Customer Reviews: Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific
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on February 23, 2010
First, I must admit a particular regard for this book as the granddaughter of Bill Smith (whom Leckie refers to as 'Hoosier'), who served with Leckie in How Company. Leckie offers nuanced insight into the ways in which he and his friends understood national military service, the `enemy', and the war more generally, and how these perspectives or ideas evolved among the men from North Carolina to Guadalcanal, Australia, and New Britain. Leckie steers clear from prototypes or cliches; there is no enblematic enlisted man or officer. Rather, these men are treated as real people coping (or not) with the profound uncertainty of their situation.

Perhaps this appreciation says more about my own lack of experience with combat/warfare. Thinking of Guadalcanal from a macro or military history perspective, it is easy to take for granted that marines' objectives - and the most efficacious means to pursue them - were always apparent to those involved. In this context, Leckie's account of warfare as a learning process was deep, reflexive, and fascinating. For example, he describes: 1) the marines' first reactions to air battle and subsequent adjustment to air battle as a simple process of attrition; and 2) the uncertainty confronted by officers at various stages, against the backdrop of the US' limited military experience in the Pacific or in jungles more generally. In this way, Leckie also makes apparent the need - and efficacy - of severe hierarchy. For this reason, I think that reviewers' arguments positing a lack of regard for officers deserve qualification.

Hoosier was wounded and evacuated early in the Battle of Peleliu; I believe that Chuckler and Runner were wounded later and evacuated with Leckie. Leckie and his friends stayed in touch - in the summer of 1985, my grandfather and his wife, as well as Runner (Juergens) and his wife, went to visit Leckie in New Jersey. There Leckie decidated a park in their honor, in honor of all marines who fought in the Pacific Theater (I uploaded a photo of the dedication plaque in the 'customer image gallery').

Although Hoosier never liked to share his experiences from the war, my father considers the book to be true to his character. And, while the HBO miniseries diverges considerably from the book, Hoosier's sense of humor appears true to form (the book provides far greater nuance and depth, different dialogue, and events unfolded differently). This edition of the book also includes a few photographs of Leckie, Runner, Hoosier, and others - some taken in their dress blues, and others on Guadalcanal.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon February 22, 2010
`Helmet for My Pillow" is a reissue from 1957. My one and only complaint is my usual one with reissues...please put in an updated introduction...tell us what has happened with the author or life, don't just reissue it and do nothing else. This will be made into a mini series which is probably the reason for the reissue. No matter what the reason it's definitely worth reading. Robert Leckie's descriptions create a picture; from his drill sergeant..." but above all he had a voice" to the exultation of leave in Australian after the battle of Guadalcanal. There are black and white pictures throughout the pages of the men he served with and of Leckie which definitely helps with the mind's pictures.

But most of all this book is remarkable. I have heard men describe their experiences with jungle warfare, both from WWII and Vietnam, but never with the awful clarity that is done in these pages. I grew up in the army and have been with the military all of my life and can agree with so much of what is said here, and said with far more ability than almost any other book I have read.
Leakie pulls no punches, not in the way many of the enlisted were treated by their officers or in his own `mistakes' that landed in him the brig.
Historically there is much in here that I have never read before, and I have read and listened to much. There are stories of the hunger the fighting men felt during battle and how Japanese forces would try to sneak into their camps at night for food. Then there are the descriptions of the `widow makers', trees that were weakened by artillery fire that killed 25 men as they broke and fell on them.
This is truly an incredible account, eye opening and worthy of your time and effort to read.
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on February 26, 2010
One of the best personal memoirs of war I have ever read. Leckie is brutally honest about anything and everything to do with his experiences in the 1st Marine Division during WWII. Incredibly impressed by his sensitive candor and philosophical reflections on the impact of war on human beings. Having been an officer myself, I was truly shocked to read his descriptions of Marine officers blatantly stealing from enlisted men. I guess in wartime, they were willing to let anyone become an officer. Leckie pulls no punches but shows remarkable understanding, forgiveness, and mercy towards all his comrades and even the enemy. This book is a classic and a must-read for anyone interested in what combat in the Pacific theater was really like and about young men's reaction to war. Rest in peace, Robert Leckie. For those who fell, there is no hell. I thank God knowing you have been reunited with your comrades. Thank you for writing this book. It was a privilege to have read it. A great gift to those who have never known the horrors and sacrifice of war.
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on October 26, 2001
Robert Leckie gives a gripping first person narrative in which he seemingly pulls no punches about life in the mud and among the flawed but heroic men of the First Marine Division. He recounts hardship, cameraderie, and combat in an engaging, almost lyrical, fashion. I came away from "Helmet" with a renewed respect for the sacrifice of the Greatest Generation. Uncommon valor was truly a common virtue. Leckie's story will make any 18 year old want to march down to the recruiting station and sign up.
Leckie's story dovetails quite nicely with another memoir, "With the Old Breed at Peliliu and Okinawa," the account of another First Division rifleman, E.B. Sledge. The First Marine Division's WWII career began in the jungles of Guadalcanal, went through New Britain and on to Peliliu and ended at Okinawa. Leckie was in at the beginning, but his combat career ended when he was wounded in the Hell of Peliliu. Sledge's combat career began at Peliliu and ended on Okinawa. Together the two give you an enlisted man's eye view of all the First Division's campaigns.
Sledge doesn't turn a phrase as well as Leckie, but his description of combat will make your blood run cold in a way that "Helmet" does not. Any 18 year old reading "Old Breed" will want to tear up his enlistment papers. It seems odd that Leckie, obviously the more accomplished wordsmith, does not paint as horrific a picture of combat as Sledge. Could it be that Leckie has shied away from revealing the full extent of the hardship of combat? Or could it be that Peliliu and Okinawa served up privation and hardship on a much grander scale than Guadalcanal and New Britain? Read both books and decide for yourself. For all its stark description, "Old Breed" will engender the same kind of respect for the men of the First Division that the reader takes away from "Helmet."
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on February 10, 2001
Robert Leckie, machine gunner and then scout in the 1st Marine Division, retells his battle experiences on Guadalcanal, New Britain and the horrific losses suffered on Peleliu. In addition to the battle descriptions, this rebel and admitted brig-rat, writes of time spent in the brigs and bars from the states to the South Pacific. The loss of friends and the meaning of war itself are woven into the narrative with skill absent any maudlin sentiment. He paints a vivid picture of the fear brought on by night in the jungle during war. "I could not see, but I dared not close my eyes lest the darkness crawl beneath my eyelids and suffocate me. I could only hear. My ears became my being and I could hear the specks of life that crawled beneath my clothing... I could hear the darkness gathering against me and the silences that lay between the moving things." If this is "brig-rat" writing, then bring on more of it.
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VINE VOICEon March 14, 2010
I first learned of this book when I read that it was being used as one of the sources for HBO's new miniseries about the Pacific theater in the Second World War. Having enjoyed the other source material being used, E. B. Sledge's superb memoir, With the Old Breed, I decided to track down a copy of Leckie's account and read it for myself. Because of this, I found myself comparing the two works as I read it, which influenced my overall opinion of the book.

In many ways, the experiences of the two men were similar. Both were civilians prior to the Second World War; Leckie enlisted in the Marines a month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. His account of basic training feels incredibly authentic, in part because of his attention to details. Leckie captures much of the mundane minutiae of learning how to be a Marine, from the bureaucratic experience of inoculation to the quest for a good time on leave. This sense of authenticity continues as he describes his deployment to Guadalcanal with the First Marine Division and his engagement with the war there. These experiences form the best part of the book, as his initial encounter with life as a Marine in both training and war reflect his interest in the novelty of it all.

From Guadalcanal, Leckie's unit was returned to Australia for rest and refitting. This transformation into what he calls a "lotus-eater" also bears a real sense of verisimilitude, as unlike many memoirs of war he does not gloss over the search for release that often characterized breaks from the battles. It is here, though, that his account flags a little, and his return to combat in New Britain as part of Operation Cartwheel was perhaps the least interesting part of the book. The book improves with his subsequent experiences in the hospital in Banika and his final, abbreviated deployment to Peleliu, which ended with his injury and return to the States for the duration of the war.

Reading this book, it is easy to see why it stands out as an account of the Second World War. Leckie's prose brings alive both the mundane routines of service and the violence of combat. It is when he is between the two that the book suffers, as his efforts at evocative prose about his surroundings in the jungle suffer from being a little overwrought, particularly in comparison to Sledge's plainer, more straightforward descriptions. Yet both need to be read for a fascinating portrait of what the war was like for the "new boots" who gave up their lives as civilians to fight in the humid jungles and barren islands of the Pacific.
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on October 19, 2009
At first Leckie grabbed my attention by being at the front of the line to join
The US Marines. Through basic traning and on, a pattern seems to develop in his character. A lack of respect for any person in a position of authority starts to develop. From him, one gets the impression that he feels as if it is some kind of game to try to get over on his superiors, sometimes at the cost of his fellow Marines. He seems to thrive on getting over, getting drunk and womanizing. All that before he ever goes into combat. After entering combat it seems that he continues to try to get over and out of as much as he can. On Guadalcanal, He explains, drunk on japanese sake, he gets naked and swims across a croc infested creek to get to japanese prizes, only to get sick swim back across and get complimented by a know-nothing Lt. from his platoon. He seems to bask in being able to fool his superiors.
He seems to wonder why he does't make any rank and continues to get picked on.
His trip to Australia and further misadventures continues to befuddle him. He cannot seem to give any credit, even to the sgtmajor that could have sent him to prison or the doctor that could have put him away.
Towards the end of the book, on Peleliu it might appear that he does gain at least a little redemption and perhaps begins to reflect back upon his wayward ways and to think of others besides himself. Better late than never.
I have known a number of World War II Pacific Marines. After all that I have met, I would have to say that Leckie would appear to be different. I have the upmost Respect and Appreciation for ALL that participated.
All said and done I must say that I am glad to have read This Book. If not the most enjoyable read, though well written, but for a First Person Account by someone who was there. It seems to ask as many questions as it answers. Many second hand accounts, information heavy documentary, and backseat drivers are available.
I am sorry Mr Leckie is no longer with us (2001,age 81). I know that he had a long list of titles to his credit. I hope during his long life he was able to cope and find peace.
I would like to recommend reading, E.B. Sledge's "With The Old Breed", after reading this work. It offers an interesting compare and contrast.
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on May 15, 2010
I first read this book about thirty years ago when I first joined the army; I have just completed reading the re-issued version of the book as I have an interest in the Pacific war.

Personally I enjoyed Robert Leckie's story of his journey from induction to the front line with the US Marines in the Pacific, his descriptions of places like the Solomon Islands are spot on. I journeyed there almost fifty years after the end of the war in the Pacific, to assist in the location and disposal of WW2 ordnance in the islands and this work took me through many of the locations in the island chain, such as the Russells, New Georgia and Guadalcanal. Having also spent some time in tropical warfare environments and experiencing living in jungle conditions in the Australian army's battle school, I relate to the author and his descriptions of life in these island environments. The discomfort, being constantly wet and encountering various jungle animal nasties, as well as encounters with the enemy, often at night and in very close quarters is definitely something to keep one in a high state of tense anxiety.

I was also particularly drawn to his experiences spent in Melbourne, Australia, as Melbourne is my home town and looking at pictures of the young Robert Leckie in his Marine uniform reminded me of stories my mother related about families in Australia at the time hosting US servicemen into their homes. The period 1941-1942 were dark days for Australia, with the threat of Japanese invasion very real and many Australian families welcomed US service personnel into their homes at the time. Sadly many of these young men were to return to the Pacific and not see their homeland again.

Robert Leckie describes the various characters in his book with a bit of a larrikin's view, describing them by nicknames and also giving his impressions on many of the personalities; he strikes me as a person who didn't suffer fools irrespective of their rank or status. This character trait manifests itself through the book from his time in Recruit camp through to the time of his last battle.

In summary a well written book, with a serviceman's personal observations of places and personalities that give a grassroots experience of what it is like to be in the front lines. The book is more focused on the author's personal experiences and not so much on historical data, it allows the reader to experience life in the tropical South Pacific and gives them experiences of beach landings, patrolling in jungle and living in a dripping, wet environment. Together with the ever-present possibility of a contact with the enemy who could be as close as five metres when encountered due to the terrain. Well done, Robert Leckie!
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on June 22, 2001
Leckie's talent as a writer is surpassed only by the visceral drama of his story. His story is riveting as he takes the reader from boot through his participation in the 1st Marine Division's battles in the Pacific through Peleliu. He literally lived out of his ruck, never seeing his sea bag, for over two years. Leckie is a craftsman, and entertains too with his tales of debauchery in Australia, tempered with the vocabulary of an earlier, more decorous America. He also warns, "Keep it up, America, keep telling your youth that mud and danger are only fit for intellectual pigs. Keep on saying that only the stupid are fit to sacrifice, that America must be defended by the low-brow and enjoyed by the high-brow. Keep vaunting head over heart, and soon the head will arrive at the complete folly of any kind of fight and meekly surrender the treasure to the first bandit with enough heart to demand it."
The thoughtful military reader will be interested in the differences between today's warrior culture and that of half a century ago. Leckie's story is purely from his vantage point, and a great read in it's own right, but don't expect perspective or analysis. Anyone interested in Leckie's story would probably also enjoy With the Old Breed by Sledge. Sledge was also at Peleliu and went on to Okinawa with the 1st Marine Division. I found Sledge's story more gripping, visceral and grim, ranking with The Forgotten Soldier by Sajer as some of the best chronicling of war.
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on March 7, 2010
"Helmet for my Pillow" is a book written by writer who was from my hometown of Rutherford, NJ. He had a personal relationship with his family physician William Carlos Williams the great poet. They spent much time together and you do not know how much of William's descriptive poetry style rubbed off on Leckie. I found his vocabulary to be extensive. You must keep in mind that he is describing a terrible yet historical time in U.S. history and he is attempting to give his fellow comrades in the marines their fair due. He never names a person by their real name and I think that is masterful because it shows how you do not want to get too personal with your fellow marines, because, they will be may gone at some point soon. He wrote the book after seeing 'South Pacific" when he walked out half way through the play and said to his wife Vera "I am going to write a book to tell the true story of what took place in the South Pacific". He wanted to honor his friends who gave up so much whether they lived or died. The book is hard reading but not as hard as he had it. He was a wild guy who tells the truth. He doesn't mix word or actions. Yeah, they drank a lot. From basic training to the awful islands where they would steal Saki when they could. After a while you begin to wonder if all the marines drank that much. Yet you must remember that his generation started the cocktail hour and they lived by "Its 5 O'clock, Dear Lets have a drink!". To sum it up they are making a huge HBO show 10 parts series about it, so whether you like it or not it is a must read to appreciate the show. I read it, and, I will have a much better understanding of what those men went through. I would recommend this book. I never met Mr. Leckie as far back as I can recall. My mother and uncles were his very close friends at St. Mary's high school, in Rutherford. He was the youngest of 8 kids and it is quite exceptional that the baby in the family turned out to be such a success. He wrote over 40 books in his lifetime and he is a man with a high school education. The Sisters of St. Dominic must have done a greast job teachingb him when he wasn't playing hookie.
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