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Robert Leckie’s no-holds-barred memoirs of the US Marines
on 3 June 2017
As a newspaper reporter before and after WW2 and later a multiply-published author, Robert Leckie’s memoirs narrating his time in the US Marine Corps between 1942 and 1944 display a confident and often florid writing style, in contrast to Eugene Sledge’s simpler and more visceral recollections in ‘With the Old Breed’. Both books supplied the source material for Spielberg’s epic TV miniseries ‘The Pacific’ and cover similar ground.
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.