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.
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April 01, 2001
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Excerpt from Helmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie
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.