Robert Leckie’s “Helmet For My Pillow” (Review)

I very much enjoy reading war memoirs.  I think it’s because I recognize that the authors have tapped into special knowledge that the rest of us cannot access.  They have seen beyond, somehow.  Their experiences have stamped on them an indelible impression that neither time nor distance can erase.  I will be honest:  I am envious of the special knowledge they have, and which I do not have.  Having been in the military is one thing, but having been in real combat is something very different.  Deep down, I regret that I never was given the opportunity to experience what they experienced.

Maybe this is just romantic delusion on my part, and that I should count myself lucky that this is so.  But it is still how I feel.  This is the way men are.  We want to test ourselves against the blade of Fate.  No amount of cautionary talk from a battle-hardened old salt would make any difference, either.  Men must fight.  It is in the way of things; and it has been this way for thousands of years.  Read the war memoirs of Xenophon in his Anabasis; pore over Caesar’s maneuverings in his De Bello Gallico; then move through the Middle Ages and into the modern era.  You will find the same thing.  There is an unvarnished truth, an inexpressible passion, that emerges from these writings.  There is a direct line of descent from Xenophon to Siegfried Sassoon and Ernst Jünger.

Consider Bernal Diaz, one of Hernando Cortes’s soldiers who participated in the conquest of Mexico.  The foreword to his memoir The Conquest of New Spain (published in 1568) glistens with the irrepressible piety and sincerity of the medieval Spaniard:

I have observed that before beginning to write their histories, the most famous chroniclers compose a prologue in exalted language, in order to give lustre and repute to their narrative, and to whet the curious reader’s appetite.  But I, being no scholar, dare not attempt any such preface.  For properly to extol the adventures that befell us, and the heroic deeds we performed during the conquest of New Spain and its provinces in the company of that valiant and enterprising captain, Don Hernando Cortes…would require eloquence and rhetoric far greater than mine.  What I myself saw, and the fighting in which I took part, with God’s help I will describe quite plainly, as an honest eyewitness, without twisting the facts in any way.  I am now an old man, over eighty-four years of age, and have lost both sight and hearing; and unfortunately I have gained no wealth to leave to my children and descendants, except this true story, which is a most remarkable one, as my readers will presently see. [Trans. by J.M. Cohen]

But old Diaz was wrong about that last part.  For he did gain something more precious than any material wealth, something that has made his account resonate down the centuries:  knowledge.  He had some face-to-face with the great other, and had seen beyond.  I suspect Robert Leckie would have agreed with this.  Along these same lines, consider the war memoir of Usama Ibn Munqidh, a Syrian Arab knight who fought the Europeans in the Crusades.  Writing around 1213, he recounts a combat experience:

The moment the Franks saw us marching in the direction of the gate, their cavalry and infantry turned back against us, rode us down and passed us…They arranged the iron heads of their lances in rows at the opening of the gate.  All this took place while I, with a comrade, one of the adopted slaves of my father (May God have mercy on his soul) whose name was Rafi’ Ibn Sutakin, was standing under the wall facing the gate while stones and arrows were falling on us in great quantities…One of our companions, named Haritha Al-Numairi, received in the chest of his horse a blow from a lance coming sideways.  The lance pierced the mare, which struggled until the lance fell out.  The whole skin of the chest peeled off and remained suspended on the forelegs of the mare.  [Trans. by Philip Hitti]

Robert Leckie’s Helmet For My Pillow is his account of combat with the First Marine Division in the Pacific during the Second World War.  I listened to the audio version of the book, and it was cogent and well-paced.  First published in 1957, it formed the basis for the 2010 HBO miniseries The Pacific (which I have not seen).  His account is full of amusing anecdotes and colorful characters; we are taken from the drill decks of recruit training to the steaming jungles of Guadalcanal, and finally to the blasted ruin that was Peleliu.  Leckie was wounded by blast concussion there and medically evacuated to the US mainland thereafter.

Leckie supposedly decided to write his book after sitting in disgust through a screening of the Hollywood musical South Pacific.  Anyone who has seen this movie will understand immediately how that fantasy-world had nothing at all to do with the grim reality of the Pacific War against the Japanese.  I suppose we can’t blame the civilians too much, though.  If people knew what went on during those island battles, they would have been unable to process it.  How do you explain to some grieving mother, for example, that 25 Marines were killed by falling trees on Guadalcanal?

For me it was interesting to compare how the Marine Corps culture of World War II differed from that of the 1990s.  Things were different back then, because society was different.  Marines weren’t as concerned with “careers” and “futures” as much as they are now.  Hell-raising, drinking, and fighting were a lot more common.  Spending time in the brig for an enlisted man was not a big deal; in some ways it was almost a rite of passage.  One things I do firmly believe is that the USMC’s officer corps is much more competent and professional than it was back in the early 1940s.  It’s an entirely different universe.

Helmet For My Pillow is very different from William Manchester’s Goodbye, Darkness, another compelling US Marine memoir of the Pacific War.  Manchester’s work is also profound, but is much more meditative, introspective, and somber.  Each of these men had very different personalities. Although Leckie describes scenes of tremendous carnage and violence, he somehow manages to keep a tone of humor and optimism.  We almost feel we are with him on shore leave on Melbourne, Australia, eating meat pies and chasing local girls; we laugh with him during a brief stay in a mental ward; and we share his pleasure in looting cigars and food from the stockpiles of rival units.  We should also remember that the 1950s was still an era of optimism in America; the time for dark, introspective war memoirs would not arrive until years later.

Near the end of his account, Leckie discusses why he went off to fight.  “What did you get out of it?” a woman blithely asked him.  His answer will resonate with any man who has ever joined the military.  Leckie says that he did it to sacrifice himself.  That was the reason.  Young men do not go off to fight for abstract reasons.  They do it to test themselves, to sacrifice themselves, to feel the press of danger and death on the backs of their necks.  So it has been since the days of Xenophon’s Persian expedition, and so it will always be.