Thursday, April 13, 2017

Robert Leckie - Helmet for my Pillow

Having recently read Ian W. Toll's excellent histories of World War Two in the Pacific, I decided to seek out some of the personal accounts that he uses as material for his accounts. One of these is this classic book by Robert Leckie, which forms some of the source material for the TV series Pacific.

Viewers of that will recognise many of the scenes from the Leckie's account. Leckie begins with his training for the Marine Corp and then their deployment on Guadalcanal. Understanding exactly what was taking place is difficult without the wider military context, because Leckie writes from his position as an individual soldier, and rarely gives any wider context.

As a result this, like I imagine the conflict itself, is a claustrophobic experience, focusing on individuals. Leckies' comrades come and go, the action is limited to particular foxholes and patrols. Unusually the author is not afraid of describing personal weaknesses, fear and cowardice by him or others. His first "kill" involves shooting someone in the back and he describes the way that his comrades have to kill the injured enemy in cold-blood for fear of bobby traps and suicide bombs. One comrade, Souvenirs, removes gold teeth from the Japanese dead, until his own death on Peleliu. Leckie is forthright about how the war, and the stress of waiting for battle to begin preyed on the mental health of him and his comrades.

I was also struck by Leckies' insubordination - he, along with others, go AWOL during their recuperation period in Melbourne, an event that is as riotous and drunken as described in Toll's The Conquering Tide. Drink plays a big part of this escape following Guadalcanal, but not as much as sex does, and Leckie's descriptions of his own encounters with women in Melbourne are very different to those portrayed in the TV dramatisation. Not least because it proves that women were as forward as men in the 1940s. Sex clearly didn't begin in the 1960s.

The book after Leckie's experiences during the Battle of Peleliu. This was a brutal experience that involved heavy casualties and brutal sustained conflict between soldiers low on water, food and ammunition. Unsurprisingly Leckie is transformed by his experiences. Indeed his final meditation on the nuclear attacks on Japan poignantly makes it clear how he feels about war. This is certainly not a John Wayne's film full of heroism and clean deaths, but dirty, brutal, real and tremendously sad.

Related Reviews

Toll - Pacific Crucible
Toll - Conquering Tide
Jones - Thin Red Line
Turkel - The Good War

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