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Helmet for My Pillow

ISBN: 978-1400160501
Review Date:

For a long time, I had regarded William Manchester's Goodbye, Darkness and Eugene Sledge's With the Old Breed the two "must read" memoirs of the Pacific War. Not only that they had portrayed their experiences truthfully, even the controversial topics, they had also presented their stories in eloquent language. After listening to the audio book format of Robert Leckie's Helmet for My Pillow, I decided that I must make space for a third title on my list, for Leckie, an United States Marine just like Manchester and Sledge, had written a great piece of work on par of the other two titles that had long been my favorites. Further research of mine revealed that Leckie had published this memoir prior to Manchester and Sledge, thus making this book more of a treasure.

Helmet for My Pillow, like most other memoirs of the era, began with training in the United States. His narratives of his exposure to the drill instructors, of the slow disappearance of individuality, and of his drunken adventures while being away from camp without permission stood out to me, perhaps because Leckie's writing was so captivating, words flowing almost like poetry. When describing the desperate situation at Guadalcanal, I could feel his helplessness as he and his comrades were bombarded by Japanese artillery and warships, with the United States Navy nowhere near to relieve them. The temporary rest (and further drunken stupor) in Melbourne, the patrols in the jungle, the harsh bread-and-water brig sentence, the frustration in dealing with the officer who commandeered his battlefield souvenir, every piece of his war experience described in the book, no matter big of small, were written in such beautiful language that, every couple of chapters, I thought about how he had survived the war when countless other Marines in his unit had not, and the world could have been deprived of such a well-written literature that provided a first-hand perspective to the Pacific War.

This excerpt from the fighting on Peleliu in the Palau Islands could perhaps illustrate Leckie's writing style and the depth he dove into.

I turned to go, and as I did, nearly stepped on someone's hand. "Excuse me," I began to say, but then I saw that it was an unattached hand, or rather a detached one. It lay there alone. Open, palm upwards, clean, capable, solitary. I could not tear my eyes from it. The hand is the artisan of the soul. It is the second member of the human trinity of head and hand and heart. A man has no faculty more human than his hand, none more beautiful nor expressive nor productive. To see this hand lying alone, as though contemptuously cast aside, no longer a part of a man, no longer his help, was to see war in all its wantonness; it was to see the especially brutal savagery of our own technique of rending, and it was to see men at their eternal worst, turning upon one another, tearing one another, clawing at their own innards with the maniacal fury of the pride-possessed.

One very interesting thing to point out was that aside from himself, none of the Marines were ever referred to by name. Rather, they all had nicknames. Chuckler, Hoosier, Runner, Ivy League, Souvenir, Straight Talk; all of them were meaningful, each describing a personality, a story, or background of their owners. It also made each of the Marines more recognizable as I listened to the audio book, and I imagine it would have a similar effect in the traditional print edition of the book as well.

Since I had chosen to "read" this book in its audio book form, the narrator's ability to convey the feeling of the story to me was very important. While John Allen Nelson did a fine job narrating for the most part, I must say that, in many instances, his voices for the various characters in the book were not fitting. When I played the portion of the book on Leckie's time in boot camp to a friend of mine who had served in the United States Marine Corps, his comment regarding the voice Nelson assigned the drill instructor was "weird", adding that the voice sounded nothing like what he remembered from his days at Parris Island. It was a very minute annoyance that it would not deter me from listening to this audio book once again some time down the road, but I did wonder if a different narrator might do better in this arena.

Manchester, Sledge, and Leckie were all Marines were served in the Pacific War and all had published thought-provoking and insightful memoirs for the next generations. Although each took a different method to describe their experiences, together they had all successfully described the experienced of a Marine fighting against the Japanese, fighting to survive, and fighting to establish each of them as an individual in a military service that did not value individuality. I am glad that I have finally gotten a chance for Helmet for My Pillow, and I highly recommend you to put title somewhere in your reading list, too.

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Also, check out WW2DB Contributor Jimmy Lebel's review of Helmet For My Pillow!

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Visitor Submitted Comments

1. Lucas says:
11 Feb 2011 09:51:04 PM

Thank you for the review. I agree, referring to the Marines nicknames made the book even more memorable.
2. Anonymous says:
25 Apr 2012 03:20:32 AM

I am jealous! I was lonkoig into ordering HBO, thinking it would be like, $5.99/month or so. Nope, 14.99. I'm just going to have to wait and get it on DVD from Netflix. We own the entire Band of Brothers collection. We may buy this one eventually too.
3. Graham says:
9 Jul 2016 01:48:10 PM

To read of the real hell men endure, irrespective of the country or branch, is salutary. It helps explain, to the innocent and unknowing, why they should never wave a flag, unconscious of the consequence, without listening or reading. 'Leckie's' story, amongst many others - that collective hell of fighting not only a devilishly brain-washed foe, but nature never before experienced by that individual, is a true memoir that I know my now deceased father, and military academics, will always use to question political upstarts. A book for all mantelpieces...not to be shut away in private libraries. Just put it on your coffee table and be prepared to answer the ignorant!

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Related Events:
» Guadalcanal Campaign
» Palau Islands and Ulithi Islands Campaigns
» Solomon Islands Campaign

Famous WW2 Quote
"The raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years."

James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945

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