"But World War II vets were supposed to be different. After all, this was a 'justified' war."
Three days after VJ-Day, I was back to my flight instructor duties. My Flight of French cadets had finally graduated. I was now trying desperately to get a new group--this time they were English cadets--through the final aerobatic, navigation, and ground training. These "Limeys," as they were called, were also wild flyers, but they, too, fought hard to keep from washing out.
Then the war ended! In a few days, my Limey cadets came in to see me with very sad news. They were ordered to report back to England "immediately." With only two weeks to go before receiving their "Wings of Gold," they were ordered home. I couldn't believe it!
I solicited the help of our CO and others, to see if we could get England to extend the time--to allow the Flight to finish--to let them get their wings. Our attempts failed. Their country was economically drained. There was no time and no money for an orderly phase down.
My life also changed rapidly, as did that of my old Torpedo buddies. Felix Ward was "Regular Navy," so there was no question that he would stay in the Service. But Will Souza and I were ready to go back to civilian life. Bob Ruth stayed with the Navy for a year, then headed for the family machine shop business in Deadwood, South Dakota. Will wanted to return to vegetable production in California. I still had aspirations for graduate school or ranching in Idaho.
The schedule for discharge from the military was set up on the basis of earned "points," giving credit for length of service, overseas assignments, and so on. However, there was a simpler way to qualify for release. Any person with a DFC or better was eligible for immediate discharge regardless of accumulated points.
Several of us took advantage of this regulation based upon citations and applied for inactive duty. Of course we had to agree to stay in the Reserves--and perhaps become "Week-end Warriors"--just in case the vision of a peaceful world might fade.
The last view I had from the cockpit of my SNJ was of Corpus Christi, Texas, on September 6, 1945. I flew solo for 2.5 hours--with a happy but nostalgic feeling. I slow-rolled a couple of times--just for fun. The world was at peace, I was happily married, and Idaho was a logical destination to start a new professional career.
It was soon evident, after the exhilaration of war's end faded, that the dream of a peaceful world was not to be. The seeds of a new confrontation were already sown during the last stages of the European occupation. The final agreement among the Big Three--Stalin, Churchill, and Truman--at the July 16, 1945, Potsdam Conference (code name TERMINAL) created some questionable country and political boundaries that could not last. This new world geography and the wide differences in concepts of government, economic development, and individual freedom between the Soviet Union and the Western World led to the so-called "Cold War." This new Cold War was destined to shape military and economic strategy for the next 44 years--ending only with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
But something unique in the history of world conflicts did emerge out of the devastation of World War II. That was a commitment on the part of the United States to assist very directly with economic recovery for Allies and enemies alike through the adoption of the "Marshall Plan." This approach and the various follow-up foreign economic assistance plans, including Food For Peace, helped bring about a miraculous recovery for many countries severely damaged by the war. Thanks largely to US policies (and support from the Allies) our two greatest enemies during WW II--Japan and Germany--emerged as the world's two great economic giants after the war. In the meantime, population growth and poverty problems of the so-called "Third World" became more visible--while the solutions remained complex and frustrating.
As countries adjusted to the realities of war's end so did individuals. Some Torpedo Four personnel remained in the Navy but most returned to civilian life a few months after war's end. Many took advantage of the GI training program to study for professional or vocational careers. Our postwar roster shows farmers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, postmasters, and mechanics--the complete range of job classifications. While there were readjustment problems with individuals, most former VT-4 members have stated that they were thankful for a "busy" job and an understanding family.
Leo Halvorson stated that, "I had a difficult time because some things that didn't bother me at all when I was in the Service became problems after the discharge. It took about 5 years before I got leveled out." (1) Bob Ruth said he was phasing back to civilian life by flying as a "Week-end Warrior," when the Navy called him back for the Korean War. Thus, the stories vary.
After the war, I lost contact with my first two crew members, S. E. Garner and C. P. Jackson. One of my Pacific crewmen, J. E. Holloman turned up at a cotton ginners conference in Lubbock, Texas, about 20 years after our return to the States. I was one of the speakers at the meeting. At that time Holloman was operating a cotton gin in New Mexico. He later died of a brain tumor--supposedly brought on by a plane crash while he was in the Navy. Don Gress, my turret gunner, and his wife have attended most of the Torpedo Four reunions. These informal reunions have provided an opportunity for pilots and crew to interact on a first-name basis without the restrictions of the ranking structure.
We hear so much about the lingering psychological problems associated with our men and women returning from Vietnam. We now know about--and partially understand--these lasting impacts. But WW II vets were supposed to be different. After all that was a "justified" war--an all-out effort to save our freedoms and protect democracy from the horrors of Hitler and dictatorship. But, were WW II vets that different from those who fought in Vietnam? We all carry some scars. One of the worst is the guilt associated with your own survival when many more deserving buddies, particularly those with families back home, did not make it.
Like many WW II veterans, I was raised during the Great Depression. I was taught to respond to the directions of older adults--to practice a certain level of self-discipline--to respect the chain of command. During the war, I often felt like an inanimate weapon to be maneuvered at someone's command, rather than an individual who had some control of the situation.
I learned to take the strikes over enemy territory one at a time and to find diversions such as reading, shooting craps, or playing poker to keep my mind away from any events which might lie ahead. For this same reason I did not listen to Tokyo Rose or seek a prebriefing until called to flight quarters for the next operation. I tried to think of the war as a game removed from realism. And I tried to discipline myself to forget the sad moments. Learning to forget was one key to survival. I was partially successful with this objective--and part of my past did slip away. Right after the war, I found difficulty recalling the details of my years at the University of Idaho. The memories returned gradually, but I believe the self-training "to forget" helped with readjustment. In addition, my own adjustment was made easier by an understanding and supporting wife, a challenging profession, and the passage of time.
For several years after WW II, on the rare occasions when I flew as a passenger on a commercial DC-3, I reexperienced some wartime feelings. I felt very uncomfortable if we hit bad weather--I "sweated through" the flight as if I was in the cockpit with the pilot--always wondering if the pilot had adequate instrument training and if he could "find the flight deck."
I sympathized with the passengers--particularly those who were experiencing their first few commercial flights. But most of all I had trouble separating each flight from the combat sensations of the war. As I looked out of the small DC-3 windows at the ground, I immediately spotted potential targets and antiaircraft gun emplacements. I was tense and ready for the glide-bombing run or the masthead attack. I had to purposely remind myself that the war was over, this was the United States and not Japanese-occupied territory. I have talked with other combat pilots who have had similar overwhelming impressions.
Many of us went through another significant adjustment to stateside duty. This might be called the "move back to materialism." On my return to the US, I could not understand why the civilian population was so enamored with food stamps or gas rations. How could these things have such high priority compared with the real issues of life and death? Survival was important, but surely not tires for the car or sugar for the cereal.
A few weeks after my return to the States I changed my mind. I saw the problems my folks were facing back on the farm with the shortages of fuel and farm supplies. I saw the maneuvering that went on to combine gas rations for a trip to visit the relatives. I saw the value in obtaining additional sugar rations to bake a cake for the returning veteran. In a very brief period of time, I, too, began to place high priority on material goods. Perhaps human nature has not changed in spite of the pressures of periodic wars.
My tour of duty with Torpedo Four took me to places in the world that I could not have visualized from my rural parochial background in Idaho. Many of those "far away places with the strange sounding names" became identifiable locations on the map. My Navy experience helped me to develop a better concept of our interdependent world and a strong conviction that the ultimate road to world peace lies in education and improved communication and not in confrontation and conflict.
(1) Taped Interview with Leo Halvorson, VT-4 Crewman.
Torpedo Squadron Four: A Cockpit View of
World War II
Copyright © 1990-2000 by Gerald W. Thomas