Secrets at the Bottom of the Drawer
I set the oak case down on my desk. My throat tightens as I insert the gold key and open the lid. The 1911 government model Colt .45 automatic sits in a bed of red velvet, its five-inch blue-black barrel etched with gold oak leaves and the Marine Corps insignia. The hammer, trigger and safety lock are solid gold, and the blue, red and gold emblem of the First Marine Division gleams in the center of the walnut pistol grip. I pick the gun up--it’s heavy and cool in my hand--then turn it over. Engraved on the other side of the barrel are the words: “MSGT James O’Neal Weddle--To My Son David O. Weddle.”
* Ten years ago, I bought my father a subscription to The Old Breed News, a periodical for veterans of the First Marine Division who served in the South Pacific during World War II. Even though Dad had deeply conflicted feelings about the Corps, I thought he might enjoy reading about the other men who had served with him, maybe even reconnect with an old buddy or two. I never anticipated that he would see an ad for this special edition “commemorative” pistol, or that he would present it to me on my 35th birthday. “It’s a real collector’s item,” he explained. His blue eyes shined brightly as he took hold of the barrel with his huge arthritis-knobbed hand and turned the gun over. “Look, there’s an inscription on the other side.”
I read it, fighting back tears and an impulse to laugh. My father, reaching out to express his love with an instrument of death--it was too funny, and terribly sad.
Dad died two years later, and for the next eight years the gun rested on the top shelf of a bookcase in my bedroom, half buried by dusty hardbacks. I never took it down to show to visitors, and when my wife and I gave tours of our home, I hoped no one would notice it and ask questions. Yet I cannot bring myself to throw it away, for it is, I believe, the perfect symbol of what World War II did to my father, and to me.
I take it down finally because I’ve been thinking a lot about the war of late, principally because there is no escaping it. Every week another blockbuster book, movie or television series generates a fresh tsunami of media nostalgia for “The Good War.” There are the publicity blitzkriegs for the movies “Saving Private Ryan” and “Pearl Harbor” and HBO’s coming series, “Band of Brothers,” and such recent books as “Ghost Soldiers,” “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Citizen Soldiers” and Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation” franchise, which includes three books and his “Home of the Brave” vignettes about WWII veterans on the NBC evening news.
My reaction to all of this is, to put it mildly, ambivalent. On the one hand, I am in awe of what my father’s generation endured in the titanic struggle against fascism. They did indeed suffer terribly, give up much and perform heroic deeds that boggle the mind. But they were human--frail, flawed, sometimes strong, sometimes weak human beings. The romanticized revisionism robs them of that humanity, ignores the long-term costs that the war sometimes exacted, ultimately belittling the true scope of their sacrifices.
After the war, Stephen E. Ambrose asserts at the end of his otherwise excellent bestseller, “Citizen Soldiers,” America’s fighting men returned home, cast off their uniforms and cheerfully set about building a postwar utopia, seemingly untroubled by the death and destruction they’d participated in. “They learned to work together in the armed services in World War II,” Ambrose writes. “They had seen enough destruction; they wanted to construct. They built the interstate highway system, the St. Lawrence Seaway, the suburbs. . . . They licked polio and made other revolutionary advances in medicine. They had learned in the Army the virtues of . . . inventiveness, and responsibility.”
In “The Greatest Generation,” Brokaw depicts the war as an epic character-building exercise in which American youth learned lessons in self-improvement. Brokaw even implies that it is a shame subsequent generations have missed out on such a wholesome enterprise. “In the war I learned to be self-sufficient,” one veteran, Wesley Ko, says in a typical passage. “I learned to be a leader.” Brokaw writes that “Ko’s only regret is that the lessons of his generation are lost on his grandchildren.”
My father did not respond well to war therapy. World War II mangled his spirit. He suffered the rest of his life, and inflicted suffering on two wives, four children and countless co-workers and friends. Or so I’ve always thought.
But maybe I am wrong. Maybe I am trying to blame my father’s character flaws on the war. Could it really be, as Brokaw would have me believe, that most men killed to defeat aggressors, then returned to live well-adjusted lives? Didn’t some of them return with heavy psychological baggage? I need answers, and so I begin talking, to veterans, psychologists, historians, social observers and families. Along the way, I meet veterans who went through hellacious combat yet came out of it emotionally unscathed. Other old soldiers and their children bear scars similar to those of my family, and still others have deeper wounds. At a minimum, the portrait of “The Greatest Generation” that emerges is darker, more complex than those the rosy-eyed revisionists have been painting.
The Album in the Bottom of the Closet
Dick Hilliard served in the Second Battalion of the 22nd Regiment of the Sixth Marine Division and fought, among other places, on Guam and Okinawa, two of the most blood-drenched killing fields of the Second World War. After V-J Day, he married, became an insurance broker, settled in Corona del Mar, joined the Optimist Club, the Kiwanis, became a scoutmaster and a chief in the Indian Guides, and entertained his three boys with endless war stories. Dick’s tales rarely dwelled on the gory details. Instead they transformed the war into a hilarious, prank-packed Mr. Roberts movie. To his youngest son, Jim, it sounded as if Dad bounced from one zany adventure to another.
Then, while rummaging through the garage one afternoon, Jim came upon his father’s scrapbooks from the war. “They told a different story,” Jim says. “There were photographs of Japanese heads on pikes, Filipinos with machetes cutting the heads off of Japanese, and dead people--it was weird.”
The scrapbooks in the garage, the albums in the bottom of the closet. A number of veterans’ children told me about finding them. My father--who also had a highly polished repertoire of funny war stories--had two albums. They sat in the bottom of our hall closet, beneath a half-dozen vinyl-covered albums filled with cheery color snapshots of suburban cocktail parties, trips to Disneyland and Fourth of July cookouts. The war albums were much older. Their cracked leather binders contained small faded black-and-white images of stark canvas tents and emaciated Marines slouching wearily in mud-crusted khakis. At the back of the bottom album, I came upon images of a scorched battlefield, palm trees withered like burnt matchsticks, the charred superstructure of a Japanese Zero fighter plane, the indistinct forms of bodies scattered over the obsidian earth.
Then the very last picture: a close-up of a dead Japanese, his glazed eyes staring up at the camera with a forlorn expression, as if not quite able to comprehend why such a terrible thing had happened. I have a brother, Jim, by my father’s first marriage. Born right after the war and 10 years older than I, Jim remembers another album at the bottom of another closet, in the apartment Dad lived in with his first wife, Jean. In it was a photo of my father holding a severed Japanese head.
When Jim told me about it, I had difficulty assimilating the image with the father I knew. This man I called Dad--who sat across from me every morning at the breakfast table eating Rice Krispies, whom I curled up in bed with, along with Mom and sister Tracey, to watch “Laugh-In”--had been to places and done things I could not begin to understand. But whenever I asked him about those photos, he would mumble something vague and evasive, then veer into another comic anecdote. “Did I ever tell you about the time I blew up the officers’ latrine?”
If I pressed him on the subject, he came up with a reply very similar to one given by Randy Randazzo, a Los Angeles veteran who served as a medical man during the Battle of the Bulge. “I’ve left most of my bad memories behind me,” Randazzo says in an interview. “Life is what you make of it. You cannot look back. Yesterday is gone and tomorrow’s to come.”
I only remember the good times. The mantra of my father’s generation.
Yet they kept those albums. A past they couldn’t face yet couldn’t let go. Lately, the images secreted there have begun to emerge for some veterans, in three-dimensional color, and try as they might, they can’t shove them back in their hiding place.
The phenomenon began with the 50th anniversary of the end of WW II, and has continued with the nostalgia wave. More and more soldiers--men who never exhibited overt symptoms before, who used to scorn Vietnam vets for claiming to have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)--have been walking into VA counseling centers and asking for help. More than 32,000 WWII veterans have sought psychological treatment at vet centers since 1996. Most have led normal, productive lives, at least on the surface. They married, raised children and enjoyed careers as accountants, architects, lawyers, electricians, small business owners and so on.
But now, in their 70s and 80s, they have been debilitated by memories of events on distant battlefields a half-century ago. Many have nightmares, others find themselves crying uncontrollably when the subject of the war comes up, and some have three-dimensional flashbacks that force them to relive traumatic combat experiences.
“Many of these veterans have possibly been suffering PTSD since their return home in the 1940s and ‘50s,” says Dr. Kenneth Reinhard, a clinical psychologist at a VA hospital in Montrose, N.Y. Reinhard, son of an infantryman, Edward Reinhard, who fought on Guadalcanal, has treated hundreds of WWII soldiers for PTSD in the last five years. He currently runs four weekly group therapy sessions for them. “These are tough children of the Great Depression, who went to war, won it and came home to build fresh lives,” he says. They have known terrible privation and horrific violence, but learned they couldn’t afford to wallow in their emotions. Tears wouldn’t put food on the table or knock out the machine gun killing their friends. So they swallowed their feelings, got the job done and moved on.
But now all of the hurdles have been cleared. They’ve retired and are no longer able to keep their minds occupied by working 15 hours a day. There’s time to remember, and all those feelings they swallowed have started to bubble back up again, primed by incessant WWII tributes and the deaths of wives, siblings and friends that remind them of other loved ones lost years ago.
Reinhard believes these men are just the tip of the iceberg. There are no reliable statistics to pinpoint how many of these old soldiers might have PTSD, but two other psychologists who have studied the VA’s medical records agree with Reinhard. Elizabeth Clipp of the VA and Glen Elder Jr. of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill write: “There is evidence that PTSD in World War II veterans is currently underdiagnosed because of an unwillingness on the part of veterans to associate current symptoms with war experiences. Symptomatology is sometimes misdiagnosed as anxiety, alcoholism, depression or schizophrenia.”
Many veterans I interviewed admit to having symptoms similar to Reinhard’s patients, either now or earlier in their lives. Most common are nightmares from which they wake up screaming and sweating. Some experience free-floating anxiety, depression or phobias such as claustrophobia or an aversion to crowds.
Thaine High of Oceanside can’t stand the smell of meat on a barbecue. High was a graves registration officer in Europe. He and his eight-man squad picked up more than 1,700 corpses from the front lines in France, Belgium, Germany and Czechoslovakia. “The worst thing were the tank battles,” he explains. “If a tank was hit and burned, you had to wait until the tank cooled down, sometimes two or three days. We’d get the five names of the men who were in it from the tank commander. After the tank cooled down, we’d go in and open the hatches and try to get some kind of remains from the bodies. If we were lucky, we’d find an arm, a leg, or a foot, sometimes a skull.” His voice quivers. “To this day I can hardly stand to have a barbecue because it reminds me of the burnt flesh.”
The Angry American
It’s not surprising that WWII veterans tried to conceal their psychological wounds, if one pauses to consider the social climate they returned to. The government and the media told them to shrug off the past and embrace the good life they’d fought to preserve. In 1946, movie director John Huston, who was still in the Signal Corps, made a harrowing documentary about the war’s “neuropsychiatric casualties,” which made up about 20% of the casualties in the war. It included hair-raising footage of soldiers with severe psychosomatic symptoms such as stutters, amnesia and paralysis. The Army decided the movie was off-message and locked it in a film vault for more than 40 years.
Instead of Huston’s shattering depiction of “casualties of the spirit,” the government and media preferred to hold up America’s most decorated soldier, Audie Murphy, as the role model for veterans. Newspapers ran countless stories on this freckle-faced Texas kid who had single-handedly killed 240 German soldiers. Gary Cooper, who had played Sgt. York in the movies, befriended Murphy. Life magazine put him on the cover and ran photos of the clean-cut small-town kid getting a haircut in his local barbershop, and showing his sister Nadine a German sniper rifle--a trophy from one of his kills. Journalists gushed that Murphy was “the nicest boy you ever saw” and “a swell kid, absolutely modest and sincere and genuine and unaltered by terrible experiences.”
“That last phrase--unaltered by terrible experiences--was the key,” Don Graham wrote in his biography of Murphy, “No Name on the Bullet.” “That’s what Audie Murphy was intended to represent in his incarnations as the nation’s darling young soldier--hero. . . . It was terribly important that these returning veterans be perceived as still our boys, untouched, unchanged, the nightmare behind them. They could resume their lives just as the American people could resume theirs.”
But Murphy had been altered. At first only a few friends noticed, but as the years passed, the public began to recognize that something was terribly wrong. He constantly complained of being tired, yet couldn’t sleep. When he did, nightmares came. One time he pounded a wall in his sleep until his fists were cut and bleeding. Other times he bolted upright from his bed, pulled the pistol from beneath the pillow and shot clocks, mirrors and light switches. Then there were the public brawls in which he beat opponents to a bloody pulp with a riding crop or pulled guns on them.
Yet Murphy, who died in a plane crash in 1971, was in another way the perfect poster boy for veterans, for he had much in common with many. My father, for starters. Dad had never graduated from high school, but he rose to the vice presidency of a Fortune 500 company by virtue of an innate talent as a salesman and an ability to mobilize productive and loyal sales forces that resembled the combat units with which he served. In 1962, we moved from Pennsylvania to a wondrous new All Electric Gold Medallion ranch-style home in the heart of the California paradise. On weekends, tiki torches blazed around the pool and my father served margaritas from behind a bamboo bar as Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass blared merrily on our Fisher walnut-paneled stereo.
Yet all of the money, booze and Burt Bacharach in the world couldn’t soothe Dad’s ravaged psyche. There was first, last and always, his anger. He was possessed by a rage--volcanic, inexhaustible, always in search of a target. When I was young, there were the fights in bars. There was always a just cause for them in his mind. A woman had been insulted or struck. “I can’t stand that. I never could stand a guy that would hit a woman.” Once, we got a call from the hospital at 2 in the morning. He had slipped on wet pavement and shattered his ankle while fighting three guys outside a bar. When he asked Mom to come and get him, she hung up.
Any driver traveling the streets of our neighborhood was a target for instant suspicion. He’d glare as they passed, and if they were going even slightly over the speed limit, he’d scream: “Faster! You can drive faster than that, you SOB.” Sometimes he’d leap into our Country Squire station wagon, dragging me along, and follow the offender into his driveway, roaring through his open window: “Don’t you know we have kids playing on these streets, you dumb bastard?”
My father’s first wife, Jean Reilly, met Dad a year before Pearl Harbor. He was in the Marine Corps, and she remembers him not as an angry man, but as a funny, charming, lanky youth, sensitive and sentimental. When Dad came back from Okinawa at the end of the war, Jean noticed an immediate difference. He was nervous, moody and had a hair-trigger temper. The slightest frustration would provoke a Vesuvius of rage, truly terrifying because he did not seem able to control it. But he was far from unique, Jean discovered as she compared notes with the wives of other veterans. Most were in similar shape. Jean’s brother, who had been machine-gunned in the Battle of St.-Lo, returned from the war a bitter, angry alcoholic who lashed out at his wife until she couldn’t take it anymore and divorced him.
A number of the veterans I interviewed spoke of the bar fights they participated in after the war. “My father had a fight many weekends,” says Vernon White, of Malibu, whose father was a Seabee in the South Pacific. He helped pave the airstrip on Tinian that the Enola Gay took off from to drop the first atom bomb. The elder Vernon White came home to the small farm town of Westfield, Mass., with legs full of shrapnel, and an unquenchable thirst for booze and violence. “He was injured a lot,” his son remembers. “The guys in the bars of our town were always fighting, and most of them were guys that came back from the war.”
What were they so angry about?
Jerry Melnyk has some ideas. A former Marine, Melnyk is now a peer counselor at the VA’s Vet Center in Culver City. Like Reinhard, he runs group therapy sessions for WWII veterans. Anger was instilled in these men during boot camp, he says, then reinforced in combat as a method of overcoming feelings of helplessness, panic and fear. “You’re taught in boot camp that you’re going to be fearful when you get into combat, and that if you’re afraid, you can’t stay in that place because that’s going to kill you. You have to work through that fear. No matter how much you’ve been schooled and trained, when the first stuff begins to happen, it’s a real gauge of your character. Are you going to be the one who stands up when they say, ‘Let’s go!’ and goes, or are you going to be the one sitting there crying like a little kid and peeing all over yourself?”
When many soldiers came home, the psychological conditioning that had served them so well on the battlefield proved to be destructive in their domestic lives, and nowhere more so than with their children. Walter Bagot was a B-17 pilot during the war and won a Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions while leading bombing missions over France and Germany. On one mission, German fighters attacked the plane and blew his co-pilot’s head off. On another mission, he was shot down, captured and tortured repeatedly by the Germans. He eventually escaped, made his way back to England, flew more missions, got shot down again and remained a prisoner until the end of the war.
Bagot had to master his fear many times. Doing so saved his life and the lives of his crew. Perhaps this explains his actions when, a decade after the war, he lined up his three small children in the bathroom of their home in Japan to relieve themselves before going to bed. His son, Wally, then 5, was to go first. But the skinny blond boy saw a spider scuttle behind the toilet and flew into a panic. “I was terrified of spiders,” Wally explains. “My dad told me to go ahead. I said, ‘Dad, I’m scared.’ I asked him to kill the bug and get rid of it. He said, ‘It won’t hurt you, just go ahead.’ He was right, of course, it wouldn’t have hurt me, but I was terrified, and so I wasn’t having any of that.”
The sound of Wally’s bawling had a strange effect upon his father. The calm, reassuring paternal figure vanished and Walter went white with anger. He took off his belt and started hitting the boy. While Wally’s father beat him, he said, “There’s nothing to be afraid of. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
The Great Turkey Shoot
In January of 1949, Audie Murphy married a Hollywood starlet, Wanda Hendrix. Audie and Wanda were hailed as America’s golden couple. But Wanda realized something was terribly wrong at the altar. “It was the moment I lifted my veil for him to kiss me that I noticed the change,” she later recalled in Graham’s book. “His eyes were those of a stranger.” After the ceremony, Audie told her, “If there’s a God in heaven, I hope he forgives me for what I’ve done to you tonight.”
In the following months, Wanda discovered what he meant. Murphy turned cold and critical. He ridiculed her in front of friends, and finally, there were the guns. “The big thing in his life was his guns,” she said. “He cleaned them every day and caressed them for hours.” There were the times he bolted from his sleep and shot something off the wall, but far worse were the times he turned a gun on her. “He held me at gunpoint for no reason at all. Then he would turn around and put the gun in his own mouth. I finally told him one night to go ahead and shoot. He put the gun away and turned all white.”
What would motivate America’s most decorated soldier, by then not only a national hero but also a successful movie star, to stick a gun in his mouth? Perhaps the same dark forces that propelled so many WWII veterans toward self-destruction. My father often seemed bent on punishing himself. He lashed out irrationally at work and at home, getting himself fired from high-paying jobs he’d worked hard to obtain, driving away friends and family members he loved dearly.
My wife’s father, Danny Parness, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, so alienated his family that he lay dead in a Las Vegas apartment for three days, with only his whining dog for company. My uncle, Scotty Paton, another veteran of Europe, had not seen his wife and daughters in years. One afternoon his daughter Jeannie called.
“Sorry, you must have the wrong number,” Scotty said, and hung up. He died a week or so later, alone in a rented room in Irvington, N.Y.
The younger Vernon White watched a generation of young Polish, Italian and Irish farmers leave his small town of Westfield, Mass., for the war, and saw them return a few years later. “Some of them came out of it just fine,” he says. “But most them were alcoholics. I lived on Prospect Hill. There were a half a dozen of them who were drunk on the street--I’m talking about falling down. You’d sit them up. But nobody acknowledged there was something wrong with these guys, they just said, ‘They’re drunks.’ ”
Why were so many of these young men, who had won the war and returned as heroes, so determined to throw their lives away? One answer is survivor guilt. “I was in combat for 29 months, and I wasn’t wounded, and I apologize for that,” says Bob Williams, who served as a machine-gunner in North Africa, Italy, France and Belgium and now lives in South Salem, N.Y. When I ask why Williams feels a need to apologize, he says, “I don’t know. How come the fellow next to me was killed and I wasn’t?”
Murphy seemed haunted by the same question. “The real heroes are dead,” he said darkly on many occasions. For no matter how many machine-gun nests you knocked out, there were always those other moments, the ones you never spoke of. The time a wounded and dying buddy cried out for help but you couldn’t get to him because of enemy fire--or so you told yourself. The time you hesitated or almost ran--the times only you know about and secretly condemn yourself for.
But even worse than the guilt about what you didn’t do, is the guilt about what you did. When Al Umbach, of Palm Coast, Fla., talks about the first German soldier he killed, his breathing becomes labored, his voice burdened. Umbach was a farm boy from Long Island, drafted into the infantry and thrown into action for the first time in the Battle of the Bulge. “The Germans were retreating, and there was a raised railroad track. They were going over this track, and the one guy, I hit one guy and--what bothered me--he never, he tried to get up and I took him out again and I-- you know, that, that’s nasty. I kept thinking, ‘Don’t stand up, please don’t stand up.’ I felt anger that the guy didn’t have sense enough to stay down--that’s about all that I can--I don’t really--you’re trained, you’re trained, it seems kind of cold and everything, but that’s what we were trained for. You knew, I mean, the one thing that an infantryman knows and is drilled into him is that if somebody points a gun at you, kill him first before he kills you.”
Yet Umbach can’t help thinking about that young German these many years later. “I wonder if he had a family, if he had a girlfriend. I had a girlfriend before I went overseas and I married her--we’ve been married for 50 some years. You not only think about that one person that I killed, but all the young men on both sides that lost so much of the future.”
My father never discussed his first kill, except indirectly. When I was 15, he and I went to see the film “Straw Dogs,” directed by Sam Peckinpah. In the movie, Dustin Hoffman--a pacifist who discovered, in Peckinpah’s words, “a few nasty secrets about himself”--was forced into a confrontation with local villagers, and in one ghastly scene he beats a man to death with a fire poker. Afterward, Hoffman looked down at what he’d done with an expression of abject horror.
From the shadows beside me, my father’s clenched whisper came like a cold wind: “It’ll get easier.”
And, of course, it did, for many of those young Americans sent overseas. Paul Fussell’s searing memoir, “Doing Battle--the Making of a Skeptic,” chronicles his experiences as an infantryman in Europe. It provides sobering counterpoint to the recent batch of feel-good war books. In it, Fussell describes an incident in France known among American infantrymen as “the Great Turkey Shoot.” In a deep crater in a forest, someone had come upon 15 or 20 German soldiers. Their pleas to surrender--most were in tears and despair--were ignored by our men. Laughing and howling, they exultantly shot into the crater until every single man was dead.
In the Pacific, the fighting was even more animalistic. When I grew older, my father did describe, with great bitterness, coming upon a squad of Marines who had been captured by the Japanese. They had been lined up in the kneeling position and beheaded. As an added flourish, their penises were cut off and stuffed in their mouths. “So you know what happened when we took some Jap prisoners?” Dad said. “A couple of Marines would be ordered to take them back to the base. They’d never make it. The Japs would be shot while trying to escape.” He told me that story a number of times, but never said he took part in the assassinations.
E.B. Sledge, in his excruciating memoir of the Pacific War, “With the Old Breed,” describes his combat experiences on the islands of Peleliu and Okinawa--where my father also fought--in appalling detail. “Peleliu eroded the veneer of civilization and made savages of us all,” Sledge writes. “We existed in an environment totally incomprehensible to men behind the lines.” The Japanese and Americans shared a primitive hatred for each other that “resulted in savage, ferocious fighting.” Both sides mutilated bodies of their enemy and claimed physical trophies. Marines routinely took the ears, gold teeth and even heads of the Japanese as souvenirs. Sledge witnessed a Marine removing gold teeth with a kabar knife from a wounded Japanese who was still alive. “Because the Japanese was kicking his feet and thrashing about, the knifepoint glanced off the tooth and sank deeply in the victim’s mouth. The Marine cursed him, and with a slash he cut his cheeks open to each ear. He put his foot on the sufferer’s lower jaw and tried again. Blood poured out of the soldier’s mouth. He made a gurgling noise and thrashed wildly.”
Had my father participated in such acts of depravity? He never admitted it. But there was that photo of Dad holding a Japanese head. “Those who fought know a secret about themselves, and it is not very nice,” Fussell has said. “They have experienced secretly and privately their natural human impulse toward sadism. You learn that you have much wider dimensions than you had imagined before you had to fight a war.”
And how does a man live with that knowledge after he tries to resume a normal life? My father’s coping mechanism was to clutch with a white-knuckle grip to the belief that his actions had been justified. He reduced the thematic complexities of “Straw Dogs” to a simple message: “When your back is against the wall and they’re coming at you from all sides, you have no choice. You have to fight.” Dad believed in a world of easy-to-differentiate polarities. He said often, and proudly: “To me, everything is either black or white. I’m not much for the grays. You’re either for me or against me.”
But the more my father insisted this was true, the more I came to suspect his feelings were more conflicted. “Soldiers come up with rationalizations to justify their actions,” says counselor Melnyk. “But beneath the rationalization you often find a profound moral dilemma that they are unable to resolve.” That dilemma was laid bare in the late ‘60s by the war in Vietnam. Every night there was the live coverage of combat, the antiwar protests and riots. Dad would lean close to the screen and spew invectives at the newscasters who brought such disturbing events into his living room. His universe of easy-to-decipher good and evil was unraveling, and he didn’t know what to do.
One weekend, Mom, Dad, Tracey and I went to visit my older sister Jeanne, from Dad’s first marriage. My brother Jim was there, at the height of his hippie period. After dinner, my brother and father began arguing. Jim said the American flag didn’t mean much anymore.
Like a match to kerosene, Dad screamed: “Don’t you ever say that to me. I fought three goddamned years for that flag. I saw people die. I saw . . . what the hell do you . . . “
“I’ll tell you what I want,” my brother bellowed, “I want the truth from this government.”
Dad backed Jim up against the wall. “Truth?” he yelled. “Truth?” His words were swallowed by an inarticulate fury. For one terrible moment before my brother-in-law intervened, it looked as if he might hit Jim. But there was more than rage to his outburst. There was confusion and fear and something profoundly sad.
It’s a despair Fussell recognizes. He believes most combat veterans, some consciously, others subconsciously, are tormented by inner doubts about some of the things they did for their country and were even awarded medals for. “Hemingway put it well,” Fussell says. “He said that war is a crime, no matter how necessary. See, we were all conscious that we had performed an immense criminal action, and this made us feel guilty and awful in general.”
The attempts of nostalgia merchants to transform the Second World War into an attractive commercial product enrage Studs Terkel, author of the landmark oral history “ ‘The Good War.”’
“I call it National Alzheimer’s,” Terkel says. “You’ll notice my book’s title is in quotation marks. The noun and the verb don’t match. There is no such thing as a good war. The Second World War had to be fought, we had to stop Hitler and fascism, but the men who fought in it carry--the sensitive ones--scars. To suggest otherwise is obscene. It’s the trivialization of what that generation experienced.”
They are rapidly slipping away from us. One thousand, one hundred and thirty-five die each day; more than 414,000 veterans will die this year. A week after my first interview with Wally Bagot, his father, Walter, died of melanoma. I see Wally again a few days after the memorial service. He gestures to a weathered khaki pilot’s hat on the glass coffee table. “There it is, the hat my father wore on his B-17 missions and in the prison camps.”
It was the only thing Wally asked for after his father died. It seems odd, that this man who spent most of his childhood and adolescence rebelling against his father’s authoritarian rule would select this object out of all of his father’s possessions. But then again, maybe not, for it symbolizes the defining force that shaped not only his father’s life, but also his own. Like many children of WWII veterans with whom I spoke, Wally has spent time in therapy, rebuilding his self-esteem and trying to come to terms with a father he so loved and hated. Their relationship improved dramatically in the last years, but the shadow of this hat continued to hover over them and always will.
The hour is late. I go through the few remaining artifacts from my father’s war years. There is a thin leather-bound copy of “Barrack Room Ballads” by Kipling, a frayed edition of “My Military Missal,” edited by Father Stedman ‘for all branches of the armed forces.’ And a telegram from a stranger--the easygoing, fun-loving boy I will never know. It is yellowed and tattered, but the blue type is still clearly legible. He sent it to his mother, Hilda Weddle, at 1401 Union Ave., McKeesport, Pa. “I made the Marine Corps. Will see you very soon. Don’t worry.’
In a bureau drawer, buried beneath pile of snapshots and appliance warranties, I find a brown leather case with my father’s initials on it. Funny, I don’t remember taking this from the house after he died. Inside are toenail clippers, tweezers, a couple of old watches, a jumble of cuff links and tie clasps, a pair of .22-caliber bullets, and promotional pins and buttons from the various corporations he had worked for. Near the bottom, there’s a naked couple, cut from the cheap tin prevalent in the 1940s. There’s a lever. When you press it, the couple engage in a sexual act. Just the sort of thing a young Marine from a steel town would find titillating. Then beneath that, a piece red-and-blue-striped ribbon and dangling from it, the Bronze Star.
He never mentioned having won it, not once in all the years. My face grows hot, my heart quickens and my mind races with thoughts of running down to the frame shop to have it properly enshrined, maybe against a bed of red velvet. I’ll write an inscription, something poignant about the sacrifices he made, his heroism... I stop myself. No. You’re right, Dad. Better to leave it here. I snap the case shut.
It's a date
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