Countless sources have portrayed the World War II generation of vets as tough cookies, who transitioned to civilian life with ease. Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation describes heroes nobly fighting a war, with nothing on the psychological cost, nothing on its aftermath. In fact, such simple depictions do these men and women a terrible injustice, by failing to explore their other great struggle, what they went through after they came home.
Many vets were seriously affected. A 1951 report for the Department of Defense on "Personnel Separated For...Non-Adaptability or Psychoneurosis" found that it wasn't the rare weakling who succumbed. Between 1941 and 1945 the military granted 445,200 medical discharges for "Mental Disease" of which 380,000 were for "Psychoses" and "Psychoneuroses". In his acclaimed memoir of Marines in the Pacific, With the Old Breed, Eugene Sledge wrote that on Okinawa his compatriots--one of the most elite fighting forces in the war--suffered 7,600 killed, 31,800 wounded, and 26,200 neuropsychiatric casualties.
Such figures are cold, but do not describe what this generation went through. In Omaha, a vet, sitting at a table with his fiancé and her parents at a Sunday dinner, heard a plane fly overhead, dove under the table, curled into a fetal position and locked his eyes shut, and eventually sought help in a VA hospital.
Trauma could affect anyone, even the bravest of the brave. The most decorated U.S. soldier in World War II was Audie Murphy, winner of a host of awards from the Medal of Honor on down. Over and over, Murphy demonstrated inhuman courage in the face of deadly enemy fire.
But when he came home Murphy had difficulty sleeping, and suffered intense nightmares. Once, while still asleep, he pounded a wall till his fists bled. Often he would bolt upright in bed, yank the pistol he kept under the pillow, and shoot clocks. Or mirrors. Or light switches.
Dean Winters was a Marine Raider, an advanced unit within the already elite Corps. Winters lost both legs in the war, and experienced two flashbacks. One came in San Diego, when he spotted a Japanese-flagged ship in the harbor; "I went crazy and wanted to sink it." Another time in Vegas, he was watching a display of two pirate ships fighting, with theatrical explosions and water geysers. Turning around in his wheelchair, he faced a group of Japanese tourists. "It brought the whole war back to 1945. I saw helmets on them, rifles, everything. I tried to run them over. My wife and the people I was with wouldn't let me out of the hotel room."
Recognizing the effects of combat on WW II veterans is only new to our generation. Late in the war, Ernie Pyle warned his readers that "thousands of our men will soon be returning home to you....They have been gone a long time and they have seen and done things you cannot know....They have changed. They will have to learn how to adjust themselves to peace."
An important guide teaching civilians what they would face was The Veteran Comes Back, a 1944 volume by Willard Waller, a Columbia University social work professor. The treatise declared, "The veteran is a social problem, and certainly the major social problem of the next few years."
It gets worse: "That hand that does know how to earn its owner's bread knows how to take your bread, know very well how to kill you, if need be, in the process. That eye that has looked at death will not quail at the sight of a policeman."
Waller's conclusion was emphatic, "Unless and until he can be renauralized into his native land, the veteran is a threat to society." This was what Americans came to expect from their returning soldiers as the war wound down. The readjustment period would be fierce on both sides, not the neutral, pacific experience depicted today.
Returning servicemen did, in time adjust, as did their spouses, their families, their country. But it was not easy. The Americans that weathered World War II -both military and civilian--belonged to a most human generation. Because they were not simple, two dimensional characters, they had to confront the damage a human mind is so vulnerable to, especially when faced with a monstrosity like war. To detail their struggle is not to demean or disparage. Quite the opposite. Those experiencing life, 1941 to 1945, those real human beings, were hurt mentally as well as physically, and had to learn to recover. By including this part of their story, it becomes not only more complete but more elevated, and they can be seen as even greater heroes than we previously understood.