“Infantry had crossed the Tenaru at the bridge to our right and were fanning out in the coconut grove. They would sweep toward the ocean.
“Light tanks were crossing the sandpit far to the left, leading a counterattack.
“The Japanese were being nailed into a coffin.
“Everyone had forgotten the fight and was watching the carnage, when shouting swept up the line. A group of Japanese dashed along the opposite river edge, racing in our direction. Their appearance so surprised everyone that there were no shots.
“We dived for our holes and gun positions. I jumped to the gun which the Chuckler and I had left standing on the bank. I unclamped the gun and fired, spraying my shots as though I were handling a hose.
“All but one fell. The first fell as though his underpart had been cut from him by a scythe, and the others fell tumbling, screaming.
“Once again our gun collapsed and I grabbed a rifle—I remember it had no sling—which had been left near the gun. The Jap who had survived was deep into the coconuts by the time I found him in the rifle sights. There was his back, bobbing large, and he seemed to be throwing his pack away. Then I had fired and he wasn’t there anymore.
“Perhaps it was not I who shot him, for everyone had found their senses and their weapons by then. But I boasted that I had. Perhaps, too, it was a merciful bullet that pounded him between the shoulder blades; for he was fleeing to a certain and horrible end: black nights, hunger and slow dissolution in the rain forest. But I had not thought of mercy then.
“Modern war went forward in the jungle.”
Robert Leckie, Helmet for My Pillow, p. 81-82.
This passage from Robert Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow has great power as an eyewitness account of the first landed battle which Americans experienced in World War II, in August 1942 at the Tenaru river on Guadalcanal.
It captures many elements about war that a modern reader can understand on an instinctive level. One can imagine young Bob “Lucky” Leckie there, at the scene of the battle, and can visualize the American forces closing in on the Japanese from both flanks. In the excitement of impending victory, the young marines become spectators for a moment, and are then startled out of the moment back into combat.
The combat is in the heat of the moment, and almost has a clinical feel in Leckie’s description as he mows down men, eviscerating one. He has to complete the action with a rifle, shooting a fleeing man who had been trying to kill him and his comrades earlier, but was now on the losing end of the battle. He fires, and the Japanese enemy disappears from his vision. He has now survived combat, done his job, killed, conquered, and defeated the enemy. It is not a personal action—yet.
After the battle, on the sandpit that Leckie describes, approximately 800 dead Japanese troops were found partially buried in and upon the sand. What is most notable to a historian is that this was the first taste of the bitter warfare against Japanese soldiers not only in the contest for the island of Guadalcanal, which developed into a brutal six-month campaign, but which Americans faced in all of the Japanese-conquered territories across the vast Pacific. The Japanese did not surrender, but fought to their deaths. Their warrior code of Bushido held that death was preferable to surrender, and that to die for the Emperor was the highest act any Japanese could make. The young marines annihilated the Japanese force at the battle of the Tenaru river, but the spirit shown by the enemy was an unsettling and ominous power for those who reflected.
But the nature of reflection is another notable feature of Leckie’s passage. Written many years after the end of the war, Leckie admits that in the moment of combat, he is not really reflective. I believe that readers can see this clearly in his description of combat, where he and the scene he describes is clearly reactive to action. When Leckie writes that by killing this enemy he has perhaps delivered him from deeper suffering and a worse fate in the hostile jungle, he clearly is making a rationalization from the perspective of an older man, reflecting on his personal history and actions in writing. But I think that the most memorable part of the passage, even the most morally admirable, is that Leckie owns his actions when he writes that mercy was not his motivation or in his mind at the time. Through Leckie’s honesty, the merciless quality of the Pacific war can be glimpsed from the very beginning of combat.
Finally, the last remarkable element of the passage is the jungle itself, which has its own cruel and unforgiving rules for life within it, and which made warfare within it an even crueler, brutal, more horrifying affair. In my next post from Helmet for My Pillow, the jungle will instill fear and unease within a young marine comparable to the Japanese enemy himself, and showcase why savagery was such an integral, prominent part of the Pacific war.
To learn more about the American experience in the Pacific, visit the Museum's exhibit, the Richard C. Adkerson & Freeport-McMoRan Foundation Road to Tokyo: Pacific Theater Galleries.
Note: This is the first of two posts on Leckie's book.