My wife read Robert Leckie's classic memoir of World War II, Helmet for my Pillow
, subtitled From Parris Island to the Pacific
, right after the Spielberg's miniseries The Pacific brought it to our attention. I hadn't had time to read it before I taught the World War II class, and used Eugene Sledge's memoir instead. (I think I'd still make that choice, but it's a tough call.) Now I've finally gotten to read this one, myself.
The term "classic" is appropriate here. Leckie was a journalist before and after the war, a machine-gunner and scout during the war, in the First Marines. He fought on Guadalcanal, on New Britain, and on Peleliu. He also got to rest and refit in Melbourne, which gets detailed treatment in this book, showing how that worked from the inside. Those of us who haven't lived through a desperate war with most of the men of a certain age shipping out, have no idea what that does to society.
Leckie is poetic, even lyrical, but also rather brutally real. He gives his fellow soldiers nicknames, and gives the officers mostly scathing ones. (He clearly hated the class distinction between officers and men, and especially notes the times when officers stole from him, and abused their position.) "Souvenirs", the Marine who carried a pair of pliers to remove gold and silver teeth from dead Japanese, is mentioned several times.
Some of his descriptions are likely to live for centuries. Seeing the night battle of Savo Island, not knowing what was happening; and finding that the Navy was gone the next day. Gone. Or the battle along the Tenaru.
Because of its literary elements, we would now call this Creative Nonfiction. I recommend it.