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A cutting wind slanted up Church Street in the cheerless dawn of January 5, 1942. That day I departed for the United States Marines.
The war with Japan was not yet four weeks old, Wake Island had fallen. Pearl Harbor was a real tragedy, a burning bitter humiliation. Hastily composed war songs were on the lips of everyone, their heavy patriotism failing to compensate for what they lacked in tune and spirit. Hysteria seemed to crouch behind all eyes.
But none of this meant much to me. I was aware of my father beside me, bending into the wind with me. I could feel the wound in my lower regions, still fresh, still sore. The sutures had been removed a few days earlier.
I had sought to enlist the day after Pearl Harbor, but the Marines had insisted that I be circumcised. It cost me a hundred dollars, although I am not sure to this day whether I paid the doctor or not. But I am certain that few young men went off to war in that fateful time so marked.
We had come across the Jersey meadows, riding the Erie commuter line, and then on the ferry over the Hudson River to downtown New York. Breakfast at home had been subdued. My mother was up and about; she did not cry. It was not a heart-rending leave-taking, nor was it brave, resolute—any of those words that fail to describe the thing.
It was like so much else in this war that was to produce unbounded heroism, yet not a single stirring song: it was resigned. She followed me to the door with sad eyes and said, “God keep you.”
It had been a silent trip across the meadows and it was a wordless good-by in front of the bronze revolving doors at Ninety, Church Street. My father embraced me quickly, and just as quickly averted his face and left. The Irish doorman measured me and smiled.
I went inside and joined the United States Marines.
The captain who swore us in reduced the ceremony to a jumble. We all held up our hands. We put them down when he lowered his. That way we guessed we were marines.
The master gunnery sergeant who became our momentary shepherd made the fact plainer to us. Those rich mellow blasphemous oaths that were to become so familiar to me flowed from his lips with the consummate ease of one who had spent a lifetime in vituperation. I would meet his masters later. Presently, as he herded us across the river to Hoboken and a waiting train, he seemed to be beyond comparison. But he was gentle and kind enough when he said good-by to the thirty or forty of us who boarded the train.
He stood at the head of our railroad car—a man of middle age, slender, and of a grace that was on the verge of being ruined by a pot belly. He wore the Marine dress blues. Over this was the regulation tight-fitting overcoat of forest green. Green and blue has always seemed to me an odd combination of colors, and it seemed especially so then; the gaudy dark and light blue of the Marine dress sheathed in sedate and soothing green.
“Where you are going it will not be easy,” the gunnery sergeant said. “When you get to Parris Island, you’ll find things plenty different from civilian life. You won’t like it! You’ll think they’re overdoing things. You’ll think they’re stupid! You’ll think they’re the cruelest, rottenest bunch of men you ever ran into! I’m going to tell you one thing. You’ll be wrong! If you want to save yourself plenty of heartache you’ll listen to me right now: you’ll do everything they tell you and you’ll keep your big mouths shut!”
He could not help grinning at the end. No group of men ever had a saner counselor, and he knew it; but he could not help grinning. He knew we would ignore his every word.
“Okay, Sarge,” somebody yelled. “Thanks, Sarge.”
He turned and left us.
We called him “Sarge.” Within another twenty-four hours we would not dare address a lowly Pfc. without the cringing “sir.” But today the civilian shine was still upon us. We wore civvies; Hoboken howled around us in the throes of trade; we each had the citizen’s polite deprecation of the soldier, and who among us was not certain that he was not long for the ranks?
Our ride to Washington was silent and uneventful. But once we had arrived in the capital and had changed trains the atmosphere seemed to lift. Other Marine recruits were arriving from all over the east. Our contingent was the last to arrive, the last to be crammed aboard the ancient wooden train that waited, puffing, dirty-in-the-dark, smelling of coal—waited to take us down the coast to South Carolina. Perhaps it was because of the dilapidated old train that we brightened and became gay. Such a dingy, tired old relic could not help but provoke mirth. Someone pretended to have found a brass plate beneath one of the seats, and our car rocked with laughter as he read, “This car is the property of the Philadelphia Museum of American History.” We had light from kerosene lamps and heat from a potbellied stove. Draughts seemed to stream from every angle and there was a constant creaking and wailing of wood and wheels that sounded like an endless keening. Strange old train that it was, I loved it.
Comfort had been left behind in Washington. Some of us already were beginning to revel in the hardship of the train ride. That intangible mystique of the marine was somehow, even then, at work. We were having it rough, which is exactly what we expected and what we had signed up for. That is the thing: having it rough. The man who has had it roughest is the man to be most admired. Conversely, he who has had it the easiest is the least praiseworthy.
Those who wished to sleep could cat-nap on the floor while the train lurched down through Virginia and North Carolina. But these were few. The singing and the talk were too exciting.
The boy sitting next to me—a handsome blond-haired youth from south Jersey—turned out to have a fine high voice. He sang several songs alone. There being a liberal leavening of New York Irish among us, he was soon singing Irish ballads.
Across the aisle there was another boy, whom I shall call Armadillo because of his lean and pointed face. He was from New York and had attended college there. Being one of the few college men present, he had already established a sort of literary clique.
The Armadillo’s coterie could not equal another circle farther down the car. This had at its center a stocky, smiling redhead. Red had been a catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals and had once hit a home run at the Polo Grounds off the great Carl Hubbell.
There was no measuring the impact of such a celebrity on our group, composed otherwise of mediocrities like myself. Red had been in the big time. He had held daily converse with men who were nothing less than the idols of his newfound comrades. It was quite natural they should ring him round; consult him on everything from pitching form to the Japanese General Staff.
“Whaddya think it’ll be like at Parris Island, Red?”
“Hey, Red—you think the Japs are as tough as the newspapers say they are?”
It is an American weakness. The success becomes the sage. Scientists counsel on civil liberty; comedians and actresses lead political rallies; athletes tell us what brand of cigarette to smoke. But the redhead was equal to it. It was plain in his case what travel and headlines can do. He was easily the most poised of us all.
But I suspect even Red’s savoir-faire got a rude jolt when we arrived in Parris Island. We had been taken from the railroad station by truck. When we had dismounted and had formed a motley rank in front of the red brick mess hall, we were subjected to the classic greeting.
“Boys,” said the sergeant who would be our drill instructor. “Boys—Ah want to tell yawl something. Give youah hearts to Jesus, boys—cause youah ass belongs to me!”
Then he fell us in after our clumsy civilian fashion and marched us into the mess hall.
There were baloney and lima beans. I had never eaten lima beans before, but I did this time; they were cold.
The group that had made the trip from New York did not survive the first day in Parris Island. I never saw the blond singer again, nor most of the others. Somehow sixty of us among the hundreds who had been aboard that ancient train, became a training platoon, were assigned a number and placed under the charge of the drill sergeant who had delivered the welcoming address.
Sergeant Bellow was a southerner with a fine contempt for northerners. It was not that he favored the southerners; he merely treated them less sarcastically. He was big. I would say six feet four inches, two hundred thirty pounds.
But above all he had a voice.
It pulsed with power as he counted the cadence, marching us from the administration building to the quartermaster’s. It whipped us, this ragged remnant, and stiffened our slouching civilian backs. Nowhere else but in the Marine Corps do you hear that peculiar lilting cadence of command.
It sounds like an incantation; but it is merely the traditional “three-four-your-left” elongated by the southern drawl, made sprightly by being sung. I never heard it done better than by our sergeant. Because of this, and because of his inordinate love of drill, I have but one image of him: striding stiff-backed a few feet apart from us, arms thrust out, hands clenched, head canted back, with the whole body following and the great voice ceaselessly bellowing, “Thrip-faw-ya-leahft, thrip-faw-ya-leahft.”
Sergeant Bellow marched us to the quartermaster’s. It was there we were stripped of all vestiges of personality. It is the quartermasters who make soldiers, sailors and marines. In their presence, one strips down. With each divestment, a trait is lost; the discard of a garment marks the quiet death of an idiosyncrasy. I take off my socks; gone is a propensity for stripes, or clocks, or checks, or even solids; ended is a tendency to combine purple socks with brown tie. My socks henceforth will be tan. They will neither be soiled, nor rolled, nor gaudy, nor restrained, nor holey. They will be tan. The only other thing they may be is clean.
So it is with it all, until one stands naked, struggling with an embarrassment that is entirely lost on the laconic shades who work in quartermaster sheds.
Within—in the depths the psychiatrists call subliminal—a human spark still sputters. It will never go quite out. Its vigor or its desuetude is in exact proportion to the number of miles a man may put between himself and his camp.
Veterans of combat are affected in different ways by their experiences in war: Some are traumatized for life by the ordeal, and try their best to forget all of it; others re-up/volunteer to go back to the fighting if they are physically able. Bob Leckie became an avid military historian, examining wars from Desert Storm back to the French & Indian War. A burgeoning journalist before enlisting, Leckie knew how to tell a story. I found him just about as objective as a writer can be, considering that he himself is a part of the story.
Many will probably watch HBO's miniseries, the Pacific (partly based on this book), without reading Leckie's memoir. They owe it to themselves to read the source material. Many things are (out of necessity) condensed, changed or omitted when adapting to the screen. For instance, during the R&R in Australia, Leckie caroused with a few different women, who the film makers had to amalgamate for the camera.
The Pacific War was a battle not just against the Japanese, but against jungle rot; tropical diseases; horrendous weather; dehydration; and insanity. The biggest differences between Vietnam and the island-hopping campaign during WWII were 1) Commanders in the field, right up to MacArthur, were allowed to pursue victory and 2) The fighting men who returned home after WWII were appreciated by a grateful nation. The horrors endured by both generations was comparable.
Nonetheless, there are also lighthearted moments, humorous moments, tedious segments...all in all, representative of the wartime military experience.
18 out of 18 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 21, 2011
This book is a great read. I gave it 4 stars because Leckie is a writer by trade, so the book feels a little more polished than if it were just written by an ordinary soldier with a story to tell. Still a very good read you will not regret.
6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 18, 2010
For those of you how don't believe me, one of Robert Leckie's sons teaches Social Studies goes to my middle school in Chester, New Jersey. I have read this book, and it is one of the greatest pieces of literature I have ever read, and even though I am only in 7th grade, I have read my fair share of books. I highly recomend this book to anyone.
4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 26, 2010
This was a terrific read for anyone interested in what our servicemen go through to give us our freedom. A great read,if you have any interest in history and WWII.
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Posted November 21, 2010
"Helmet for my Pillow" by Robert Leckie combines all of Leckie's past war expriences from World War II. The book had all of Lecki's squad members and the tales in which they when island hopping after the Japanes attacked Pearl Harbor. The squad started on Parris Island and went to Okinawa and continues to make their wa to the west in the Pacific Islands.Leckie is one of the only few remaining members of his squad left after the war ended. The book was overall a well tuned experience and would be reccommended to most anyone.
It seemed like the book was a cliche war story about World War II and did not have much of a difference than any other person's experience in fighting the war. Most people go through the same feelings, like the war would never end and the fear of dying in battle. Although there was aa few negetive feelings towards the book, the positives, such as the actions parts while the squad was island hopping, or maybe a close friend being injured which takes the reader on an emotional spiral of; somber, adrenaline, fear, and many other emotions. Overall, the positives out weigh the negetinves. One of the major negetive influences of the book is the long chapters when the squad is sitting around at night talking about their life back home and their feeling towards the war.
Some of the themes that play a major role in the book which effects the characters the most would be: strength through hardship, personal desire to find a way through the war, and the unity of a single squad to help each other out in times of pain and suffering. The protagonist continually had to stay strong through the battles the sqaud encountered. Each individual of the book had to strive to find some way to keep fighting. All the members of the team help one another to find peace and content when facing an emotional challenge.
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Posted July 1, 2011
World War Two Classic: A Helmet For My Pillow, A Helmet For My Heart
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
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Posted June 23, 2011
I was inspired to read this book after watching the Pacific miniseries. The thing that is lacking in Leckie's book is the details of the battles. This was not a problem with E.B. Sledge's book, With The Old Breed, which I found to be superior to Leckie's book. With Sledge's book you could feel the horrors of being on the front lines in battle whereas this book seems to skim the surface. I do recommend this book but not as wholeheartedly as two other books that I have read dealing with the Pacific war, With The Old Breed and Unbroken.
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Posted May 8, 2013
Entertaining, but leaves out too much of the graphic details. "With the Old Breed" is a better read for anyone who enjoys World War II literature.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 6, 2012
Posted November 6, 2012
Wow, a great surprise! I was attracted to the book due to its tie to The Pacific series, and I guess I expected a more amateurish recounting. Not at all - this man was a very good writer. Compelling battle scenes and insightful prose! I regret it took me so long to discover it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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Posted November 24, 2011
I read this after I read "With the Old Breed" as I understand that these two books were the basis for the movie "The Pacific". This book wasn't really what I expected. While the other books in this genre dealt mainly with the battles this book tended to focus more on the general life of this marine (and more specifically how much trouble he got into). It was interesting but in many ways I felt like I was reading a sports columnist. (Which I believe Leckie actually was for a time...)Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 6, 2011
I am one who really likes reading war books written in the first person. I believe Leckie's account of the war in the Pacific is something everyone should read and appreciate.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 7, 2011
Horrible dissappointment for an avid WWII historian. Immature storyline includes fraternity-like partying on shore with drunkenness and beyond. Nothing more than a soap opera style of writing that blemishes the heroic behavior of thousands of brave men. Don't waste your money!
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Posted September 14, 2011
This one will make your gutts roll. A great first hand account of death and victory during World War II. Once begun you won't want to set it down. Such brave men, such Valor. Semper Fi.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 28, 2011
Great book by Robert Leckie. Gave great insight into what the soldiers felt and thought during the war in addition to all they struggled through. Very easy to read and Leckie clearly is a gifted hero.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.