“Dead bodies were strewn about the grove. The tropics had got at them already, and they were beginning to spill open. I was horrified at the swarms of flies; black, circling funnels that seemed to emerge from every orifice: from the mouth, the eyes, the ears. The beating of their myriad tiny wings made a dreadful low hum.
“The flies were in possession of the field; the tropics had won; her minions were everywhere, smacking their lips over this bounty of rotting flesh. All of my elation at the victory, all of my fanciful cockiness fled before the horror of what my eyes beheld. It could be my corrupting body the white maggots were moving over; perhaps one day it might be.
“Holding myself stiffly, as though fending off panic with a straight arm, I returned to the river bank and slipped into the water. But not before I had stripped one of my victims of his bayonet and field glasses, both of which I slung across my chest, crisscross like a grenadier. I had found no saber. None of the dead men was an officer.
“I swam back, eager to be away from that horrid grove. My comrades, who had covered my excursion with our guns, mistook my grimace of loathing for a grin of triumph, when, streaked with slime, I emerged from the Tenaru. They crowded around to examine my loot. Then, I went to chow.
“Coming back, I noticed a knot of marines, many from G company, gathered in excitement on the riverbank. Runner rushed up to them with my new field glasses.
“He had them to his eyes, as I came up. I thought he was squinting overhard, then I saw that he was actually grimacing. I took the glasses from him and focused on the opposite shore, where I saw a crocodile eating the fat “chow-hound” Japanese. I watched in debased fascination, but when the crocodile began to tug at the intestines, I recalled my own presence in that very river hardly an hour ago, and my knees went weak and I relinquished the glasses.”
Robert Leckie, Helmet for My Pillow, p. 86-87.
This passage from Robert Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow vividly illustrates the challenges of fighting in hostile environments in World War II in a manner like few other accounts. Leckie’s words paint a classic and unforgettable picture in the minds of readers highlighting the especially brutal characteristics of warfare and life in the Pacific in World War II.
After the battle, the young marine Leckie swam across the fetid green Tenaru River in search of souvenirs, specifically the sword of a Japanese officer. He believed that the last man he shot in a coconut grove might have been carrying one. Instead, he arrived in a grove of death. The subtext of Leckie’s experience, however, is not just the dead, but his identification of the natural culprit making death even more horrific: “the tropics,” as he refers to the natural environment embodied in the swarms of flies that are attacking the dead.
Hostile natural environments were often as big an obstacle to be overcome in World War II as the enemy itself. In a global war that was fought miles in the air, hundreds of feet beneath the sea, in freezing forests, arid deserts, across mountains, and in stifling jungles, many environmental challenges had to be overcome. Perhaps no greater region was more hostile to health than the Pacific, where disease ravaged troops (during the war approximately 80% of American troops in the Pacific would spend some time in the hospital due to sickness, including beri-beri, fungal diseases, and dysentery amongst others).
In Leckie’s account, the crocodile was a particularly horrid reminder of how dangerous the place he was fighting in was. His warrior’s ardor had already been cooled by the realities of rotting, dead bodies, as his mind actually confronted his own mortality in the grove. After going to eat and restore his sense of calm, the crocodile and its gruesome feeding on a Japanese body Leckie had swum past in the Tenaru River was almost like a divine reminder of the precariousness of his fate in war. Anything might happen to him, at any time.
The last, most impactful part of the passage is what the readers know in hindsight—that this battle at the Tenaru River was only the first fight of what would become a grueling six-month campaign, in a war that would last for three years to come as we fought across the Pacific, and which would only gain in intensity with every advance against the Japanese Empire. The nightmares had only begun for Robert Leckie on his journey through World War II.
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.
This is the second of two posts about Leckie's book. Read Part One.