Tuesday, May 18, 2010


The stars of The Pacific; Jon Seda, Joe Mazzello, James Badge Dale

Episode 10 of The Pacific opens with Bob Leckie (James Badge Dale) in a Long Island hospital recovering from wounds incurred at Peleliu. A blond volunteer is reading to Leckie and another patient, ironically from Homer's The Odyssey, about the aftermath and long journey home of Odysseus from the Trojan War when the announcement is made of Japan's surrender....it was the long awaited VJ Day.

And from there we see where the journey went for the main characters of the series, plus several of the secondary players in the drama. The three central characters, Bob Leckie, Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello), and John Basilone (Jon Seda) had very different fates. Basilone was killed in action at Iwo Jima after seven months of marriage to Lena Riggi (Annie Parisse). Leckie was physically wounded and returned home even more cynical than he did when he left. But it was Eugene Sledge who experienced the most change in his wartime experience. Sledge left Mobile as a callow youth and returned a man who had seen and done horrible things in the act of surviving the war, and bore terrible internalized emotional scars not visible to others.

This episode had so many unforgettable scenes, such as the distance and coolness of Leckie's parents when he returned home in New Jersey. We understand Bob Leckie a little bit more after seeing his reunion with his Mom and Dad, who seem to be a couple of people who are not able to express love. Mr. and Mrs. Leckie used Bob's room as storage space, and greet Bob as if his homecoming was a kind of inconvenience. And it appears from the story that they probably didn't visit him while he was hospitalized- whether they knew he was on Long Island and chose not to visit him, or if Bob decided against informing them is unclear.

Bob's mother does appear to want Bob to have some happiness in his life. When he catches him spying on Vera Keller (Caroline Dhavernas) she suggests that Bob wear his Marine dress blues. Vera was dating a recent West Point grad, when Bob- in his dress blues- supplants the young officer in the life of Leckie's longtime neighbor. It seems that though the Leckies and the Kellers lived across the street from each other for twenty years that they were not in the least friendly. We see a certain amount of disfunction in Leckie's home life, and perhaps its the reason for his turning to writing; it became his expressive outlet. When we last see Bob Leckie in the series he and Vera are at a family dinner in the Leckie household. Family members are complaining about the inconvenience of the post war rail strike, and the then outrageous cost of one of those newfangled television sets. One male family member quips that they understand Bob's sacrifice during the war, but they clearly don't.....and they can't begin to comprehend the depth of that sacrifice. It is clear in the final scene with Leckie that he and Vera are in love, are a couple, and will spend their lives devoted to each other. Bob Leckie's Odyssey was over. He reclaimed his life and career, and found the love of his life in the process.

And further south in New Jersey, Lena Riggi Basilone visited the home of John's parents in Raritan. Three of the Basilone sons served in the war; John never came back. Lena received the news of John's death on Iwo Jima on her 32nd birthday. At first there seemed to be a certain distance between the two Mrs. Basilones. Mother Basilone had met her widowed daughter-in-law for the first time in the dorway of the Basilone home. Upon entering it becomes clear that this tight knit Italian-American family is still mourning the loss of their heroic son. The scene in which Lena hands John's Medal of Honor back to John's parents, and the tears that followed was one of the more poignant and heartbreaking minutes of television in many years.

The last third of the series concentrated on the experiences of Eugene Sledge; he became the central character as the series wound down, and Sledge was the one who took us through possibly the most horrific chapters of the Pacific war, if not all of World War II. Eugene became "Sledghammer" before our eyes; he went through the most profound changes, starting as a shy teenager in Episode One and returning home in the last chapter as a man who has learned to kill dispassionately because his life, and the life of his buddies, depended on it. And ultimately Eugene returns to Mobile damaged on the inside. Bob Leckie had a budding career in writing when he joined the Marines; his transition to civilian life went relatively smoothly compared to Eugene Sledge. Eugene had no career before the war, and no plans after it, except that he had seen enough of death and killing, and couldn't even bear to put on a uniform again after returning home. His friends Burgin (Martin McCann) and Snafu (Rami Malek) have some things lined up back in their homes in Texas and Louisiana, respectively (with an Australian bride on the way for Burgin). But Sledge is haunted by survivor's guilt; in a war where so many others in his unit had died or been wounded, and he came home without a scratch. And for this he cannot psychologically find a justification. While his brother Edward moved on after returning from Europe and got a job in a bank, Eugene seemed to mope and drift; what he needed was a release. That moment finally came when he went hunting with his father; Eugene Sledge couldn't bear to fire a gun to kill another living creature. He broke down and wept, as his compassionate father cradled his son.

We see Eugene in the series' final scene examining the delicate structure of a flower, sitting in the wonder of nature, perhaps finding that "eureka moment" when his calling finds him; he was to be a teacher of sciences, a distinguished professor and PHD, and he would become a gentle scholar that in later years no one would imagine was a combat veteran in the bloody Pacific theater.

Some Closing Thoughts

I'm glad that the creative team behind The Pacific gave the audience a chance to see what happened later in the lives of the characters. As of this writing only three of the main characters portrayed in the series are still alive; Sid Phillips, Chuck Tatum, and RV Burgin. Burgin and his bride Florence are still together after more than 60 years, and he maintains a website and does make personal appearances. He has also co-authored a memoir of his wartime experiences, Islands of the Damned.

Today I decided to cash in a Barnes and Noble gift card my niece gave me for my birthday. With the card I got Robert Leckie's Helmet For My Pillow and Eugene Sledge's With The Old Breed, two of the books in which The Pacific was based.

And one of the first things I looked for- prompted by many of the queries to this site- was for information about the mysterious "Stella". Bob Leckie's romantic interest in Melbourne.

Well folks, here's the news. There was no Stella.

The episode involving "Stella" was fictionalized but had basis in fact. Bob Leckie had a relationship with two women in Melbourne. On pages 146-152 of Helmet For My Pillow Leckie talks about a woman he called "Molly", and another "Sheila". It was his budding relationship with "Sheila" that caused his breakup with "Molly". Also, "Sheila" was a married woman, a fact that Leckie did not know until late in their romance.

So why change the facts in this part of the story when so many great pains had been taken for historic accuracy in the series?

Probably for a few reasons. But here's what I think. Bob Leckie was of that generation of our parents and grandparents in which you did not kiss and tell. In his book Leckie never assigned last names to the two women, and probably made up their first names as well. Possibly Bob took their true identities to his grave.

And maybe that's how it should have been.

So if Bob Leckie disguised the true facts and identities of his romances in Melbourne, it probably gave a green light to present that episode with a certain degree of artistic license. Perhaps "Stella's" Greek background came from a different source from another romance in Australia involving different players. But in the long run, it doesn't matter....the episode accomplished what it set out to do; that is, present the fragility of wartime romances in all of their heartbreaking detail.

Mission accomplished.

As for the two books, I've read the first chapter in each, and it brought back memories of my own basic training. "DI's" and "TI'S" must get a thesaurus of commonly used cliches to use on new recruits, because it doesn't matter what branch of the service you were in, or what year it was, you're guaranteed to hear the same in yer face profane language.

"Yer heart belongs to Jesus but yer ass belongs to me!"

As for the writing of the two memoirs, oddly enough I find Sledge's book to be more readable (so far), though Bob Leckie was the professional writer. Sledge's writing style was that of a teacher, trying to get you to learn something you didn't know. Bob Leckie, on the other hand, wrote his book like a storyteller; sometimes it takes awhile to adjust to his style.

I'm glad I bought both books, and I do intend to read each one. With Memorial Day around the corner, maybe I'll spend sometime during the day remembering those who fought and fell, and those who returned from the campaigns in the Pacific.

Update! Wednesday May 18

I'd never thought of checking out Alan Sepinwall's TV Blog about the accuracy (or lack) of Episode Three involving "Stella". In his blog you'll find more confirmation that the Leckie-Stella romance was fiction.

Sorry romantics out there! It was a great storyline just the same.

But here's an angle I thought of as well. Stella was of Greek extraction, and the hospital volunteer was reading Homer's The Odyssey to Leckie in Episode 10. Probably a metaphor for his wartime battles and serpentine route to returning home.

Whaddya think?

Update! Sunday, May 23

More than a few readers have logged unto this blog inquiring "who played Bob Leckie's mother?" on The Pacific. Well, she's a familiar name, face and voice for fans of 1970's TV, of Stephen King movie adaptations, and a legend of the Broadway stage. Marion Leckie was played by Betty Buckley. Ms. Buckley played Abby Bradford, stepmother to the Bradford clan in the 1970's TV series Eight Is Enough. She first came on the scene in 1976 as the sympathetic teacher Miss Collins in the original screen version of Carrie, and has made numerous movie and TV appearances in the years since.

But Buckley's biggest success has come on the Broadway stage, including roles in 1776, Pippin, and Sunset Boulevard. Her greatest role, and the one she will always be remembered for, was Grizabella in Cats.


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