Read the Four Books HBO’s ‘The Pacific’ Is Based On

November 29, 2020Ethan E. Rocke
The Pacific

HBO’s acclaimed 2010 miniseries The Pacific follows the lives of several Marine grunts as they fight through the brutal island-hopping campaigns against the Japanese in the Pacific theater of World War II. The series was executive produced by Stephen Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Gary Goetzman — the same team of filmmakers who adapted Stephen Ambrose’s book Band of Brothers to bring to life the wildly popular HBO series by the same name.

Like Band of Brothers, its companion series, The Pacific, has its genesis in books — four of them actually. The series centers on the experiences of three Marines: Robert Leckie, Eugene Sledge, and John Basilone. The producers optioned four memoirs — three from the real-life principal characters and one from another Marine who has a smaller role in the series.

All four memoirs would make great gifts for fans of the series or lovers of military nonfiction.

Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific

The Pacific, Helmet for My Pillow
Paperback edition of Helmet for My Pillow from 2010. Photo by Ethan E. Rocke/Coffee or Die Magazine.

At 21, Robert Leckie — a principal character in The Pacific who’s portrayed by James Badge Dale — enlisted in the Marines in January 1942, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. His 1957 memoir, Helmet for My Pillow, traces his journey from boot camp on Parris Island, South Carolina, to service in the 1st Marine Division and some of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific. Leckie recounts his combat experiences in the battles of Guadalcanal, New Britain, and Peleliu, capturing the horrors and sacrifice of war while painting an unsentimental portrait of how warriors are made and how they fight.

Tom Hanks said of the book, “Helmet for My Pillow is a grand and epic prose poem. Robert Leckie’s theme is the purely human experience of war in the Pacific, written in the graceful imagery of a human being who — somehow — survived.”

Red Blood, Black Sand: Fighting Alongside John Basilone from Boot Camp to Iwo Jima

Red Blood Black Sand
A recent edition of Red Blood, Black Sand.

Red Blood, Black Sand is Marine veteran Chuck Tatum’s firsthand account of the battle of Iwo Jima, one of the most savage battles in Marine Corps history. The book follows Tatum’s early training at Camp Pendleton, where he learned his job as a machine gunner from Marine legend John Basilone. Basilone, played by Jon Seda, is one of the principal characters in the miniseries. He received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the battle of Guadalcanal and was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his actions on Iwo Jima.

Tatum takes readers on a ride from his fast times in the port of Pearl Harbor to Iwo Jima’s black sand beaches, where he fought alongside Basilone and saw his hero fall in the apocalyptic battle.

Ambrose said of Red Blood, Black Sand, “In my judgment, no combat veteran’s memoir is better … and only a handful are equal.” The Pacific producers made Tatum a character in the series. He is portrayed by actor Ben Esler.

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

With the Old Breed
The most recent cover edition for With the Old Breed, left, and an out-of-print specially illustrated edition.

Eugene B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed is one of the greatest war memoirs ever written, period. Arguably the strongest of the works optioned for The Pacific, the book follows Sledge — portrayed by Joe Mazzello in the miniseries — from his home in Alabama to the battlefields of Peleliu and Okinawa. As a member of K Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, Sledge documents in relentless detail the jungle heat and rain, the filth and malaise, and the brutality, hatred, and fear that were central to the battles he and his fellow Marines endured.

In The Wall Street Journal, Victor Davis Hanson named With the Old Breed one of the top five books on epic 20th-century battles. Acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns said of the book, “In all the literature on the second world war, there is not a more honest, realistic, or moving memoir.” And Men’s Journal named Sledge’s masterpiece the No. 1 best war story ever told.

China Marine: An Infantryman’s Life After World War II

China Marine
A recent edition of China Marine.

China Marine is Sledge’s sequel to With the Old Breed, recounting the conclusion and aftermath of his service as a Marine.

After Japan’s surrender, Sledge and his company were sent to China to maintain order and to calm the political and ideological unrest there. In the ancient city of Peiping (now Beijing), his regiment witnessed the last of old China and the rise of the communist state.

When Sledge returns to his hometown of Mobile, Alabama, he struggles to resume civilian life, as he’s haunted by his memories and nightmares from the intense combat he lived through. After years of being haunted by terrifying memories, he comes to terms with his experiences through the discipline of writing and the study of biology, ultimately earning a doctorate, becoming a professor, and publishing one of the greatest firsthand accounts of war ever penned.

Ethan E. Rocke
Ethan E. Rocke

Ethan E. Rocke is a contributor and former senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine, a New York Times bestselling author, and award-winning photographer and filmmaker. He is a veteran of the US Army and Marine Corps. His work has been published in Maxim Magazine, American Legion Magazine, and many others. He is co-author of The Last Punisher: A SEAL Team THREE Sniper’s True Account of the Battle of Ramadi.

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