Helmet for My Pillow
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 24 Apr 2010
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.
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.
Also, check out WW2DB Contributor Jimmy Lebel's review of Helmet For My Pillow!
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Thomas Dodd, late 1945