Helmet for My Pillow Hardcover
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In stark contrast to Sledge, Leckie comes across as a rebellious character and admits to having a violent temper. During his Corps service he spent time in the brig for going AWOL, was fined a month’s pay and stripped of his NCO stripes. All this is told with honesty and detachment, as are his recollections of wild escapades during a spell of R&R in Melbourne where he and his buddies were frequently drunk, had sexual encounters with Australian women and Keystone-Kops-style chases trying to evade MPs attempting to arrest them by sprinting through restaurant kitchens and jumping out of upstairs windows into dark alleyways filled with stray dogs!
Leckie describes dozens of fellow marines, both buddies and junior officers, referring to them by nicknames to mask their identities: ‘Chuckler’ and ‘Runner’, ‘Lt. Ivy-League’, ‘Commando’, ‘Liberal’ and ‘Big-Picture’ (the author himself was nicknamed ‘Lucky’ as a pun on his name rather than because he was perceived as particularly fortunate). By this mechanism he feels free to criticise the incompetence and greed of some junior officers without restraint. His writing style is often witty, sometimes poignant and reflective, but the narrative is occasionally ‘overwritten’.
Leckie fought on Guadalcanal and later in the fetid jungles of New Britain where he suffered from malaria, nocturnal enuresis and an unidentified jungle-bug which made his face and eyelids swell up. He was involved in face-to-face combat with the Japanese who at this stage in the war had not yet adopted the tactics of digging a maze of reinforced tunnels to ambush and kill as many Americans as possible as they later did on Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Japanese soldiers walked the jungles of Cape Gloucester in groups and could be ambushed and fought in the open. On Peleliu however, Leckie’s unit was exposed to dogged Japanese resistance and sustained heavy shellfire from concealed positions, and it was in the early stages of this campaign that Leckie suffered the wounds which led to his evacuation on a hospital ship home to the US. Thus HfmP ends rather abruptly, and the narrative does not extend to describing his return home.
Overall HfmP has a polished narrative style and makes a good companion book to Sledge’s WtoB. Taken together, the two books vividly describe from contrasting perspectives and styles the same privations and dangers endured by the marines in the Pacific campaign.
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 details and differences give the two memoirs very different flavours. There are moments where Leckie's self-consciously prosey style seems overdone, 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 a simpler 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.
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 or 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.
Definitely a good companion to the Pacific series, and nothing if not interesting!
Leckie spends far more time detailing the friendship and camaraderie between him and his fellow Marines than Sledge did. Often describing periods between combat, these were very interesting; so too was the long section about the wild times the exhausted soldiers had when they arrived in Melbourne for some R & R after the terrors of Guadalcanal. It's amazing and heart-warming to read about how for months discipline went out the window. I suppose that the Marine commanders must have decided just to let their men have a good time rather than worrying about spit and polish and parades.
The last section of the book concerns Leckie's return to the war - it speeds through the campaigns at Cape Gloucester, New Britain and Pelelieu. The book comes to a snappy conclusion, and I was a little sorry that it didn't give more details of his return home.
Overall, this is a book that is well worth reading, but it doesn't quite match up to Sledge's memoir.
Ben Kane, author of The Forgotten Legion.
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