Book Report – Helmet for my Pillow by Robert Leckie

Helmet for My PillowHelmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We recently signed up for HBO Now when it became available on iTunes without a cable subscription to HBO. One of the first mini-series I watched was “The Pacific” (2010). [Come to find out I could have saved myself the HBO Now subscription because it is available free on Amazon Prime.]

The format of the series is to open with documentary footage, narrated by Tom Hanks, on the action that the episode was to cover. This is followed by individual interviews with a group of United States Marines who were involved in that action. It wasn’t until the tenth and last episode that I realized the interviewed Marines were the main characters in the series. I also discovered that two of these Marines, Robert Leckie and E. B. Sledge, had written memoirs of their experiences and that I had them in my library – purchased years ago (maybe 2010?) but had never read them. Naturally I picked up one of the books to see how it was. Sure enough, the book covered scenes from the mini-series.

This is a good book that clearly lines out the horrors of war and especially war in the jungle – Guadalcanal and Pavuvu among other places. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times this was written, 1957, that he refrains from using the swear words that the Marines themselves made liberal use of: “one cold only surmise that if a visitor unacquainted with English were to overhear our conversations he would, in the way of Higher Criticism, demonstrate by measurement and numerical incidence that this little word [ the “F” word] must assuredly be the thing for which we were fighting.” [Loc 308].

I think Leckie is at his best when he discusses the various aspects that combined to make the situation just short of impossible. “Men are the most expendable of all. Hunger, the jungle, the Japanese, not one nor all of these could be quite corrosive as the feeling of expendibility.” [Loc 1574] Being expendable puts one in the role of victim rather that sacrificer, and there is always something begrudging in this.” [Loc 1592]

All in all this is a good but not great book. I think the series gives a grittier look at the time – aided perhaps by the sensibilities of the 21st century over those of the middle 20th century. If you want to read a non-fiction memoir of the war, this is good. If you want a riveting account of Marine action try the novel “The Thin Red Line” by James Jones.

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