Getting History Lessons from WWII Veterans – and Giving One

This valuable, penetrating, perspective from a Patriot Action Network  member.

Getting History Lessons from WWII Veterans – and Giving One

Posted by Jack Kemp on November 17, 2013 at 8:30pm

Jack E. Kemp

At the Veterans’ Day ceremonies in New York’s Madison Square Park just before the annual parade, I was walking around wearing an old media pass and an official America’s Parade 2013 Media badge. These two highly visible badges dangling below my neck gave those veterans that wanted to talk about their war experiences (in limited detail) social permission to talk to a stranger and answer some general questions. This was especially true for World War II veterans because their advancing age made them open up in what seemed to be a desire for connection with the public as old memories return in their reflective later years. And those vets who wanted to speak out wore their own types of signs as conversation starters…

I talked with a World War II Army veteran named Arnold who came to the ceremonies that day in his old service uniform, complete with leggings. He told of serving in Europe, in Germany, and then being Stateside where he heard about the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. He thought the war was now going to end and it did – but not yet for Arnold. The Army then shipped him across country and to the Philippines to root out Japanese soldiers hiding in hillside caves who did not want to give up. I remarked that those soldiers obviously hadn’t gotten to hear the Emperor say on Japanese national radio that the war was over and that Japan would now surrender. One doubts whether these Imperial Japanese soldiers would have believed anything the Americans would have told them about the war ending.

A Navy vet, wearing a baseball-style cap with both the words “World War II Veteran” and “Vietnam Veteran” on it, came up to us and started a conversation with me about his experiences driving a landing craft to the Normandy beachhead at high tide, shortly after the morning of D-Day. He spoke of his getting stuck as the tide rolled out – and being shelled by German artillery which blew a hole in his vessel, but his later craft was able to get away. And the more he talked, he more reflective his thoughts got.

The Navy vet (I didn’t get his name) first said that he didn’t want to talk about the war when he was younger, but now wanted to do so. And as we talked, he made a seemingly offhand observation about the current vets in a non- judgmental tone of voice. He said that he didn’t understand why all these young veterans today have these mental problems, that “he never heard of this happening” in his wartime (or post-war) experiences. It was here when my turn came to give the history lesson concerning events that happened before I was born – with a 20/20 amateur historian’s hindsight. By the way, if you go to YouTube and enter “World War 2 Veterans PTSD,” you will get 16,900 items, many of them on camera interviews.

Leaving out my father’s nightmares from World War II (he was a Polish Army combat veteran and a Holocaust survivor) and the World War II veteran who I knew in my boyhood Bronx neighborhood, a vet who early one evening lectured me about veterans who died – in a loud and drunken state reflecting his own pain – as we stood near an old weather worn World War I Honor Roll mounted on an apartment building wall, I proceeded to discuss some fairly well known facts with the former sailor, a kind of review of things he knew and things new to him.

I told the Navy vet about the documentary John Huston had made showing shell shocked soldiers (called “Let There Be Light”) from the European Theater who were clearly very troubled. I didn’t recall all the details (I’ve seen this film a few years ago) and it is probably best I didn’t. “Let There Be Light” was made in a Long Island hospital that treated veterans after WWII – many of them successfully enough to be released after treatment. The film’s dramatic footage was long suppressed by the government. Then I reviewed the names used before PTSD came into use: “shell shock” in World War I, “battle fatigue” in World War II and “Soldiers’ Heart” in the Civil War. The vet replied with surprise and interest, saying that he had never heard of “Soldiers’ Heart” before. I also reminded him that World War II veterans sailed home over a three week or longer period where they got to talk to fellow veterans who had gone through the same things they had, talking about and validating their experiences and service. I contrasted this with service men and women being flown home in one day with no one else from their company (as was often the case during Vietnam) to then not have their sacrifices honored, to say the least, by those who voted for representatives who in turn voted to send them to war. That contrasted with the large national positive civilian involvement in World War II. The Navy man agreed to this last point, saying that everyone he knew in the 1940s had relatives serving in World War II.

Not finished with my civilian’s history lesson and review, I told him that the drug Thorazine wasn’t invented until 1952 (not that a drugged state was anything but a temporary aid) and that a common treatment for any service personnel admitting mental problems after the war was electric shock therapy, which most veterans were not interested in experiencing. What was left unsaid was that the bar at the local VFW Hall was a lot less painful than electric shock – and the company of fellow veterans was a lot better than some (civilian) doctor putting the equivalent of two electric cattle prods to your head as if to punish you for what you did and saw during the war.

Another major factor I did not mention to the Navy vet, but wish I had recalled that day, was that a number of the most seriously wounded with Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress could not be saved by 1940s level of drug and medical technology at a field hospital tent, nor could most of the seriously wounded – with both physical and mental complications – be airlifted within “the golden hour” to a fully equipped hospital behind the lines. The more modern helicopters that came into use during the Korean War and later were not as available – nor as well developed and powerful and spacious – as their WWII predecessors. Doctors – and physical therapists and combat survivors – are now much more often faced with the challenge of developing techniques to help veterans rehabilitate as best they can.

The next factor I didn’t recall in my discussion with the Navy vet was one detailed in Army Ranger and West Point psychology professor Lt. Col. (ret.) Dave Grossman’s controversial book “On Killing.” Grossman relies on studies by the U.S. Army’s Official WWII Combat Historian Gen. S.L.A. Marshall who stated that most infantrymen in WWII did not fire their weapons or shoot to kill, that roughly 15 percent of soldiers and Marines did most of the killing. Although much of Marshall’s – and Grossman’s – writings have also been challenged (a number of these are summarized in the customer reviews of “On Killing”), Lt. Col. Grossman points out various factors that cannot be dismissed even if you don’t agree with his premises. Much killing in war occurs at a distance on airplanes or ships or from land based artillery, situations where the human face of the enemy was not seen. In fact, a number of those that served in World War II were in support units that didn’t kill anyone. Those support jobs are often given to private subcontractors in the volunteer armed forces of today. Whether the conclusions of Lt. Col. Grossman are based on slanted statistics or not, the veteran’s quotes he gathers from interviews appear quite real, in sync with things I have heard from a few soldiers and also read about. On page 88 of his book, Lt. Col. Grossman he mentions a VFW Post Commander and former sergeant, a veteran of the 101st Airborne Division in WWII’s Battle of the Bulge. The sergeant said he couldn’t know for sure the majority of killing done at a distance, but was still troubled about one German he shot at close range, admitting briefly that it still bothered him after all these years – and then quickly ending the conversation with the Lt. Colonel. There are a number of other similar quotes in the book from American, British and Israeli and German combat veterans.

The takeaway from Lt. Col. Grossman’s book, as well as the other factors I mention above, is that the WWII Navy vet didn’t hear about these kinds of stories because they were mostly kept out of the media – and most veterans (including my own father) were reluctant to talk about their World War II experiences because it might easily be criticized by the culture – especially in 1945 – as whining. A great victory had been won and that was that, as far as most people’s thoughts and feelings were concerned. But no one could know the scope of the war they fought in and much remained secret after WWII, only declassified decades later and told of in detail after most people from that time are gone. Today we have a culture and electronic communications that is a lot closer to the spirit of that 1960s rock song “Let It All Hang Out.”

In the Seventh Grade, I had a History teacher who was an American bomber pilot in World War II over the skies of Europe. He would speak of the high accuracy of the Norden bombsight, a common myth told to the American public in World War II to assure them that no civilians were being bombed even though the Norden bombsite could not predict or correct for wind drifts. Paul Fussell, a World War II US Army combat veteran and later a professor of literature and featured on-air speaker in Ken Burn’s Public Television documentary “The War,” wrote a book called “Wartime” whose second chapter was titled “Precision Bombing Will End the War.” There he debunked the limitations of the Norden bombsight’s accuracy because of the winds a bomb would encounter in a drop from 25,000 feet. But it is a myth that many people still want to believe even now in the age of laser guided bombs because it does not makes them feel uncomfortable. I state this as plain fact and not a criticism of either my veteran teacher or the Roosevelt or Truman administrations. If I were writing for the government – or a newspaper operating under wartime censorship and self-restraint in WWII – I don’t believe it would occur to me to glibly criticize the reality of fighting 1943’s war with 1943’s weaponry. I – and most editors during the war – would not be complaining that the Air Force should have instantly invented some type of radio controlled bomb (they worked on this a test flight that killed President Kennedy’s older brother Joseph). Even decades later in Vietnam, the U.S. did not have a fully developed “smart bomb,” as wet weather prevented the early microchips inside the first such devices from functioning – and it rained often in Vietnam. The limitations of 1943’s technology would make it impossible for me to admit in print the harsh choices facing the Air Force and maybe impossible even to admit them to myself, as some questions (or issues) have no good answer.

The last major factor I did not discuss with the Navy vet is the fact that veterans of recent wars were not welcomed as liberators as they were in Europe. Even in Germany, there was no significant guerrilla uprising. From Vietnam to Iraq, a much higher percentage of civilians rose up against American forces which often resulted in the deaths of many civilians – and those civilians were out of uniform. The Navy vet’s hat said he was a Vietnam veteran, but was he at sea (literally and figuratively) all his time there? He was older than the Navy personnel who were on river patrols, close to most of the fighting. And he now has had almost 50 years to forget what had happened there.

When an old man walked on to a road into American military road traffic in wars after 1945, experienced soldiers knew that slowing down or driving on the side of the road could be an invitation for their vehicle to set off a roadside bomb via a pressure plate or a radio or (recently) a cell phone signal. Sometimes, when instinct told the new in-country soldiers to stop (rightly or wrongly), they stopped. The typically more experienced soldiers would be more like to just kept driving out of an understandable fear and would hit such an old man in the road. This is not a common event in World War II, but it definitely is typical of the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

The local ethnic and national feuds of Southeast Asia and the Middle East go back centuries, if not a millennium or longer. The troops saw things on the ground that may have happened somewhat in Europe in World War II but were never talked about at that time. Today we get a major book publisher (I forgot the title) that does not censor a book telling about packs of hungry dogs following American soldiers around during patrols in Iraq because the dogs “knew” they’d soon have a meal after the soldiers fired into an insurgents’ urban position. There was a social benefit to not talking much in public about the small details of what happened in WWII – but there is a different benefit to now talking about what happens in newer wars. I believe it is better that we now know during a war, especially with a volunteer armed forces and a much smaller percentage of the population in the military in time of war, what goes on in a war and what our sons and daughters have to endure.

On Veterans’ Day, the Navy vet asked me a simple question in good faith about why there are so many PTSD issues today. In answering him, both face-to-face and in this written piece, I hope to supply both civilians and other veterans with “A Few Good Answers.” And I think my readers can handle these truths – and a whole lot more.


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