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Robert Leckie - The Pacific

Robert Leckie - The Pacific American History Biographies Famous Historical Events World War II Visual Arts

Born in Philadelphia - on the 18th of December, 1920 - Robert Leckie grew up in a family of eight children.  Together with his two brothers and five sisters, he (the youngest son) experienced both fun and fury during his days of youth (which were mostly spent in Rutherford, New Jersey). 

It was a home in which he was surrounded by girls:

Girls, girls, girls.  You walked into a room, and it was filled with girls.  You went to the bathroom and there was a girl in it.  You wanted to make a telephone call, and the instrument had a girl attached to it.  You tried to go to bed, and there was a girl in it - and though this may have been an intriguing shock in later years, as I grew up it only reminded me that the enemy had me completely surrounded.  (Leckie, Lord, What a Family! - page 99.)

Leckie escaped by reading books - a practice he maintained throughout his life (including during the war):

Only through the reading of books could the girls be escaped.  This was a hint that I had taken from Foddy [Leckie's father].  As Mother said, he always had his nose in a book, sitting in his leather chair with the cap jammed down on his head and his body swathed in his robe.  (Leckie, Lord, What a Family! - page 99.)

The day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Leckie left his boisterous family behind and joined the United States Marine Corps.  He saw action with the 1st Marines throughout the Pacific (as a machine gunner, among other things) and was hospitalized ten times.  Along the way, he earned his nickname:  "Lucky."

Leckie fought in the battles of Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester.  He describes some of the differences, between the two operations, in Helmet for My Pillow:

It was the jungle and the rain, too, that made New Britain[the island on which Cape Gloucester is located]so different from Guadalcanal.  I knew that it was going to be different the moment that I ran down the ramp of our L.C.I. and across a narrow black beach, scrambling up a small steep bank to burst from sunlight into the gloom of the jungle.  For, in that moment, the rains began to fall; and in that moment we began to hunt the foe.(Leckie, Helmet for My Pillow, pages 216-17.)

The Japanese were also hunting Marines, from the first moment the Americans stepped foot on Cape Gloucester.  One scout, from E Company, met a very difficult end:

To the north, one patrol discovered the body of an E Company scout who had been reported missing.  The area bore marks of a struggle, as though he had fought hand to hand.  His body bore dozens of bayonet wounds.  They had used him for bayonet practice.  In his mouth they had stuffed flesh they had cut from his arm.  His buddies said he had had a tattoo there - the Marine emblem, the fouled anchor and the globe.  The Japs cut it off and stuffed it in his mouth.(Leckie, Helmet for My Pillow, pages 217-18.)

Despite the constant rain and horrors of living and fighting on New Britain, Leckie and his fellow Marines defeated the Japanese there:

On the sunless shores of New Britain, where the rain forest crowded steeply down to the sea, we of the First Marine Division came back to the assault, and it was here that we cut the Japanese to pieces, literally, when that devouring jungle did not dissolve them; and it was here that we pitied them.

... We pitied them in the end, this fleeing foe, disorganized, demoralized, crawling on hands and knees, even, in that dissolving downpour, for in the end it was we - the soft, effete Americans - who had learned to get along in the jungle and who bore up best beneath the ordeal of the monsoon, and in these things lay our strength.  (Leckie, Helmet for My Pillow, page 216.)

Leckie also fought at Peleliu, one of the most vicious battles of the Pacific war, during which he was injured.  Sent to deliver a message to the Command Post, Leckie was returning to his former position (at a shell crater) when he found himself in the middle of a nightmare:

I took firm hold of my Tommy gun and adjusted my pack, secured my map case, and circled the pile of shell casings to return to the shell crater ... About a hundred yards out, a shell exploded in front of me.

I veered to the right.

Another shell exploded in front of me.

I veered more.

Another shell.  Another.  But closer.  Four more.  Another, closer still.  I halted.  A horrifying fact became clear.  I had inserted myself between the enemy artillery and their target [an ammo dump]

...There was no cover.  To go forward was to die.  I could only run away from this approaching death, hoping to get out of the target area before it caught me.

I turned and ran.

...A shell landed alongside me, perhaps five feet away, but it did not explode, or at least I do not think it did.  One cannot be certain at such times:  there is a different space and time with fear. 

...With that, I called upon my remaining strength, and also then, the Japanese gunner hit his target.  The ammunition dump was hit.  (Leckie, Helmet for My Pillow, pages 295-96.)

Leckie was injuried by the concussion blast.


During August of 1945, recovering from war injuries in a West Virginia hospital, Leckie learned that Hiroshima had been bombed:

Suddenly, secretly, covertly - I rejoiced.  For as I lay in that hospital, I had faced the bleak prospect of returning to the Pacific and the war and the law of averages.  But now, I knew, the Japanese would have to lay down their arms.  The war was over.  I had survived.  (Leckie, Helmet for My Pillow, page 303.)

After the war, Leckie married Vera Keller (his childhood next-door-neighbor who is still alive), and they had three children:  David, Geoff and Joan.  A writer before the war, Leckie continued in that field for the rest of his career.

Initially working for the Associated Press in Buffalo, and the Star Ledger in Newark, he soon became a freelance writer.  That change happened after he and Vera attended a Broadway production of "South Pacific." 

Leckie walked out in the middle of the performance.  Vera tells us why:

I’ll never forget: We were outside the theater and he said, "I have to tell the story of how it really was. I have to let people know the war wasn’t a musical."

Leckie also wrote narratives for documentary films and edited MGM's theater reel during the days before television.  We learn more about this part of his life in the "About the Author" section of his book - Lord, What a Family! - which was published in 1958:

Formerly the editor of MGM's theater reel, News of the Day, Mr. Leckie...has also written documentary films and been editor of The Telenews Weekly.

By the time he died of Alzheimer's - at age 81, in 2001 - Leckie had written forty books.  Most were about military history, some were about family and sports.  He even "ghost-wrote pulp fiction aimed at teens."

He also wrote a poem about the Battle of the Tenaru.  It is included in the most recent edition of Helmet for My Pillow.

In the epilogue of that book, Leckie talks about the suffering of those who fought in the Pacific:

A woman made heavy with the girth of affluence said to me:  "What did you get out of it?  What were you fighting for?"  I thought to reply, "Your privilege to buy black-market meat," but I did not, for flippancy would only anger her and insult my comrades.  Nor did I answer, "To preserve the status quo - to defend what I now have," for this would have pandered to her materialism, which is always a lie.  Most of all I could not tell the truth:  "To destroy the Nazi beast, to restrain imperialist Japan," for this she would not have understood.  This we had done, and done it without a song to sing, with no deep sense of dedication.

But I could not answer the first question, for I did not know what I had  gotten out of it, or even that I was supposed to profit.

Now I know.  For myself, a memory and the strength of ordeal sustained; for my son, a priceless heritage; for my country, sacrifice.

...But sacrifice says:  "Not the blood of your brother, my friend - your blood."

That is why women weep when their men go off to war.  They do not weep for their victims, they weep for them as Victim. . .

That is why there are no glorious living, but only glorious dead.  Heroes turn traitor, warriors age and grow soft - but a victim is changeless, sacrifice is eternal.  (Helmet for My Pillow, pages 303-305).

While he was alive, and working, Bob maintained his zest for life:

Mr. Leckie reads books on history and philosophy, drinks beer for relaxation, and debates for exercise.  (Lord What a Family! - About the Author.)

His famous book, Helmet for My Pillow, began its life as a novel - until one of his young children found the manuscript:

Helmet for My Pillow was originally written as a novel, but part of the manuscript was accidentally destroyed by a child. 

With the disappearance of the novel's first twenty pages, vanished all desire to finish it.  Seven years later Leckie started his book again, not as a novel this time, but as his personal narrative of World War II.  Helmet for My Pillow received the Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Annual Award for 1957. (From "About the Author" - Lord, What a Family!)

 

See, also:

Video:  Robert Leckie Historical Footage and Interview

Image:   Vera Keller Leckie

Video:  Biography of John Basilone

Video:  Eugene ("Sledgehammer") Sledge Historical Footage

Video:  5-Part Video Biography of Eugene ("Sledgehammer") Sledge

Image:   Merriell Snafu Shelton

Video:   John Basilone Talks to the Press

Video:   Death of John Basilone

Video:   Sidney (Sid) Phillips Historical Footage

Video:   Guadalcanal - Battle of the Tenaru (Ilu River)

Video:   Guadalcanal - Battle at Edson's Ridge Begins (move clip to 8:38)

Video:   Guadalcanal - Battle at Edson's ("Bloody") Ridge

Video:   Guadalcanal - John Basilone at Edson's ("Bloody") Ridge

Video:   Battle of Cape Gloucester - Wounded Marines

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Media Credits

Image online, courtesy U.S. National Archives, Department of Defense.

Quoted passages from Leckie's books, Helmet for My Pillow and Lord, What a Family!

Other quoted passages from a February 21, 2010 Star Ledger article: "HBO series illuminates N.J. Marine's book on World War II experience," by Mark DiIonno.

 

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