Helmet for My Pillow
Contributor: Jimmy Lebel
Review Date: 1 Sep 2010
I am relatively new when it comes to my new found love of literature from WWII, in particular the Pacific Theater. For many years I have just been a "casual" reader, and never had a specific genre that had attracted me. But being a former Marine, and always being intrigued by all of the conflicts that made up WWII, it is only natural for me to eventually get into some heavy reading on this subject. I really got started when a good friend recommended that I read Good Bye, Darkness by William Manchester. Well needless to say, after that read I was hopelessly sucked in. Not only to these types of war memoirs, but into all things WWII. This brought me to the audio book for Robert Leckie's Helmet for My Pillow. Most of the HBO series, "The Pacific" was based off of this book, along with others. But it is clear to me why this book was used along with a book like With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge. Helmet for My Pillow really did a great job of following the characters through ALL aspects of combat in the Pacific.
I really enjoyed this book, even though the narrator, John Allen Nelson, at times tried too hard to "act" out all of the various characters in the book. For example, his Drill Instructor impersonation was horrible, and I knew a few gents on Paris Island that would love to know that they sound like that! But other than that that, he really did a great job immersing you in the title. It couldn't have been too hard; Leckie used great descriptors to describe his time in the war. Starting on a train going to boot camp on Paris Island, all the way to the battle of Pelelu, this book is filled with wonderfully written accounts of Leckie and his main crew. He used the men's nick names throughout the book. I found that this made it easier to remember them. Runner, Chuckler, Hoosier, and Ivy League, just to name a few. I almost found myself getting attached to them as if I knew them!
Leckie not only provided great descriptions of these battles in detail, it was all of the other non-combat events in this book that really stuck with me. Leckie really focused on the people aspect of combat. What did these guys do when they were not killing each other? Getting drunk on commandeered Japanese beer and sake, Runner, one of Leckie's comrades throughout, passed out on the beach. The others took to decorating him until he resembled "some sort of Shinto shrine", as Leckie put it. Or robbing the Army supply dump the second they finally landed on Guadalcanal by diverting their attention elsewhere with a cleverly placed shout. There was also the debauchery that ensued in Australia directly after the battle on Guadalcanal. In short, you would never get bored reading this book.
My absolute favorite scenes took place right after the battle of the Tenaru River, or as they referred to it, the Battle of Hells Point. This was an absolutely ferocious battle that Leckie did justice with the grim mental pictures that he pained for you, but it was after that really followed suit with the rest of the book to me. Leckie was in his souvenir kick, and all of the defeated Japanese lying slain across the river in a grove of palms proved too tempting to the early scavenger. So he stripped down and with nothing but his knife in his teeth, he set off to swim the Tenaru to get to the fallen Japanese in order to commence his souvenir hunting. He described swimming by a fallen Japanese solider just floating in the river. He noted that this soldier had extra rice in his blouse and pants, giving him a bloated look. Leckie affectionately referred to this gentleman as "Chow Hound". He then continued to the palm grove. After grabbing what he could for a few minutes, he took back to the river and swam back. Pretty uneventful.... But once Leckie returned from chow there was a crowd gathered at the river bank. Leckie ran over to check out the commotion, and to his horror an extremely large gator was now making a quick snack of the "Chow Hound". Leckie was just in that river less than an hour ago!
Not only did Leckie and the majority of his crew survive the war, but they survived stunts like this throughout as well. It was very amazing, to say the least.
I really felt like I got to "know" the Marines that served with and around Leckie in Helmet for My Pillow.
Tom Hanks, one of the executive producers of "The Pacific", said it best:
This has already become one of my favorites and I have given this audio book two full passes. I highly recommend this title to anyone not looking for your "run of the mill" Pacific War memoir.
Also, check out WW2DB Managing Editor C. Peter Chen's review of Helmet For My Pillow!
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Captain Henry P. Jim Crowe, Guadalcanal, 13 Jan 1943