If you are looking for the searing and adrenaline coursing book that lays out the blood and gore of the battle for the Pacific in the Second World War, then Robert Leckie’s “Helmet For My Pillow” is not your book. However if you are looking out for a first person narrative about the squeamishness, tragedy and futility underlying any armed conflict between nation states, then you need not go beyond the confines of this book. Written in prose poetical fashion, Private Robert Leckie of the famed First Marines dwell into the human and emotional aspects that grips the soldier when he slings a gun onto his shoulder and strides ahead knowing fully well that the next battle which he finds himself in might very well be the last of his life.
While the Allied Forces were trying to open up a second front in the war against Hitler’s fanatics and the Russians amassing the largest land troops ever in their march towards Berlin, the American Marines were engaged in a bloody no holds barred struggle against their Japanese adversaries in the Pacific. The savage battles of Guadalcanal and Pelului resulted in enormous casualties as men fell by the dozen in a sacrifice of the highest order and nobility. Leckie attached to the First Division of the Marines found himself right in the middle of a malevolent maelstrom of hate, vengeance and salvation. Even while trying to stay alive on a daily basis, Leckie managed to strike some amazing bonds of friendship and also to indulge in some hilarious escapades. Hairsplitting moments in combat are forgotten when friends let their hairs down for fleeting moments of childish impudent fun. Stealthily creeping under barbed wires to steal an extra portion of rations; drinking down a pub while on temporary relief from battle in a stopover at Melbourne and having a romp with women all form part of an ephemeral episode of respite for the battle weary, emotionally drained soldiers.
Leckie also brings out disquieting instances of hierarchy usurping the righteous. Majors pulling ranks confiscate possessions of enlisted men and get them locked in confinement on the flimsiest of excuses. Even when a band of warriors are fighting together as a cohesive unit, the band of brothers act in a manner derisory and revolting putting self interest over social well being.
Even though not as gripping as the narratives of the Eastern Front as published by historians such as Antony Beevor and Professor Richard Overy, “Helmet For My Pillow” is unique for its first hand autobiographical expression of an enlisted soldier who went through hell before coming back.