Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific, Robert Leckie, Bantam Books, 305 pp., 1957, 2010 edition, 16.00.
First published in 1957, Helmet for My Pillow is the World War Two memoir of Robert Leckie, United States Marine Corps veteran and military historian. Born in 1920, Philadelphia Pennsylvania native Leckie served in the Pacific Theatre with the First Marine Division as a machine gunner and intelligence scout during the Battle of Guadalcanal and later campaigns. One of eight children born into an Irish Catholic family began his writing career, at age 16 as a sports writer for The Bergen Evening Record in New Jersey.
In 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Leckie enlisted in the Marines. He was assigned to H Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. He deployed to Guadalcanal, Australia, New Guinea, and Cape Gloucester and participated in every major First Marine Division campaign except Okinawa. Drill instructors, disappearing individuality, drunkeness, and new comrades enter Leckie's life during boot camp in MCRD Parris Island, South Carolina, and then during his first post at New River, North Carolina.
Each take their toll on Leckie: heavy combat at Guadalcanal, jungle patrols in New Guinea, bread-and-water in the brig twice, more months of combat at Point Glouster, assignment to the psychiatric ward for a month, more combat at Bloody Nose Ridge, and blast concussion.
His comrades are Artist, Chuckler, Commando, Hoosier, Ivy League, Runner, Souvenir, and Straight Talk. Officers steal his cigars and his foot locker. Like William Manchester's Goodbye, Darkness Leckie's memoir offers brilliant descriptions, an amazing use of language, and masterful storytelling. The 2010 HBO mini-series The Pacific was adapted in large part from Helmet for My Pillow, and Eugene Sledge's With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa.
Leckie's memoir is literature. Leckie's work is fascinating, compelling, highly descriptive writing by one who lived through what hell mankind could make. The conclusion of the story is humane and heartfelt with reflections of the use of the atomic bomb, the loss of comrades, and the nature of sacrifice. A few weeks ago David McCullough prescribed a remedy for the dearth of knowledge about American history among citizens, young and old. He wishes teachers would create history lab exercises for students much like National History Day competitions. CWL would teach history through biography and on the list would be Robert Leckie's Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific.