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This is a review of two books, “With the Old Breed” and “Helmet for My Pillow.” HBO based its miniseries “The Pacific,” on these books, and Audible Studios and Playtone recently made new recordings of both books. If, like me, you were interested in both, hopefully this will help sort out how they stack up. In short, both are worth the listen, but if you only wish to get one, go with “With the old Breed.”
“With the Old Breed” is the war diary of E.B. Sledge (a.k.a. “Sledgehammer”). Although not an author by trade Sledge is obviously very intelligent and well-spoken. He writes like he was telling the story to his family, which is, in fact, apparently why Sledge wrote the book in the first place. Sledge describes his experiences at the battles of Peleliu and Okinawa, but also describes his training prior to the battles. The scenes are graphic and disturbing at times, but no doubt accurate.
It’s been said before that Sledge’s book is required reading for anyone thinking of joining the Marines, and I think this must be correct. For officers, Sledge’s account as a private depicts and describes the traits of the “good” officers verses the, let’s call them, “not so good” officers. It’s a veritable “how to” earn and command the respect and admiration of your men, which may be useful for any person in a leadership position to know. For the enlisted men, the book is a very real account of the inglorious nature of war. Wars are not fought to win honors, and no-one should join up in search of glory and fame. As Sledge says, often, it’s a “waste.”
As for the narration, Mazzello is a good actor, but a little slow. I’d recommend listening at 1.25% speed at least, or else it just drags on.
“Helmet for my Pillow” is Robert Leckie’s account of his experiences in the war. Leckie fought at Guadalcanal, New Britain, and Peleliu, but also writes considerably about his “debauchery” in Australia between the battles. His prose (and even his poetry) are quite well-written, and you get a good sense of what life must have been like in the Pacific when the fighting was not going on.
The book is also well narrated. Dale tells the story with good pacing, tone, and vocal color throughout. (By the way, Tom Hanks phones in his introductions for both books, which is disappointing).
In comparison, although there are many similarities to the realities of war, the books are very different. Leckie’s book is much better written than Sledge’s, but perhaps not as engaging from a story-telling perspective. Also, these two Marines could not be more different in character. Sledge is a boy-scout, whereas Leckie is a rogue, spending it seems more time in the brig, than in battle. This is not likely a fair comparison, given the horrific things both privates had to put up with, but Leckie comes off as less sympathetic than Sledge.
Overall, if you choose only one of these two books, I recommend “With the Old Breed,” but really I’d recommend both books to anyone, even those not interested in history. These are not stale accounts of dates and locations and troop numbers. These are firsthand accounts of the horrors of war, which is something later generations (such as my own) luckily have not experienced to this extreme. The people Sledge and Leckie describe are real people, not just characters. When they died, or were injured, or went crazy, these things really happened, which is, I think, something worth remembering.
Read the book(s), and thank a veteran when you see one.
29 of 29 people found this review helpful
What did you love best about Helmet for My Pillow?
It's a great story and the narration was super, the only complaint would be that Leckie is a bit too flowery with his language, but that isn't a reason not to listen. Leckie really gets you to feel how horrible war is in a way that makes you ashamed if you've never been there and somehow thought it would be cool or glorious.
18 of 19 people found this review helpful