Part II PTSD – A Soldier’s Journey
A Soldier’s Journey through The Inferno of The Third Reich
PTSD WWII Central Europe Campaign
By early February 1945 Germany had been completely driven out of Belgium and was pushed back to their West Wall on the German border known as the Siegfried Line. The Allies then resumed their plans to begin their drive into Germany. The first phase of the Central European Campaign was known as the Rhineland Offensive and the objective was to push the German army from their western border across the Rhine River.
It appeared that my father was still with a transportation unit belonging to First Army. The VIII Corp along with the 740th Artillery Battalion had been transferred to Gen. Patton’s Third Army. During the month of March 1945 the Allies pushed the Germans are crossed the Rhine. The entire Allied line ran 400 miles from the North Sea to Switzerland and advanced pretty much in unison bypassing and surrounding determined pockets of resistance. Between March 18 and 22nd the Third Army engaged to German First Army in four days of intense battle which ended when 68,000 trapped Germans surrendered.
PTSD WWII – A Bridge Over the Rhine
The Rhine was Germany’s last natural defense barrier which would open Germany’s core to American, British and Canadian forces. The Allies knew that crossing the Rhine was going to be a formidable challenge. The Germans would throw their reserves in wherever a crossing would be attempted. The Germans were blowing up all the bridges that crossed the Rhine as soon as their last troops that had escaped the Rhineland area.
However, the U.S. First Army had a miraculous stroke of luck. As their forces approached the Rhine at a city called Remagen, they found the railroad bridge still standing. The demolition charges from the Germans first attempt to blow the bridge had failed. A second attempt was made and the charges ignited but the grade of dynamite that was sent was of construction grade not military grade. Therefore, the bridge remained standing although structurally weakened.
American forces from the 9th Armored Division immediately set out to exploit this opportunity. Because the Germans planned to blow the bridge they did not have a heavy defense position in place. After a brief engagement where U.S. troops stormed the German bunkers and machine gun positions, the bridge was taken. Immediately, forces were rushed forward to establish a bridgehead on the East bank of the Rhine. Also, pontoons and other bridge building materials along with ferrying equipment for heavy tanks and large artillery pieces were rushed to the sector to capitalize on their good fortune.
My father crossed the Rhine on the actual Ludendorff door bridge driving a supply truck. The Germans launched numerous dive bomber attacks and even the V2 rockets in attempts to knock out the bridge. Many Luftwaffe pilots lost their lives trying to fly through the gauntlet of antiaircraft batteries that lined the corridors approaching the bridge.
Ten days after its capture the Ludendorff Bridge suddenly collapsed into the Rhine.
PTSD WWII – Breakout at Remagen and Crossing the Rhine
Because of the unplanned bridge capture, the First Army moved across the Rhine ahead of their time schedule. It wasn’t until the end of March that the rest of the Allied armies would be ready to cross the Rhine in 5 or 6 other locations. Therefore, the First Army continued to build up the bridgehead on the East side of the Rhine until the entire Allied line was ready to move forward. Over 100,000 men and equipment were moved into the Remagen bridge.
Towards the end of March 1945, the Allied forces were ready to move forward. During this period the American Air Force had been bombing railyards, communication centers, troop concentrations, and strafing trains, military convoys and other enemy supply elements. Many German cities and towns that would be in their path had already been laid to ruins.
On March 25, the First Army broke out of the Remagen Bridgehead and headed east south of the Ruhr Valley, Germany’s industrial heartland. The objective was to encircle the entire Ruhr Valley where German Army Group B with close to 500,000 men we’re waiting to defend the fatherland to the death. Army Group B was commanded by German Field Marshal Walter Model, one of Hitler’s most loyal and decorated commanders. Model had won huge victories in France and Russia, but he made the wrong call at the Ruhr. Model had anticipated that US forces would come directly at him on his Western perimeter and planned his defenses accordingly.
Instead, the majority of the First Army bypassed these defenses and rapidly moved forward going east moving south of the Ruhr Valley against very light opposition. On the second day of the breakout, the American forces had been able to move between 50 or 60 miles beyond their line of departure at the Remagen Bridgehead. German troops were shocked to see American units so far in the rear of their lines and many started to surrender.
PTSD WWII – German Plane Strafing Incident
The American units that headed north into Model’s defenses had only managed to advance 12 miles due to stiffer resistance. By April 1, the U.S. Ninth Army was coming down from the Northwest having crossed the Rhine to the north of the Ruhr. The Ninth Army headed east from north of the Ruhr Valley, both armies then would connect up on the East end of the Ruhr, completely encircling Model’s Army.
During this period, my father was driving gasoline tankers to supply advancing tanks and armored vehicles of the First Army. On one of these runs his convoy was strafed by German planes. My father figured being in the gasoline truck wasn’t very safe so he stopped the vehicle and made a run for it. An officer spotted him and ordered him back to gasoline tanker. My father suggested that the officer drive it himself if he wanted it to move. My father was a corporal at the time, the officer saw to it that he was busted back to private and sent back into his combat role with the 740th artillery which was probably far less dangerous than the gasoline truck proposition.
It is rather interesting that to relieve him of his combat fatigue (PTSD) they had him driving gasoline tankers that were being strafed. I wonder what they did to penalize people?
Also, if you think about it – a truck being strafed would not be any safer moving than standing still. However, I think getting out of the truck was the wiser choice, because I might not be sitting here writing this had he hopped back into the truck.
PTSD WWII – As the Third Reich Collapses
The Third Army was close by covering the First Army’s southern flank, so my father was sent back to 740th Field Artillery for the remainder the war.
Once the Third Army crossed the Rhine things began to move rather rapidly. The Third Reich was collapsing, German troops were surrendering in droves, but occasionally the U.S. troops would run into the fanatical resistance of diehard Nazi extremists who wanted to fight to the death.
During much of this period the infantry and armor were moving so swiftly the artillery did not have time to deploy. It was roughly 300 miles from the Rhine to the Elbe, this was going to be accomplished in a 30 day period. On several occasions the army would advance by 30 or 40 miles in the day, and then stop for day or so in a town that decided to put up fanatical resistance. This occurred at Eisenach and the Corp artillery fired over 3,000 rounds, zeroing in on military targets and the roads of retreat from the town. After 4 hours, what was left of the town garrison surrendered – about 400 more POWs.
The number of prisoners being taken was far beyond what the American command had anticipated. When Army Group B capitulated in the Ruhr Valley on April 16th, the U.S. First and Ninth Armies took over 380,000 prisoners. Field Marshall Model committed suicide on April 21st.
Hitler had issued orders for his troops to fight to the death and his more ardent believers took it as their sworn duty. They forced others to do so under the fear of death. Since many of the soldiers were young teens they were afraid of these hardened fanatics and often followed their orders.
PTSD WWII – Horror Within the Inferno – Buchenwald
On April 4, the Third Army had lunged ahead of the other allied units. The VIII Corp had reached the ancient town of Gotha and was to hold up for several days waiting for the other armies to align so as to avoid the possibility of an attack on their open flanks. There were some large German Army units that were still trying to hold out – like 70,000 men in the Harz Mountains. This group was surrounded and bypassed, but they held out until May the 7th 1945 and some would not give up until the end of May.
It was during this period in early April that the Allies discovered the first of many concentration camps in Germany. No one had ever seen nor imagined the horror that was about to be uncovered. Patton wanted his men to know what they had been fighting for, so he ordered all of the troops of the VIII Corp to walk through Buchenwald and surrounding camps to witness what had taken place.
As my father’s unit was being marched toward the camp he could see barracks with what appeared to be cords of wood stacked up outside. At first he thought to himself, “it was not that bad, at least they were warm in the winter” for he had been sleeping in the snow much of the time. However, the grim reality became clear as the troops realize that these were not cords of wood, but stacks of human corpses. The German SS units did not have time to destroy the evidence, and the thousands of bodies were stacked up around the camps.
The site and smell of the camps would leave a lifelong impression on my father’s psyche, however, this would soon be surpassed by even greater horror to come in the weeks ahead for him.
PTSD WWII – The Third Reich Fights to the Bitter End
On the 8th or 9th of April the VIII Corp started its advance towards the Elbe again. The Elbe was the stopping point where the Russians, after pushing the German Army from the East, would meet Allied Forces. There was some tension over the meeting with the Soviet and Allied troops due to ideological differences. Both sides realized that after the defeat of Germany, that an armed conflict between the Soviets and the Western allies seemed inevitable.
Many German towns and cities would surrender as American troops approached, white flags would be hung from buildings and homes. On some days advancing U.S. troops would take 20 or so towns, capturing thousands of prisoners every day. The roads were jammed with German vehicles destroyed by strafing and artillery, thousands of liberated slave camp workers, allied POWs who had been liberated, and thousands of German prisoners of war who were told to head back towards the American rear – often unguarded. The American units we’re just pushing forward and didn’t have time to stop for anything.
But then, they would again run into organized resistance where towns would not surrender and German troops, usually SS, would not surrender, sometimes leveling antiaircraft batteries right at the advancing infantry with the devastating effect. Right when the war was about to end, these hard-core Nazis would kill as many American soldiers as they could for no real purpose–it was essentially murder which angered the American soldiers greatly. It was during this period being taken prisoner became risky for some of the German hold-outs, especially if they had just killed any American troops. My father did witness German prisoners being shot. At the time he just shrugged it off, figuring they deserved it. Especially, after what was to happen next.
PTSD WWII – Killing of the Innocent
My father told me that as one of the American units approached one town which was flying white flags to surrender, the jeep carrying the officer who was to accept this surrender was fired upon by German snipers, morally wounding the officer. A medic rushed forward to help him and he too was murdered.
The Americans pulled back and orders were given to the 740th artillery to set up their guns. The day before this my father had received word that his father had died back home. My father did not get along with his father, therefore he was filled with very confusing emotions. That night the artillery fired many rounds into the town. My father said he was in a rage as he loaded round after round into the 8 inch howitzer. He was filled with anger at the German snipers, his father, and all the horror he had witnessed from the Battle of the Bulge to Buchenwald. With each shot fired he would imagine all of the German soldiers he was killing.
The next day the troops, including the artillery, would march victoriously through the town, as customary, to let the defeated know they were defeated for good. As they entered the town, the officers started to bark orders at the men just to stare at the helmet of the man in front of him, and not to look around. But my father was compelled to look. And what he saw became etched in his memory for the rest of his life. There were no dead German soldiers, only the bodies of women and children and of a few old men who were of no use to Hitler’s legions.
Later, when the Burgermeister was questioned, the Americans discovered that a squad of diehard Nazis had come into the town when it was surrendering. They took their shots at the American truce personnel and quickly ran from the town as it grew dark, before any artillery shells had struck.
My father never mentioned the name of the town, perhaps he never knew it. This is something no one would want to remember. However, when I was reading various war journals I came across the following event:
The 89th infantry division which is part of the VIII Corp, had secured at bridgehead over the Zwick– Mulde River on April 16, 1945. “The Second Battalion, 355th Regiment, 89th Ninth Infantry division, crossed the river to capture Wilkau, then advanced along the autobahn. Outside of Ortmansdorf, Lieut. William H Jones, the platoon leader of Company M, 354th, led a motorized patrol on reconnaissance of the town which was displaying white flags. Advancing cautiously, he suddenly came under sniper fire. Although mortally wounded, he continued to direct his men in the attack. An enemy bullet killed Tec 4 Maroni Westbrook, a medic with the patrol, as he attempted to administer first aid.” (1)
The story ended here. When describing the capture of many other towns, the U.S. Army journals usually describe how the action unfolded and the capture completed – here the story just dead-ended abruptly. I suspect that this is the town that was decimated by the 740th Field Artillery on that day. Not only did the Nazi a**holes get their own women and children blown away, but they twisted the minds of many of the artillerymen who had unwittingly killed only women and children. I know my father’s mind was permanently altered by this event. (See Appendix A)
To make matters worse for my father, he broke down and cried shortly after this event. A couple of tough guys that had been replacements beat him up for doing so. They had not been through the Bulge or many of the other horrific events witnessed prior to Ortmansdorf. At this point one of the higher ranking officers pulled my father out of the unit and made him his personal adjutant.
PTSD WWII – And Then Paradise
Shortly after this, my father was supposed to be watching POWs clean up by large hall which had a piano that still functioned. My father was a very good big-band pianist – he had just turned 20 years old. He had put his rifle down leaning it against the wall and started playing the piano. One of the young German POWs was dancing with his broom. Everybody was trying to have a little fun.
Suddenly, the room snapped to attention as a general walked into the auditorium. He approached my father who assumed he was in major trouble because his gun was just leaning against the wall as he was banging away on the keys. But the general just said “Come with me kid, you are now the pianist in my band”. So he was shanghaied as a pianist in the big swing band for the General’s forthcoming soirées for the remainder of the war and occupation with plenty of free booze. He did not leave Europe until December 1945 and was discharged in January 1946 in Danvers, Massachusetts.
PTSD WWII – Aftermath of Untreated PTSD
My father had problems after the war with nightmares and other combat fatigue symptoms– PTSD. A therapy session was organized to be held in Buffalo, New York with a bunch of guys with similar problems. My father lived in Bridgeport Connecticut – this was not a local event. I guess the therapist was trying to work with these hardened combat veterans in too theoretical an environment. The guys were not cooperating with the medical authorities. My father felt sorry for the therapist, but most of the men were not picking up on the therapist’s perspective. Then, someone snuck a bunch of booze into the meeting and everyone got drunk and remained that way for the entire weekend. That was the extent of the treatment that most of the combat veterans received for taking part in one of the biggest combat conflagrations ever taken-on by U.S. troops.
When my mother met my father, five years later, he still shook so badly he could not hold a cup of coffee with a saucer without spilling it.
It was amazing that he was able to pull his life together somewhat after witnessing so much horror. He was only 19 and 20 when he was in the war. My father became a scientist for NASA and had several inventions one which save many lives and made other lives much easier. Also, he was an excellent jazz pianist and played with a group of guys until he was 60 or so on weekends. However, he was an alcoholic and chain smoker, and eventually died of lung cancer in 1998. His untreated PTSD was probably a major cause for his somewhat early demise and very difficult life.
(1) http://www.89infdivww2.org/ 89th Infantry Division of World War II – “Moselle Crossing: Going On Line” : “Rhine Crossing: Approach to the Rhine” ; “Central Europe: Eisenach/Thurgundia”
PTSD WWII – Impromptu Meeting With the Bombardier of the Enola Gay
In the early 1990s I was walking on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica California with a friend, Patricia. She and I have been walking for a while and we’re looking for a place to sit. Outside a small sandwich shop, an older gentleman was sitting at a table by himself with his dog. There were two open chairs so I asked him if he would mind if we sat with him for a bit. He welcomed us and we started to talk. I noticed he was wearing an Air Force cap, and since he was about my father’s age, I asked him if he had been in the war. I knew a little bit about the Air Force in WWII because the father of a good friend of mine had been a pilot on a bomber in Europe and I had heard a few of the horror stories from that experience.
The gentleman ended up divulging that he had been the bombardier aboard the Enola Gay which was the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. My jaw just about dropped. I suddenly realize the seriousness of the incomprehensible guilt that this man felt for the death of over 100,000 people–probably closer to 200,000 overtime.
He told us that he had spent a considerable amount of time in mental institutions because of the difficulty he had dealing with the fact that he had followed orders and pushed a button causing the death of over one hundred thousand people. My father had also spent a considerable amount of time in mental lockdown facilities and many years in psychotherapy.
I relayed the story of my father shelling the German village to let him know that he was not alone in his feelings of guilt, hoping to give him a sense of relief, in that someone who just walked up to him forty-five years after the event knew exactly what he was talking about from my father’s experience.
I was also aware of the decisions that were made regarding the atomic bomb at that time. Based on the determination of the Japanese Imperial Army to fight to the death, it was estimated that up to one million American casualties would be suffered if U.S. troops had to take the Japanese mainland in combat. Taking Okinawa, a small island about 300 miles from the Japanese mainland, had cost 20,000 American deaths, 55,000 wounded and over 26,000 psychiatric casualties do the brutal nature of the Japanese method of warfare. Japanese losses were about 100,000 troops killed and between 50,000 and 150,000 civilians killed – this was out of an estimated population prior to the invasion of 300,000 people on Okinawa. If one extrapolates casualties with the population of Japan at the time, the loss of Japanese lives during an invasion would’ve been far greater than those caused by the atomic bomb – probably many millions.
I suppose he had heard of all these arguments before, but the fact that a stranger came along and tried to offer him support did make him feel better. I told him I appreciated what he and the men of his generation had done for my generation and future generations. Following orders is something that many men are born into– they really have no choice, it has been going on since the dawn of man– in their struggle for survival.
The bombardier’s daughter had finally come out of the sandwich shop and the bombardier got up to leave. I took his hand and firmly shook it, thanking him again for the service to our country. I sensed he left feeling better than he was when we had introduced ourselves. His daughter seem to notice a difference and thanked us for talking with him.
And, as far as myself, I had very positive feelings from being able to help another person to feel a bit better and at the same time a catharsis took place in allowing me to be more empathetic towards my father’s difficulties with extreme depression and rage.
In war, soldiers are called upon to commit horrendous acts: bombing cities, shelling towns, shooting the emery. In 1970, I recall the Army Field Manual stating the mission or purpose of the military was to “kill, maim or destroy the enemy”. Very simple and very clear. Disobeying orders or not carrying out a command is a reason for court martial, where you will be tried and judged by the same people who issue and give the orders.
Some of these WWII veterans or any veterans for that matter, randomly selected by fate, seemed to be effected by an unidentifiable, uncontrollable angst that gnawed away at them both on a conscious and subconscious level. Guilt over killing and injuring others, guilt for surviving when the guys next to them did not, shame over being too cruel or not tough enough and guilt over putting their own survival over others.
There is no simple answer or quick fix to the very complex disorder known as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). Unfortunately for the generation that fought WWII, the disorder was hardly recognized, the Army certainly did not want to admit to any such disorder which they might be liable to provide treatment for. Soldiers that admitted to psychiatric problems were largely shunned by the military except in very unusual circumstances, such as dropping atomic bombs. The men were supposed to be tough, and deny any unmanly behaviors. If you had a case of the jitters, have a few stiff ones and smoke a few more cigarettes.
If the military had to pick up the tab for all of the psychiatric disorders not only for the men and women that served (WWII), but for the damaged or havoc these men created in their families as a consequence, we would no long be able to afford to go to war. Which sounds good, however, the enemy does not allocate any of their funding on PTSD treatment, therefore, they will be able to go to war and we will be in trouble. I really do not see Putin or ISIS worried about the effect of PTSD on their respective soldiers. ISIS’s remedy is probably to simply remove the area where the conflict resides. However, the contrast in ideologies creates a paradox and an unending cycle which has been with the human race for many millennia.
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Part I PTSD – A Soldier’s Journey
Part I PSTD Combat http://bit.ly/1Qj4yfS A father’s combat experience from the Battle of the Bulge