Robert Leckie, nicknamed ‘Lucky’, fought with the US 1st Marine division as a machine gunner and scout in the pacific theatre of operations in World War 2. Leckie fought at Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester and finally at Peleliu where he was wounded and taken back to the states for treatment. Many years after the war Leckie wrote his wartime memoir in his book ‘Helmet for my pillow’, describing his experiences fighting with the marines.
Leckie’s memoir is truly original. The style of writing is almost reminiscent of a novel rather than a veteran’s recollection of their wartime experiences. It is incredibly descriptive, going into some of the most specific details that can sometimes seem unimportant to the situation at hand. This does lead to some frustration especially when there is an engagement with the enemy. These are supposed to be fast paced and exciting sections for the reader, Leckie certainly captures this, but the book does at times divert away from this which can cause the reader to lose track of the larger picture. Sadly, it can cause difficulties in following the storyline while one is frequently backtracking, reading over previous paragraphs to understand where you are in the narrative.
Leckie was a sports writer before the war and during the war he was even able to gather enough books to make himself a small library, loaning out books to other marines, so he must have been interested and well educated in literature. This may be the reason why his writing style is so sophisticated. At times one can get lost in his vast vocabulary of descriptive words and his seemingly endless list of metaphors. It seems more as though a philosopher had written this book and looked at great depths into the not so obvious aspects of war, which certainly gives a unique insight.
One final area that brings the book down is the lack of a larger historical explanation. This was certainly not written for anyone who is unfamiliar with the pacific theatre of operations, it would be nice for at least a brief history to the events that Leckie experienced, but nothing of the sort is given so further reading is required to understand the larger history surrounding events.
Although the style of writing can be difficult at first to grasp, when one becomes used to the way in which it is written, the book then becomes a very enjoyable read. No one can fault Leckie’s honesty as the reader is taken through the gruelling psychological stress of not only fighting the Japanese soldiers, but also fighting the elements of the jungle. He gives an insight that all soldiers must have felt and how the psychological battle can be as severe as the physical one. For the marines, it was as much a battle to survive in the harsh conditions as it was to survive a Japanese attack and Leckie captures the experience of both perfectly. Another refreshing aspect is how he continuous his story throughout his time in Melbourne, where the marines went on leave after the Guadalcanal campaign. It reminds the reader that even in wartime, there can still be some joyful memories for the veterans.
So all in all its a good read, but not for someone who is just starting to get into military history. Personally for a soldiers account of their experience, I prefer one that’s written in plain English and that has a simple narrative which allows you to follow the story with ease.
For these reasons I would give it a 6/10
Written by Jonny Morris.