Wednesday, June 2, 2010

HELMET FOR MY PILLOW; Robert Leckie's World War II Masterpiece

To all fans of HBO's The Pacific, do yourself a favor; get ye to a bookstore (or an online bookseller) and buy a copy of Robert Leckie's magnificent memoir Helmet For My Pillow. You will not regret it.

Leckie, who after World War II became a writer for the Associated Press, the Buffalo Courier- Express, the New York-Journal-American, the New York Daily News, and the Star-Ledger was a master of the English language, and a storyteller in an almost mythic sense. Tom Hanks referred to "Helmet" as a piece of prose that reads like an epic poem; and I cannot disagree. Imagine a memoir of the war in the Pacific as told by Joseph Campbell, and you'd get the the gist how this book reads. If you're looking for a scholarly history of the war, with names and dates, this is not your book. But if you want a verbal slideshow of war from the typewriter of a true wordsmith who painted abstract pictures of the surreal world he was thrust into at Guadalcanal, New Britain, and Peleliu, and on Parris Island, and in Melbourne, Pavavu, and of subsisting on bread and water in the brig, then make this memoir a gift to yourself.

Leckie doesn't use real names in his narrative, all names are nicknames or in some cases are descriptive of a characteristic of the individual. We have Lt. Commando, Loudmouth, Chicken,  The Artist, Liberal, and Souvenirs (he had a dentist's light and tooth extractors for yanking the gold out of dead Japanese soldiers mouths). And his buddies Runner, Chuckler, and Hoosier (respectively Wilbur "Bud" Conley, Lew Juergens,  and Bill Smith)  are a large part of the story, Staying with Leckie from the battle of the Tenaru River on Guadalcanal until all four were wounded and shipped out from Peleliu, we get a sense of the friendship that kept them going in the worst of times, and of the "not giving giving a damn" days and nights when they could break away from the war and let loose in Melbourne.

Some scenes from The Pacific involving Leckie were obviously the work of the series' writers; for example, the conversation Leckie had with Eugene Sledge on Pavuvu might not have happened - there is no indication that such a a talk took place in "Helmet". But then again, it could have; they were on Pavuvu at the same time awaiting the assault on Peleliu.. But most of the events that occurred in battle involving Leckie occurred as portrayed in the series, and are dealt with in greater depth in Leckie's book.

A drunk Leckie did relieve Chuckler while Chuckler had guard duty so he could go to the head, and Leckie did point his gun at "Lt Ivy League" (really Lt. Hugh Corrigan). It earned Leckie five days in the brig on bread and water. The treatment of military prisoners then and now are a stark contrast; smoking was forbidden in the bread and water cell, and in one instance the floor of the cell was hosed down so the prisoners would have to sleep on a wet floor.

And during an AWOL night on the town Leckie and his guys were pursued by MP's brandishing their M1 rifles; one man was shot in the leg trying to escape. Imagine a military policeman discharging his weapon in a residential area of a foreign ally in the present day! There would be a congressional investigation tomorrow.

Of course, Leckie depicted the horror of war, with all of its bloody revulsion, but he wrote of even the most horrific scenes in such an elegant manner  it was like poetry. Below, a passage from page 286 describing the Battle of Peleliu.  Leckie was in a crater, getting reading to get out and advance.

"I turned to go, and as I did, nearly stepped on someone's hand. 'Excuse me', I began to say, but then I saw it was an unattached hand, or rather a detached one. It lay there alone- open, palm upwards, clean, capable, solitary. I could not tear my eyes from it.The hand is the artisan of the soul. It is the second member of the human trinity of head and hand and heart. A man has no faculty more human than his hand, none more beautiful nor expressive or productive. To see this hand lying alone, as though contemptuously cast aside, no longer part of a man, no longer his help, was to see war in all of its wantonness; it was to see the especially brutal savagery of our own technique of rending, and it was to see men at their eternal worst, turning upon one another, tearing one another, clawing at their own innards with the maniacal  fury of the pride-possessed."   

Bob Leckie mentioned warriors of the Greek classics in "Helmet". He talks of Achilles, Hector, and Agamemnon, all figures in The Iliad and The Odyssey, and of the Roman god of war, Mars. He titles the fourth chapter of "Helmet" as Lotus-Eater- it details his adventures in Melbourne. In Greek mythology Lotus-Eaters lived on an island near North Africa where they ate the narcotic plant; it was a land where Odysseus visited with his crew, who did not want to return to their ships to leave for Ithaca.

And in The Pacific, it is where Bob Leckie met the beautiful Greek Australian Stella. But the real Bob Leckie had no Stella; Stella was an homage to the classical Greek references found in "Helmet". In the series, Stella's mother left her Greek city in Anatolia (Asiatic Turkey) with little more than the clothes on her back, much like the refugees from Troy after it was destroyed by the Greeks. In The Aeniad, the refugees from Troy went on to found Rome (according to Virgil). Stella and her family followed a similar path, with Bob Leckie on his own own version of The Odyssey.

Bob did have a few brief romances in "Helmet"; he refers to one woman as "Molly", another as "Sheilah". Also, he met a woman early on he called "Gwen", and another only called "the drink waitress" with whom may have had a fling.

But Stella...she was fiction, but a nod to the classical references in Leckie's memoir.

The book for first published in 1957, and was said to been prompted when Leckie and his wife saw South Pacific. Bob Leckie wanted to tell the world that what went on in that theater of the war was not a Broadway musical.

And he succeeded in doing so, very well indeed.


Anonymous said...

That was a great article. I'm a big reader of history. I read Eugene Sledge's book and thought that was great. I didn't see Pacific but I knew about Helmet for my Pillow so I read it and couldn't get over how well Leckie wrote. I wanted more and told myself I would read all of his books. I've read 6 so far which doesn't sound like much but trust me it is a lot of reading!I am very interested in reading and studying more about Leckie and would appreciate any insight that people have. I especially would like to know if his papers are held anywhere like maybe the Rutherford NJ Library?

John Schudar said...

I'm going to buy this book. It sounds like a must have.. sad that there is no Stella tho.

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