More than 40 years after the end of World War II, former American prisoners of war still suffer emotionally and physically from their experiences, psychological research indicates.
Former POWs, some now in their 80s, suffer sleep disturbances, irritability, guilt, depression, aggressive tendencies and thoughts of suicide.
Physical symptoms reported by the aging former POWs include chest pain, rapid heartbeat, numbness in the extremities and numbing weakness.
Japanese-held POWs have a “significantly higher percentage” of physical symptoms than German-held POWs, psychologists reported at a recent national conference of the American Psychological Assn.
Japanese-held POWs also suffered higher percentages of depression due to loneliness, nightmares, thoughts of suicide and prolonged helplessness, the researchers reported.
“There are clear indicators that some veterans continue to experience traumatic stress associated with their capture and POW status,” said Thomas Miller, a psychologist at the Veterans Administration Medical Center and the University of Kentucky in Louisville.
Miller and his associates studied 86 former POWs to assess current adjustments to post-military life and to determine their susceptibility to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Another study yielding similar results was conducted at the Veterans Administration Medical Center at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, Ga. That study involved 71 former POWs, predominantly from World War II and ranging in age from 56 to 80.
The Augusta study, headed by psychologist Shelby Sperr, also revealed what he called the “surprising finding” that the duration of imprisonment did not cause significant differences in the results, although this might have been thought to be a prime stress factor.
Charles Stenger of the American Ex-prisoners of War Assn. said, “If you go through those kinds of deprivations, you continue throughout the rest of your life to have damage.”
Stenger said the belief that “when it’s over, it’s over” is a myth. “Those in the profession realize it’s not over. The symptoms recur later in life.”
Some former POWs functioned reasonably well throughout life “but are now falling apart,” he said.
Proud of Medals
Stenger said most POWs are not ashamed that they were taken prisoner, adding that a POW medal recently authorized by Congress had given former prisoners a tremendous morale boost.
The deprivations suffered by World War II prisoners and American prisoners in other recent wars is nothing new, Stenger said. He noted that during the American Revolution, the British kept American prisoners on a ship in New York Harbor while dysentery and smallpox killed them at a rate of 10 a day.
Stenger said that based on data supplied by the Defense Department, National Archives, National Research Council and other sources, the United States has 78,264 living POWs from World Wars I and II, the Korean and the Vietnam wars. A total of 142,227 Americans were captured during those wars and 17,026 died in captivity.