Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific

Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific

3.9 234
by Robert Leckie

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Here is one of the most riveting first-person accounts ever to come out of World War II. Robert Leckie enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in January 1942, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In Helmet for My Pillow we follow his odyssey, from basic training on Parris Island, South Carolina, all the way to the raging battles in the Pacific


Here is one of the most riveting first-person accounts ever to come out of World War II. Robert Leckie enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in January 1942, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In Helmet for My Pillow we follow his odyssey, from basic training on Parris Island, South Carolina, all the way to the raging battles in the Pacific, where some of the war’s fiercest fighting took place. Recounting his service with the 1st Marine Division and the brutal action on Guadalcanal, New Britain, and Peleliu, Leckie spares no detail of the horrors and sacrifices of war, painting an unvarnished portrait of how real warriors are made, fight, and often die in the defense of their country. 

    From the live-for-today rowdiness of marines on leave to the terrors of jungle warfare against an enemy determined to fight to the last man, Leckie describes what war is really like when victory can only be measured inch by bloody inch. Woven throughout are Leckie’s hard-won, eloquent, and thoroughly unsentimental meditations on the meaning of war and why we fight. Unparalleled in its immediacy and accuracy, Helmet for My Pillow will leave no reader untouched. This is a book that brings you as close to the mud, the blood, and the experience of war as it is safe to come.

Now producers Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, and Gary Goetzman, the men behind Band of Brothers, have adapted material from Helmet for My Pillow for HBO’s epic miniseries The Pacific, which will thrill and edify a whole new generation.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Los Angeles Times
Even Professor Jame McPherson's matchless Battle Cry of Freedom is challenged by the narrative excellence of None Died in Vain.
New York Times Book Review
A powerful book that pulls no punches.
From the Publisher
"Helmet for My Pillow is a grand and epic prose poem. Robert Leckie's theme is the purely human experience of war in the Pacific, written in the graceful imagery of a human being who—somehow—survived." —Tom Hanks

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Random House Publishing Group
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Chapter One


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.

“Thrip-faw-ya-leahft, thrip-faw-ya-leahft.”

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.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

What People are saying about this

Leon Uris
One hell of a book! The real stuff that proves the U.S. Marines are the greatest fighting men on earth!
—(Leon Uris, author of Battle Cry)
From the Publisher
"Helmet for My Pillow is a grand and epic prose poem. Robert Leckie's theme is the purely human experience of war in the Pacific, written in the graceful imagery of a human being who—-somehow—-survived." —-Tom Hanks

Meet the Author

Robert Leckie was the author of more than thirty works of military history as well as Marines, a collection of short stories, and Lord, What a Family!, a memoir. Raised in Rutherford, New Jersey, he started writing professionally at age sixteen, covering sports for The Bergen Evening Record of Hackensack. He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps on the day following the attack on Pearl Harbor, going on to serve as a machine gunner and as an intelligence scout and participating in all 1st Marine Division campaigns except  Okinawa.  Leckie was awarded five battle stars, the Naval Commendation Medal with Combat V, and the Purple Heart.  Helmet for My Pillow (Random House, 1957) was his first book; it received the Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Association award upon publication.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Helmet for My Pillow 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 233 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
civiwarlibrarian More than 1 year ago
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
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
atomsplitter More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
robertofantioch More than 1 year ago
You can definitely tell that Leckie was a writer.  Well put together and engaging.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found the writing so awkward that I had difficulty becoming absorbed in the story
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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...)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
MacSkinny More than 1 year ago
True to life and historically correct. A true reminder for us to give thanks to all the veterans of "The Greatest Generation" !! They made it possible for us to live today the way we do. I grew up hearing many similar tales. Thank you Robert Leckie (USMC). I am proud to have served in your Marine Corps.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sticks an large toy in ur Azz and penetrates you again while slapping ur big bouncy tiats
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book that gives a real true acoynt of island hopping
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.