Note: This essay originally appeared in The Washington Post Opinions section.
On a sunny autumn day nearly two decades ago, I sat in the suburban Dallas living room of Earl Crumby as the old soldier quietly wept. His wife had died a few years before, but Crumby said his tears that day weren’t for her.
“As dearly as I loved that woman, her death didn’t affect me near as much as it does to sit down here and talk to you about seeing those young boys butchered during the war,” said the white-haired World War II veteran, who was 71 on that day in 1997. “It was nothing but arms and legs, heads and guts.
“You’d think you could forget something like that,” said Crumby, whose own war ended with a shrapnel wound during the Battle of the Bulge. “But you can’t.”
There were also guys named Otis Mackey and George Swinney, and a half-dozen others I interviewed who eventually inspired Every Common Sight, my novel of the Greatest Generation that was published in the spring. Each had survived Omaha Beach, the Ardennes Forest or the Pacific Islands, only to have the psychic residue of combat shatter their golden years.
They talked of night terrors, heavy drinking, survivor’s guilt, depression, exaggerated startle responses, and profound and lingering sadness like Crumby’s. The symptoms were familiar to the world by then, but post-traumatic stress disorder, the diagnosis that came into being in 1980, was widely assumed to be unique to veterans of the Vietnam War.
Many of them looked OK because they went to work, got married, they raised families, but it doesn’t mean they didn’t have PTSD.
Paula Schnurr, executive director, National Center for PTSD
“Bad war, bad outcome, bad aftereffects” is the way historian Thomas Childers recently put it.
Those of age in the late 1940s would have known differently. Though it was referred to by other names — shell shock, combat fatigue, neuropsychiatric disorders — the emotional toll of World War II was all over the media in the immediate postwar years, and military psychiatric hospitals across the nation were full of afflicted soldiers.
But willful cultural amnesia soon set in, inspired by the stigma of mental health issues and the prevailing male ethos of the strong, silent type. World War II was overshadowed by the Cold War and eventually Vietnam. And finally, by the 1990s, amid the mythology of the Greatest Generation, there was “tremendous reluctance to face the cold, hard facts about the psychological costs of America’s most punishing war,” Childers said.
Those costs, as hard as a nation tried to ignore them, did not go away. The soldiers I interviewed two decades ago, and tens of thousands of others like them, were painful and often poignant proof of that. They and their families were left to suffer in silence and isolation.
Theirs might have been the last “good war.” Though the reverential books of Tom Brokaw and Stephen Ambrose glossed over the painful truth, the hidden anguish of the Greatest Generation has always been there just the same.
850,000 The number of people who served in the Armed Forces during World War II who are still alive, or less than 6 percent
“Our conceptualization of the Greatest Generation is that they came home and got to work,” said Paula Schnurr, executive director of the National Center for PTSD, who has worked with World War II veterans since the 1990s. “These veterans came home and by and large they were OK. I think many of them looked OK because they went to work, got married, they raised families, but it doesn’t mean they didn’t have PTSD.”
Of all the men and women who served in the Armed Forces during World War II, less than 6 percent, about 850,000, are still alive, according to the VA. World War II vets die at the rate of 492 a day. So it was with a sense of urgency that we marked another milestone anniversary Sept. 2 — 70 years since Japan surrendered.
It’s time we reach beyond the nostalgia and myth and embrace the truth of war and the Greatest Generation. Bad war, good war — for those who fight, it’s all the same — means death, disfigurement and horrors no human heart is equipped to bear.
Culture of disbelief
“When we got out, you couldn’t talk about things like that,” Otis Mackey told me that day in his East Texas living room. “You held it all in. I didn’t want to take it to my family. If you’d say anything, people wouldn’t believe half of what you say anyway.”
He was rocking furiously, faster and faster, speaking of his first day in combat when his best friend was fatally shot through the neck, and the day he watched fellow soldiers be dismembered by landmines.
“The leg with the combat boot and all. … I had to duck,” he told me. “I seen it coming at me. I just ducked and McGhee’s leg went flying right by my head. That has been one of my guilty points, because I was right there ready to step on that mine. I never could figure out why it was him and not me.”
I get that empty feeling, just deep down, and I don’t care whether I live or die.
World War II veteran Otis Mackey
Mackey drank heavily when he returned to Texas and worked three jobs as a machinist so he was too tired to dream at night. “I don’t know why my wife even stayed with me,” he said.
By the time we talked, Mackey had been in group therapy for several months with Earl Crumby and several other World War II vets at the Dallas VA hospital. By that time in the 1990s, thousands of old soldiers had been finding their way to PTSD treatment.
“Most of the World War II men that I worked with came to me in their 70s or 80s, after retirement or the death of a spouse,” said Joan Cook, a professor of psychiatry at Yale and a PTSD researcher for the Department of Veterans Affairs. “Their symptoms seemed to be increasing and those events seemed to act as a floodgate.”
For so many, that was when the veterans finally learned they were not crazy or weak.
“Pretty much to a person, for them, learning about PTSD and understanding that people were researching it in World War II veterans was a real relief,” Paula Schnurr said. “Many people felt isolated and crazy and they thought it was just them. And they didn’t talk about it.”
Mackey told me that he generally felt better after therapy sessions at the VA with other haunted World War II vets. But there were still days when “I get that empty feeling, just deep down, and I don’t care whether I live or die.”
Seated on a sofa a few feet away, Mackey’s wife, Helen, began to cry.
“See, he has not told me this,” she said, “that he doesn’t care if he lives or dies.”
Theirs was a drama that has played out across the centuries, a part of literature going back to The Iliad. The psychic toll of war has been variously described as nostalgia, soldier’s heart, shell shock, war neuroses or simply exhaustion, and there have always been skeptics.
Among them was Gen. George Patton, who in 1943 famously slapped two soldiers being treated for combat-related neuroses, calling one a “yellow bastard.” Patton was sternly reprimanded by Allied Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.
John Huston’s 1946 documentary, Let There Be Light, was confiscated by the Army and not allowed to be shown until 1981. The government rationale was that it would hurt recruiting.
The reality was that of the 16 million Americans who served in the Armed Forces during World War II, fewer than half actually saw combat. Of those who did, more than a million were discharged for combat-related neuroses, according to military statistics.
In the summer of 1945, Newsweek reported that “10,000 returning veterans per month … develop some kind of psychoneurotic disorder. Last year there was more than 300,000 of them — and with fewer than 3,000 American psychiatrists and only 30 VA neuropsychiatric hospitals to attend to their painful needs.”
One of those hospitals was the subject of John Huston’s 1946 documentary, Let There Be Light, which said that “20 percent of all battlefield casualties in the American Army were of a neuropsychiatric nature.” The film followed the treatment, mostly with talk therapy, drugs and hypnosis, of “men who tremble, men who cannot sleep, men with pains that are no less real because they are of a mental origin.”
Huston’s movie was confiscated by the Army just minutes before its premiere in 1946 and not allowed to be shown until 1981. The government rationale at the time was that the images of stuttering, hollow-eyed, trembling soldiers would hurt recruiting.
It’s true that millions of servicemen returned home and did exactly what Tom Brokaw described in his seminal 1998 book, The Greatest Generation. Through hard work and force of will, they created modern America.
But in 1947, nearly half of the beds in the country’s VA hospitals were still occupied by soldiers with no visible wounds. While no there were no reliable statistics on the topic, the epidemic of alcohol abuse was widely known.
The country was also experiencing a divorce boom. In 1941, 293,000 American couples divorced, a rate of 2.2 per 1,000 people. In 1945, that number had risen to 485,000 and 610,000 in 1946, 4.3 divorces per 1,000. It was the highest divorce rate in U.S. history, one not eclipsed until 1973, according to government statistics.
There was a ubiquitous public discussion and concern for the complex issues facing the returning soldiers. Popular magazines like Redbook, Ladies’ Home Journal and Life were full of articles about how to find a job, use the GI bill or deal with a vet who suffers from nightmares, sudden rages and debilitating sadness. The film The Best Years of Our Lives, the story of the troubled homecoming of three World War II vets, won the 1947 Academy Award for Best Picture.
Through the 1950s, the troubled vet routinely surfaced as a character in film noir, often as the villain.
But that discussion was short-lived and cultural amnesia set in. The economy recovered and jobs were suddenly plentiful. The Cold War began. Through the 1950s, the troubled vet routinely surfaced as a character in film noir, often as the villain. But the lingering horrors of war otherwise retreated from the public conversation, often overshadowed by communism.
Yet as they went on with their lives, many struggling soldiers would not have recognized themselves in Brokaw’s eventual rendering: “Mature beyond their years, tempered by what they had been through, disciplined by their military training and sacrifices. They stayed true to their values of personal responsibility, duty, honor and faith.”
Members of the Greatest Generation certainly deserved every accolade bestowed on them, Childers said, “but there is nothing to suggest how complicated those years were.”
Or how difficult they continued to be. A 2010 California study showed that aging World War II veterans were four times more likely to commit suicide than those their age who had not served in the military.
“With all the glossy tributes, it actually shortchanges that generation,” Childers said. “The problems they had to deal with and the challenges they had to overcome were far greater than what Brokaw wrote about.”
Conquering demons of war
Arthur “Dutch” Schultz, hero of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge, went on to become a poster boy of sorts for the Greatest Generation, the basis of a character in the 1962 war movie The Longest Day and a prominent figure in other World War II books. But there was much more to his story, including a long battle with alcoholism and two failed marriages.
His daughter Carol Schultz Vento described his struggles in her 2011 book, The Hidden Legacy of World War II. She recently told me of the time she persuaded her suicidal father to put down his gun.
“For all his bravado and success, dad returned home from the war a shattered and broken man,” Schultz Vento wrote.
A 2010 California study showed that aging World War II veterans were four times more likely to commit suicide than those their age who had not served in the military.
Dutch Schultz finally managed to mostly conquer the demons of war before his death in 2005, but it took him half a century. That took as much courage as anything he faced on the battlefield, his daughter believes.
But she and so many others of her generation also suffered quietly, not understanding the pain and tension in their households, because the ghosts of the war rarely revealed themselves.
Earlier this year, I published my novel, which featured a struggling World War II hero as the main character. I wondered about the book’s relevance today, until I started hearing from readers across the nation who described the night terrors, depression, heavy drinking and quiet suffering of their fathers.
To them, a story about the hidden toll of the war helped them make sense of their childhoods.
Lord, some nights I have nightmares and I can still hear that shell going off in my head.
World War II veteran Earl Crumby
But those compelling stories of the Greatest Generation remain mostly untold, and “a curious silence lingers over what for many was the last great battle of the war,” Childers wrote. “The battle was not fought on the fields of Europe. … But more often in parlors, kitchens, bedrooms and buried in the deepest personal privacy. As many veterans would quickly discover, the last daunting challenge of the war, for those fortunate to survive it, was coming home.”
Crumby and the soldiers of the Greatest Generation knew too well that when it comes to the human toll, war does not discriminate. A piece of a German shell tore through his shoulder, “but the deepest wound was right here,” he said, pointing to his head. “Lord, some nights I have nightmares and I can still hear that shell going off in my head. There are just so many of us out there. I know they’ve got to be having the same problems I have.
“If you get to digging,” he told me, “you’ll find that soldiers of all wars, they’re bothered with it, too.”
Former Star-Telegram reporter Tim Madigan is a Fort Worth freelance writer and the author of “Every Common Sight,” available on Amazon.com.