the same name, and tells of Leckie’s personal experiences, not only in battle, but during the drunken debauchery of Liberty in Australia when the division was relieved from Guadalcanal. Leckie’s memoir of the war will probably make you laugh at times, when he describes his adventures with his buddies “Runner”, “Hoosier”, “Chuckler”, and others, and will almost certainly bring you to tears in other places.
To tell you the truth, this memoir is short. Certainly a lot shorter than it could have been, and there are, I think, two reasons for that. The first reason is that fighting Marines, especially those of that generation tended not to be braggarts. They knew how tough things were, and were all about getting the job done, and surviving to go home… if they could. The second reason is that the author was not given to flowery pose. That isn’t the kind of man that Bob Leckie was, from all I can gather.
The people who fought in the Second World War… people like my father in law, Ted, don’t really spend a lot of time talking about the war, because there wasn’t anything pleasant about it for those that did the real fighting.
Leckie lead a productive life after the war. He married and raised a family, working as a reporter for the associated press, and authoring forty books.
If you ever want to know what the fighting Marine was thinking (and doing) in those grim days following Pearl Harbor, read Robert Leckie’s “Helmet For My Pillow”, You won’t be sorry that you did.