“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13
No, this isn’t about those incorporeal beings–God’s messengers, who when they show up are so frightening that their first words are usually, “Fear not.” No, this is about Memorial Day weekend and a reminiscence about my old friend and client Bill W. I’ve been meaning to write something about him for some time. He was a WWII vet of the war in the Pacific and a member of the 11th Airborne Division–nicknamed “Angels”. Check out the division patch and you will understand why they were called angels. http://www.medalsofamerica.com/Item–i-P035
I inherited Bill as a client forty years ago in May, 1973, when I took over a group at Seminole Community Mental Health Center from a therapist who was leaving to take another job. As I recall, the group consisted of Bill, one other guy, and three or four ladies. Having Bill in a group with females was not a good mix and after a few sessions I started seeing him individually–but not before provoking one of the ladies to throw an ashtray narrowly missing his head, and after calling me a “yellowbelly” because I hadn’t served in Viet Nam. I didn’t have anything against the war at that time, or even killing for that matter, but my two years in college Army R.O.T.C. convinced me that my nature and military discipline would not be a good mix, and so I spent five years figuring out various ways to get deferments from my draft board.
To say that Bill had an anger problem, and issues with women, would be a severe understatement. He remains one of the single angriest clients that I’ve ever had. He was a big guy, 6-2 and over 200 lbs, well-built and with his angry-guy persona he could be intimidating. He had bad knees and he walked in a mechanical, lurching sort of way that reminded one of Frankenstein. He was undoubtedly suffering PTSD from the war, and added to that were anger over two failed marriages. Back in the 1970s we really didn’t understand much about PTSD: Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.
Bill’s unit, the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 11th Airborne, spent pretty much the whole of three months, Nov. 1944 to February, 1945, in combat in the Philippines. They landed on Leyte and drove the Jap defenders across the island in what was often hand-to-hand combat–eventually pretty much killing them all. After Leyte, they jumped into battle at Tagaytay Ridge on Luzon, fought in the battle to liberate Manila, liberated Los Banos concentration camp and then participated in mop-up operations all over Luzon. I remember him saying that for one month straight on Leyte he thought that every day would likely be his last. His unit was deep in the jungle, pretty much cut off from other units and from resupply, and locked in a struggle to the death with the Japanese. Not a conventionally religious man he nevertheless prayed the same prayer every evening: “I thank you God for letting me see your beautiful sun set one more time.” And then in the morning he prayed: “I thank you God for letting me see your beautiful sun rise one more time.” The nights were as harrowing as the days.
He never bragged. He spoke about his wartime experiences because I asked about them. He was matter of fact, understating things as members of his generation were prone to do. I do know from comments that he felt guilty about surviving the war when so many of his buddies didn’t. He was never even wounded. His recall of events was impressive. I remember around Thanksgiving Day, 1974, him saying,” I was thinking yesterday that it was 30 yrs ago to the day that I was sharing a foxhole with Joe ____ ” and then he paused and then remarked that his friend was shot dead thru the chest.
Shortly before the Japanese surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945, the 11th Airborne had the honor of being the first unit to arrive in Japan for the occupation. They landed at Atsugi Airfield and accompanied MacArthur to Yokohama and Tokyo. It almost seems surreal in our present era of terrorism, a few hundred 19 and 20-year-old kids armed with not much more than M1s in the midst of hundreds of thousands of still heavily armed Japanese who they had been in mortal combat with just weeks earlier. But the Japanese if anything were obedient, and when their emperor said to lay down their arms they did.
Bill’s PTSD really came to the fore in 1975. The 11th Airborne Association was holding their annual get-together in the Philippines. Bill committed to this and paid for his ticket months in advance. Initially, he was excited about the trip and seeing his old buddies again, but then as the trip loomed larger and larger on his calendar he began sleeping poorly, suffering nightmares, and feeling edgy during the day. He said he felt like he’d escaped death in the Philippines many times and perhaps this time he wouldn’t be so lucky. Maybe he wouldn’t come back this time. The group planned to visit some of the sites of their battles. He wondered if he might step on a long-forgotten landmine buried by the Japs 30 years earlier–or maybe he’d just have a heart attack from the heat and the stress.
In any event, he went back to the Philippines, and was away for the better part of two weeks. When he returned he was a man transformed. Many of the demons that had haunted him for 30 years had been exorcised. The trip which had held so much apprehension for him turned out to be an enormously positive experience. They visited some of the battle sites, were reunited with their Philippine scouts, generally given a hero’s welcome wherever they went, and were all personally decorated by Ferdinand Marcos–the then President (dictator) of the Philippines. But perhaps the greatest blessing for Bill was just to be around the men with whom he had shared so much. Just their presence in his life was reassuring. He remarked once that there had never been anything in civilian life that remotely resembled the sense of purpose and family that he had with the 511th–they were truly a band of brothers.
Bill was originally from Long Island, N.Y. He sold life insurance for a living and was moderately successful. He saw his sales job as similar to being on the front lines in the military–sort of locked in hand-to-hand combat with clients. In the service he never made it higher than PFC, but after the war he spent 20-yrs in the New York National Guard and eventually rose to the rank of Lt. Colonel. While having achieved some success in life, he remained a bitter and lonely man. He often remarked about how much he envied his peers with happy marriages.
Bill eventually improved enough that he no longer needed counseling. However, he wanted to keep in touch and so every month or two we’d meet for lunch. Our counselor/client relationship had gradually morphed into a friendship. He always picked up the tab, and being old school, he never failed to ask about how my wife and stepson were doing. About 1978, he needed double knee replacements and after discharge from the hospital he wouldn’t be able to go out for a few weeks, and so on one occasion I went grocery shopping for him. I remember how grateful he was when I brought the few items over to his little efficiency apt. I suppose at that point in his life I was the closest thing he had to a friend, at least locally.
In the mid-80s we lost touch. But over the years I was amazed at how many time he’d pop into my thoughts. Several times after my own divorce in 1987, I thought about trying to track him down, but sadly, I didn’t follow thru on my urges. I worried that he had remained alone and bitter, but a part of me hoped that maybe he’d met someone and was happier than when I’d last seen him, and that perhaps that was why he hadn’t been in touch. Finally, about five years ago I started doing some research on the internet and I found that he’d passed away on 2/23/96. Ironically, 2/23 was the anniversary of what may have been the 511th’s finest hour–the surprise raid that liberated over 2,000 prisoners from the Los Banos internment camp–mostly civilians, many of whom were missionaries and clergy.
I’ve always been a history buff–particularly WWII, and I guess my enduring memories of Bill are part of that obsession. I was born during the war and I have vivid recollections of the immediate post-war period. Both of my maternal uncles and many of my cousins served in the Pacific. In my little hometown, Port Clinton, there is a Bataan Memorial School. Shortly before Pearl Harbor, Company C, of the 192nd Tank Battalion of the Ohio National Guard was activated and sent to the Philippines. Of the 42 young men from my home town that comprised Company C, only 10 returned. The rest died in combat on the retreat down the Bataan peninsula, or during the Bataan Death March, or in the three and half years they spent as POWs. For a small town, 32 dead young men is a tragedy.
War is always a tragedy–there is no glory to it at all. And yet our lives are enriched by the memories of those who survived. So like Snoopy quaffing a rootbeer in honor of the cartoonist Bill Mauldin, I’ll lift my glass today for Bill, my neighbor Angelo, my church buddy Ralph Foulds, and my uncles: “Unk” Carl Lundblom, and Hal Lundblom. You were truly the Greatest Generation.