When Soldiers Return From War

It was the best of days, it was the worst of days. Each year, I await the approach of April 29th with dread. When General George Patton's troops liberated me from a German POW camp on April 29, 1945, it was the best day of my life. When my B-17 bomber exploded over Berlin on April 29, 1944, it was the worst day of my life. That mission took the lives of four young crewmates who were as close to me as my brother and left me with survivor guilt, one of the primary symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

It is unfortunate that we often forget times of joy so quickly, but remember times of terror forever. And wartime anniversaries bring back vivid memories of battles and missions, and lost friends. More than six decades later, April 29th is still a day of solitude and sadness for me.

At times, I have observed this anniversary in ways that some might consider strange. Like April 29, 1951 when I was living in Memphis and the Memphis Belle, which had been bought by the city, was moved to a pedestal in front of the Armory at the fairgrounds. It wasn't my B-17... but it was a B-17...and I was a frequent visitor.

I had been thinking about our fateful mission all day and that night I turned in early because I was exhausted. I tossed in bed and finally slept, until I awoke from a nightmare where I was trapped inside our burning plane. My pajamas were soaked with sweat. Giving up on sleep, I took a bottle of bourbon from the cupboard and drove to the Memphis Belle. There were no lights and the plane seemed ghostly in the darkness. Climbing on board through the rear hatch, I made my way to the cockpit, sat down and took a drink. Then I must have dozed off, because suddenly the engines were roaring; my tail gunner was on the intercom shouting out, "Bandit at one o'clock," and our machine guns were blasting away at the attacking ME 109.

On another April 29th, I sent a large wreath of flowers to be placed against the Memphis Belle with a note saying, "I still remember." The next day, there was an article about the wreath on the front page of the Memphis Press Scimitar. When my uncle called to ask if I had sent the flowers, I was embarrassed and denied it.

If I ever hoped that my survivor guilt might lessen, that hope vanished forever on the day I received a letter from my navigator's sister, who wrote, "I will never understand how six of you could have bailed out of the plane leaving four behind." Those words were implanted into my brain as if seared there with a branding iron and I shall never forget them. I crawled into a bottle for two weeks.

In truth, I saw only one crewmate after we took off that day, when our ball turret gunner came into my radio room for about five minutes as we crossed the English Channel. Later over Berlin, wounded, the ship in flames and my clothing on fire, I jumped through the bomb bay doors seven seconds before the plane exploded.

Survivor guilt is a problem for many combat veterans returning from Iraq. It is rare for someone deployed there to complete a combat tour without losing a friend, or having one maimed by an explosive device. Every time one of our troops sets foot into a Humvee, she is stepping over the threshold of death.

As a POW, never a day passed that I didn't think about every detail of our fatal last mission. A constant stream of scenarios would flow through my mind as I saw each of my four buddies in his position on the plane and imagined how he might have died. I also taunted myself with endless, "What-ifs." What if my brain hadn't been impaired by oxygen deprivation? What if I had realized sooner that our plane was about to explode and made a rescue attempt? What if? What If?

I promised myself that if I survived prison camp, I would visit the family of each of my buddies who died and explain how our plane went down on that mission. It never happened. I could envision myself at their doorsteps, collapsing into a blubbering heap at their feet and causing them even more pain. I was also aware of the psychological trauma such a visit would bring me... and I added selfishness to my guilt. Every day I remember my lost crewmates, but anniversaries are especially evocative times, because it is difficult to think of anything else. I don't consider myself superstitious, I walk under ladders all the time, but with the passing of each April 29th, I draw a sigh of relief. I have a feeling that one year, on that date, I will be called upon to cross the threshold that I avoided so many years ago. I shall be ready.