Book Review: Helmet for my Pillow by Robert Leckie

When I was in the hospital earlier this year for back surgery I had nothing better to do for three days than lay in my bed so I had my wife bring my laptop and the DVD’s for The Pacific and Band of Brothers. After watching the series I decided to order Leckie’s book and rad it to see how faithful to his memoirs they kept his part of the story. I had read E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa when I was in high school and so just pulled it off the bookshelf and reread it. Helmet for my Pillow is somewhat like With the Old Breed in that both are vaguely anti-war memoirs that while they seem to accurately recount the experience of WWII tend to put a slant on it. This slant is different than that portrayed in Band of Brothers, which comes off as more heroic and idealistic.
The Pacific portrays WWII in the Pacific Theater as a bloody, grinding affair that wears on both the body and soul with no redeeming qualities except for cheap liquor and cheap women in Australia. There is no doubt that this is true as the fact of this is attested to by more people than just Robert Leckie. The miniseries is an accurate portrayal of Leckie’s book, which takes an ironic view of the war and life in general. Leckie’s tone throughout seems to be the cynical “lets feast and be merry for on the morrow we die”. He presents it almost as a wonder that he did in fact, survive the war. The realistic, cynical, and jaded style he writes in is both engaging and draws the reader on to see what the next step in his wartime life is going to be. The best thing about the book is the no holds barred, except for refusing to print cursewords, way of writing and his descriptions of both his training and time in combat. He also captures the way in which most of war is not fighting, but rather boredom. He does not come out and say it but the undertone is there that the truth about war is the oft quoted cliche ad out being stone bored 95% of the time punctuated by moments of extreme, existential terror. That feeling comes across in the book.
I enjoyed reading the book and came away glad that he survived to write it, and write so well that he conveyed some of the reality of his experience. I recommend this book for anyone interested in WWII, both historians and non-historians.