Thursday, December 6, 2012

A World War II Veteran Comes Home

     Here are some true stories of World War II veterans, which were personally recounted to me a long time ago.  I wrote the title of this post in the singular to make it more individual, to emphasize the point that each man lived only his own singular, private story. 

     When I met him, and I met him only once, Wally was a friendly and mildly prosperous insurance salesman.  It had been more than thirty years since the Greatest Generation had "won" the Good War.  He came to sell us -- my new bride and me -- life insurance; but for interesting reasons we shifted subjects and he ended up telling us the war part of his life story.

     He grew up in Idaho, the son of good Mormon farmers, with all the love of God and family and country that that implies.  He knew right from wrong, worked hard, and loved his country -- as he knew it, America being, in his mind, God and Idaho, only writ larger.  A war was on, and at the age of eighteen he found himself in the U. S. Army.  He received training as a paratrooper, and must have been a good one:  at the tender age of nineteen he would find himself in charge of a company of over a hundred men (I think he said, about a hundred and sixty) that was part of a larger force that had been dropped on a Japanese-occupied island in the Pacific.

     So there they were: a small company of young paratroopers, under the immediate command of a nineteen year old potato farmer from Idaho, untested in battle -- jungle, battle, and Japanese soldiers were all equally unknown to them.  He told me it was like being dropped into a totally different world.  I could believe it.

     His company was in a concealed position, and wanted to keep it that way.  The enemy forces apparently -- who knew for sure? -- occupied their own section of jungle on the opposite side of a large clearing.

     Suddenly, one of the paratroopers broke and ran.  Was it panic?  derangement?  Whatever it was, the soldier was running straight for the clearing, in the supposed direction of the Japanese.  In a few seconds, he would surely be giving away their position, and jeopardizing a hundred men.  Wally was in charge.  What does a nineteen-year old farm boy do, with only a second to decide?  Let the guy give away your position?  or instantly "drop him" -- one of your own men?

     It was a matter that apparently still haunted Wally after thirty years; something that he wanted to talk about to somebody -- in this case my wife and me.  (And we were complete strangers.  And probably it helped that we were complete strangers.)

     He returned to farming after the war, but a freak hailstorm in July broke him.  With some regret, he left farming for insurance.

     Stuart grew up in a midwestern city.  He graduated from high school in the middle of the Depression, and had difficulty finding a job.  He landed one with the Civilian Conservation Corps and went to California, where he worked in a National Forest.  Whatever his job was, it required lots of camping out, and he spent many nights alone, with his protection being only a campfire and a sleeping bag.  He told me that he occasionally shared his camp (unwillingly) with mountain lions that apparently roamed pretty freely in the California mountains in the late 1930s, as I suppose their descendents still do today.

     I do not find it surprising, therefore, that the Army ended up sending him "behind enemy lines" in Burma; he was surely more qualified than most.  In Burma, it seems, "enemy lines" was an exceedingly fluid concept.  From what he told me, the small-unit military operations he was involved in included a fair amount of Americans setting lethal booby traps along trails that the Japanese would use, and then ambushing them.  It was, of course, equally important to avoid the ambushes and booby traps set by the Japanese.

     He lived for weeks at a time with local people and shared their (to him strange, to them normal) food.  He said they were very hospitable; and I suppose that they learned to avoid the booby-traps set by both sides.

     I have wondered what the "natives" (as usual, the people who lived in and belonged in that country for generations, but did not control it) thought about what the Allies and the Japanese were doing to their country, and to each other.

     At any rate, Stuart survived the war without any apparent damage other than being very jumpy about abrupt loud noises for a while after he returned to "the States."

     Will was a clerk in a small construction company when he was drafted into the Army and was sent, by his request, to serve in the medical corps.  He landed in England at an army hospital in 1944, shortly ahead of D-Day.  His hospital handled many of the seriously wounded; and he handled their records.  

     The hospital treated all kinds of wounds.  They were always treating men with severe burns -- mostly crew members of tanks that had been hit and caught fire.  He told me that they rarely treated tank drivers. Apparently it was very difficult for the driver to survive the ordeal of crawling through and out of a burning tank.

     Infantrymen in the rifle companies had other kinds of injuries -- limbs shot off, terrible belly wounds, and the like.  He told me that many had their testicles and other genital apparatus shot off.  (What happens to men like this?  You never knew, you didn't hear them much talked about.)

     Will, like the others I have mentioned so far, returned from the war unharmed.  When I talked to him many years afterward, he had become a minister.


     Delbert fought in Europe.  Whatever it was he saw and did, I never knew, because he didn't talk about it in public, but he was seriously damaged.  His wife and children made the best of it they could -- "one of his crying spells, you know, one of his breakdowns; Daddy hasn't been right since the war" -- and he lived the rest of his life somewhere between fragile normalcy and extreme depression. 

     What name would you care to put on his injury?  "That's just the result of cowardice"?  "Get hold of yourself, man"?  "Just shows that he lacks true grit"? 

     In World War I they called it "shell shock."  In World War II, with a predictable Freudian condescension, they called it "war neurosis."  Today it is called "post-traumatic stress disorder," unless you prefer the smoother and more genteel "combat stress reaction."  Personally, I would call it a common and natural reaction of a human person who has been placed in mortal danger, repeatedly, against his own will or against his own better judgment, and who has found no way out.  Given the extreme conditions, it is both predictable and non-preventable.  (To prevent it, one must remove the conditions.)

      Bill fought in France and Germany, in and around the Battle of the Bulge.  He said that when they captured men who fought in the German SS, they castrated them, pretty much then and there.  (He did not say with what precision they carried out this field surgery, nor did he say how many they treated this way.)

     Bill came home from the war pretty much okay.  He got a good job and raised a family.

*       *       *
     For an interesting fictionalized account of a World War II veteran's experiences, read Wendell Berry's short story, "Making It Home," which is found in the book, That Distant Land.

     Comments always welcome. 

No comments:

Post a Comment