Robert Leckie, a certified member of the “greatest generation,” was born in Philadelphia in 1920. As Leckie’s HBO biography notes, “He was the youngest of eight children in an Irish Catholic family” who was raised in New Jersey.
A few days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Leckie enlisted with the U.S. Marine Corps. He eventually became a machine gunner, serving in Guadalcanal as well as Peleliu, where he was wounded.
Until a few weeks ago, not many people recalled Leckie’s exploits. But these days, thanks to two fellows named Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, it’s hard to get away from Leckie.
Leckie is one of the soldiers featured in HBO’s critically-acclaimed new drama The Pacific. Played by James Badge Dale, The Pacific follows Leckie and his fellow soldiers as they fight their way through the treacherous series of islands in the later phases of World War II.
Leckie’s autobiography A Helmet for My Pillow was one of the main sources used by The Pacific producers Hanks and Spielberg, who previously brought the greatest generation to life for HBO with the popular Band of Brothers.
Needless to say, The Pacific, so far, has not had much time for the glamour and heroism of wartime.
“Jungle rot and malaria, not to mention dysentery, hunger and nervous breakdowns, are as much a part of The Pacific as machine guns and bombing raids,” is how The New York Times put it in a recent review, which nevertheless called the series “mesmerizing.”
Most critics agree. However, there is one small detail worth noting.
As opposed to previous depictions of Irish military families, from the Sullivan brothers to numerous Jimmy Cagney roles, Leckie’s parents, in The Pacific, seem oddly disinterested in their son’s desire to go halfway around the world and put his life in peril.
Generally speaking, it has been believed that World War I and World War II helped Irish Americans enter the mainstream of life in the U.S.
In fact, that is the argument made in a new book which also depicts an Irishman marching off to war. In The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War (Harper), author David Laskin tells the story of a dozen immigrants who joined the U.S. military after America entered the fight against Germany in World War I.
Among those immigrants is Peter Thompson, born in Antrim. Thompson “went to work at the age of 12 sorting flax fibers at the Whitehouse linen mill.”
Thompson was a bright student, but his mother Rose believed the family simply could not survive without the money Peter brought in.
So work was a bigger priority than school. This, sadly, is understandable.
Rose had a dozen children, including a sister named Mary, who eventually joined an uncle who had emigrated to the heavily-Irish mining town of Butte,
In 1914, Peter himself left Ireland and settled in Butte. As the luck of the Irish would have it, that was the year war exploded across Europe and mine production plummeted.
Two of Thompson’s brothers back in Ireland went off to fight for the British Army. On this side of the Atlantic, however, Thompson listened to older relatives explain that they hoped the Kaiser and Germany prevailed.
After all, weren’t they fighting the hated British?
In the end, Thompson joined the U.S. Army in 1917, rising to the rank of sergeant.
Perhaps we remain fascinated by the likes of Peter Thompson and Robert Leckie because they seem to have been living in a simpler time. The wars Americans are fighting these days seem so messy that we often seem to forget about them entirely.
If nothing else, both Laskin’s book and The Pacific, with their diverse groups of soldiers trying to maintain grace under pressure, are solidly in the tradition of the marching song penned by another Irish American, John Mullin, a corporal in the 77th so-called “melting pot” division: “Oh the army, the army, the democratic army/All the Jews and Wops, the Dutch and Irish cops/They’re all in the army now.”
(Tom Deignan will be discussing “Twenty Books Every Irish American Should Read” at the mid-Manhattan branch library, 455 Fifth Avenue, April 17. Contact
firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/tomdeignan.)