Reflections on the Literature and Lives that Inspired HBO's New World War II Miniseries.
The best way to create a Pacific-war version of the award-winning television series Band of Brothers was hardly obvious. "We considered a lot of options—naval aviation, a single ship, submarines—everything," Bruce McKenna, co-executive producer and screenwriter for The Pacific, the 10-part HBO miniseries, told me. "But we quickly came down to the same kind of show as Band, where it was real people."
McKenna teamed with project consultant Hugh Ambrose, son of historian and author Stephen Ambrose, who wrote the book on which Band of Brothers was based. For the main characters, McKenna and Ambrose chose Eugene Sledge because of his beautifully written memoir, With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa (Presidio Press, 1981), and Robert Leckie, of whose memoir, Helmet for My Pillow (Random House, 1957), McKenna was a huge fan. "And then we settled on John Basilone," McKenna added. "I became really intrigued that nobody really knows anything about this guy even though he's so famous."
All three men had served in the 1st Marine Division, which was in at the beginning of the Pacific war on Guadalcanal and at the end on Okinawa, with assaults on New Britain (Cape Gloucester) and Peleliu along the way. Leckie participated in the Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, and Peleliu campaigns. Sledge landed on Peleliu and Okinawa. Basilone, awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on Guadalcanal, later joined the 5th Marine Division and landed on Iwo Jima, where he was killed on D-day, 19 February 1945, while serving with the 1st Battalion, 27th Marines (1/27).
Leckie was 21 years old, a city kid from New Jersey, when he enlisted after Pearl Harbor. Sledge, a polite Southerner from Alabama, was not quite 20 when he flunked out of the Georgia Tech V-12 officer program on purpose in the fall of 1943 so that he could go to boot camp.
Leckie's and Sledge's books were primary sources, but the writers also drew from Iwo Jima: Red Blood, Black Sand (2002), Chuck Tatum's self-published account of the fighting there. A machine-gunner, Tatum had served under Basilone and witnessed his death. I was introduced to Tatum's book by my Quantico classmate and friend John Augustus Butler III, whose father, Lieutenant Colonel John Augustus Butler Jr., was killed on Iwo Jima on 5 March 1945 while commanding 1/27.
"The book was very helpful," McKenna said, "but we also found people who knew John Basilone, and surviving friends of his wife, Lena." The writers also used Sledge's memoir about his postwar duty in China and homecoming, China Marine (University of Alabama Press, 2002).
Leckie began writing Helmet for My Pillow as a novel and later turned it into a memoir. He disliked any kind of authority and has little to say in favor of most of the officers in the 2d battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, where he initially served in H Company. Universally known as "Lucky," he delighted in "liberating" forbidden fruit—cases of beer at New River, North Carolina; cigars on Guadalcanal. But he was a combat Marine, an assistant machine-gunner, which meant that he carried a 40-pound, water-cooled .30-caliber Browning machine gun. The gunner, his friend Lew Juergens, or "Chuckler," carried the 53-pound tripod on which the gun rested when in action.
On Guadalcanal, the battalion went into action for the first time at the Battle of the Tenaru. Leckie wrote that first they dug gun pits atop the riverbank and waited in the clear, starlit night: "Because we did not know real battle—the incredible trick of suddenness—we could not feel foreboding. We were only uneasy in that shiftiness that came each night and disappeared each dawn."
They watched V-shaped ripples moving steadily downstream with "two small, round, greenish lights close together at the point of the V." These were crocodiles, which the Marines later watched feeding on Japanese corpses.
Then, "all hell broke loose. Here was booming, sounding, shrieking . . . gibbering noise. The plop of the outgoing mortar with the crunch of its fall, the clatter of the machine guns and the lighter, faster rasp of the Browning automatic rifles, the hammering of fifty-caliber machine guns. The crash of seventy-five-millimeter howitzer shells, the crackling of rifle fire, the wham of thirty-seven-millimeter antitank guns firing point-blank canister at the charging enemy." And there were strange new sounds: "The lighter, shingle-snapping crack of the Japanese rifle, the gargle of their extremely fast machine guns, the hiccup of their light mortars." This is Leckie at his descriptive best.
After Guadalcanal and legendary R&R in Melbourne, Australia, the division again went into action the day after Christmas 1943 at Cape Gloucester, where it rained almost constantly. Assigned to the battalion intelligence section, Leckie meanwhile became a scout. In April 1944, the division pulled out to refit on Pavuvu, one of the desolate Russell Islands in the Solomons near Guadalcanal.
On 3 June, Eugene Sledge, all 135 pounds of him, improbably but inevitably nicknamed "Sledgehammer," came down the gangplank of the troop transport USS General R. L. Howze (AP-134) at Pavuvu and was assigned to K Company, 3d Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division.
While interviewing Sid Phillips, Sledge's best friend growing up, Ambrose and McKenna learned that he had been in Leckie's company on Guadalcanal and that Leckie was the 1st Marines' informal librarian. For McKenna, this was pure serendipity: "It's the moment that I knew we had a series. Since Gene Sledge and Robert Leckie were on Pavuvu before Peleliu, it was not a far stretch to put them together, because anyone who wanted a book would go and see Robert Leckie, and Sledge was a reader. It stitched them together in a way that was not out of the realm of possibility."
Sledge went to Peleliu on board the LST-661. Lying sleepless in his bunk on the night of 14 September 1944, D-1, he concluded that he could not be killed because God loved him. "Then," he wrote, "I told myself that God loved us all and that many would die or be ruined physically or mentally or both by the next morning and in the days following. My heart pounded and I broke out in a cold sweat. Finally, I called myself a damned coward and eventually fell asleep saying the Lord's Prayer to myself."
As they waited to go ashore on D-day, his friend Merriel "Snafu" Shelton (Sledge uses actual names, except when referring to one obnoxious lieutenant) offered him a cigarette. Sledge replied for the umpteenth time that he didn't smoke, whereupon Shelton, a Cape Gloucester veteran, bet him that he would be begging for a cigarette before the day was over. As the Marines landed, the Japanese defenders raked the beach with machine-gun, mortar, and artillery fire. For Sledge, it was "the bitterest essence of war, the sight of helpless comrades being slaughtered." As he cleared the beach and found temporary cover, he yelled for a cigarette. "Snafu was jubilant," he recorded.
On D+1, Leckie and Sledge fought in the same action, the assault north across the island's airfield. It lay on level, open ground directly under the Japanese guns dug in on Bloody Nose Ridge. Leckie thought it might have been easier to jump off had someone cried, "Vive l'Empereur!" or "The Marine Corps Forever!" but all he heard was, "Well, it's our turn, now." One of his friends "cast a rueful glance at the airstrip and the still-falling men. 'Good luck, kid,' he said," and Leckie started forward.
Farther to the right, Sledge began reciting the 23rd Psalm over and over as his unit advanced. "Through the haze I saw Marines stumble and pitch forward as they got hit; I then looked neither right nor left but just straight to my front. The farther we went the worse it got. It seemed impossible that any of us could make it across." Despite all that he later endured, he remembered the assault as his worst experience of the war.
Later that afternoon, Leckie was caught in the open by a Japanese artillery barrage while returning to the front lines after carrying a message to the battalion command post. "There was no cover," he wrote. "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 ran with the heat shimmering in waves from the coral, with the sweat oiling my joints and the fear drying my mouth." He crumpled in a heap beside two Marines who were trying to scratch a foxhole in the coral. Finding him unable to talk and unsure of his condition, they carried him to the battalion aid station, where he was diagnosed with concussion and shell shock and evacuated to a ship. After three amphibious assaults, Leckie's war was over.
On Ngesebus, an islet just off Peleliu, Sledge later watched a Marine use his Ka-Bar knife to pry gold teeth from a still-living Japanese; another Marine ended the man's agony. He was dissuaded from harvesting some gold teeth himself only after "Doc" Caswell, the company corpsman, warned him against germs. Later, he came across a dead Japanese machine-gunner sitting "bolt upright in the proper firing position behind the breech of his machine gun, his eyes staring along the gun sights." The crown of the gunner's skull had been blasted off, and one of Sledge's buddies was idly pitching coral pebbles at it. "Each time his pitch was true I heard a little splash of rainwater in the ghastly receptacle. My buddy tossed the coral chunks as casually as a boy casting pebbles into a puddle on some muddy road back home; there was nothing malicious in his action. The war had brutalized us beyond belief."
On Okinawa, Sledge and his company fought for 82 days with only brief respites. The number of combat fatigue cases began increasing. Describing them, he wrote:
They ranged in their reactions from a state of dull detachment seemingly unaware of their surroundings, to quiet sobbing, or all the way to wild screaming and shouting. Stress was the essential factor . . . small-arms fire . . . warding off infiltrators and raiders during sleepless, rainy nights for prolonged periods, but being shelled so frequently during the prolonged Shuri stalemate seemed to increase the strain beyond that which many otherwise stable and hardened Marines could endure. Prolonged shell fire was more apt to break a man psychologically than anything else.
Indeed, coming on top of the terrible assault across the airfield on Peleliu, it was what finally knocked Leckie out of the war.
When Japan surrendered, Sledge wrote, the veterans reacted "with quiet disbelief and an indescribable sense of relief. The survivors of the abyss sat hollow-eyed and silent, trying to comprehend a world without war." Basilone was gone, and Leckie was in an Army hospital in Martinsburg, West Virginia, expecting to return to the Pacific.
I never met Robert Leckie, but I did meet Dr. Sledge and his wife Jeanne late in his life. We corresponded, and I sent him books; Old Soldier Sahib, a memoir of the pre-World War I Indian Army in Burma and India by Sergeant Frank Richards, became a favorite (he always identified with the troops). "I have just finished reading [it] for the fourth time," he wrote me in 1998, closing with, as he always did, "Semper Fidelis, Sledgehammer."
Helmet and With the Old Breed reflect to an unusual degree the very different personalities of their authors. Lucky overemphasizes his defiance of authority and may embellish a bit, but he was a powerful writer who was in the thick of the fighting. Initially skeptical of the book, I began to appreciate the author's vivid style after I got past his attitude. At the end, he recorded what remained: "For myself, a memory and the strength of ordeal sustained; for my son a priceless heritage; for my country, sacrifice."
Sledgehammer was a realist, with no pretensions as a novelist. When he describes what he saw, you can take it to the bank. He declined to return to Peleliu for ceremonial reunions with the Japanese: "I am proud of the number of the enemy I fired on and hit with my mortar, rifle, or Tommy gun—and regret the ones I missed," he wrote in China Marine. "There is no 'mellowing' for me-that would be to forgive all the atrocities the Japanese committed against millions of Asians and thousands of Americans. To 'mellow' is to forget." China Marine was published in 2002, the year after this gentle, brave, and resolute man died.