I first learned of this book when I read that it was being used as one of the sources for a new miniseries about the Pacific theater in the Second World War. Having enjoyed the other source material being used, E. B. Sledge’s superb memoir, With the Old Breed, I decided to track down a copy of Leckie’s account and read it for myself. Because of this, I found myself comparing the two works as I read it, which influenced my overall opinion of the book.
In many ways, the experiences of the two men were similar. Both were civilians prior to the Second World War; Leckie enlisted in the Marines a month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. His account of basic training feels incredibly authentic, in part because of his attention to details. Leckie captures much of the mundane minutiae of learning how to be a Marine, from the bureaucratic experience of inoculation to the quest for a good time on leave. This sense of authenticity continues as he describes his deployment to Guadalcanal with the First Marine Division and his engagement with the war there. These experiences form the best part of the book, as his initial encounter with life as a Marine in both training and war reflect his interest in the novelty of it all.
From Guadalcanal, Leckie’s unit was returned to Australia for rest and refitting. This transformation into what he calls a “lotus-eater” also bears a real sense of verisimilitude, as unlike many memoirs of war he does not gloss over the search for release that often characterized breaks from the battles. It is here, though, that his account flags a little, and his return to combat in New Britain as part of Operation Cartwheel was perhaps the least interesting part of the book. The book improves with his subsequent experiences in the hospital in Banika and his final, abbreviated deployment to Peleliu, which ended with his injury and return to the States for the duration of the war.
Reading this book, it is easy to see why it stands out as an account of the Second World War. Leckie’s prose brings alive both the mundane routines of service and the violence of combat. It is when he is between the two that the book suffers, as his efforts at evocative prose about his surroundings in the jungle suffer from being a little overwrought, particularly in comparison to Sledge’s plainer, more straightforward descriptions. Yet both need to be read for a fascinating portrait of what the war was like for the “new boots” who gave up their lives as civilians to fight in the humid jungles and barren islands of the Pacific.