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The 36th Mission
He spent his tour of duty bombing German cities and made it home only to discover he could never leave the war behind him. Then, a lifetime later, he found a way to make peace.
May/June 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 3
My discharge came through on October 17, my birthday. I thought I couldn’t have gotten a better gift.
But everything back home had changed. How could so much be different in just two years? I got into civilian clothes as soon as I could and started looking for a job and something to do with my life. The job I left when I enlisted at eighteen—foreman in a small factory making 40-mm shells for the government—was no longer available, but the plant gave me work cleaning machinery. I was restless and didn’t last long. I went back to drinking and chasing after women.
My mother and I ended up renting a place in a very rough neighborhood. It was all we could afford, because I wasn’t earning any money. I drank and gambled and in general became a bum.
Most of my old friends had gone into the service about the same time I did. Some never came home, some were badly injured, and some wished they had never come back. I was in there somewhere and tried to figure out where I fit in back home.
So one particularly restless day, September 19, 1946, I re-enlisted in the Air Force. I had been a civilian for eleven months.
I got my stripes back and was sent to Boca Raton, Florida, to learn radar mechanic bombardment in B-29 bombers. At least I was in a warm climate; I hadn’t made enough money as a civilian to buy any winter clothes. When I graduated, I got orders to report to Edwards Air Force Base in California, and I headed west with three guys who were going to other bases out there.
Where am I? What happened? What am I doing here? All I could remember was that I had been on my way to Edwards. Instead I had awakened in a hospital in Pasadena. How I got there I’ll never know.
Early in the morning on may 16, 1987, I wrote an open apology to all the cities I had bombed. I wanted it to arrive on Memorial Day.
I was in a room, sitting in a corner, just looking around. I had the feeling of being suspended in the air, and as I looked down, I could see thousands of faces looking up at me.
Five doctors came in to talk to me at the same time. They told me that I was having hallucinations and was reliving my combat days.
I was in the hospital for months. Thoughts of suicide had been with me since the service. Now I had a constant dread that I might start hurting innocent people and end up in prison. I had read stories of people who had gone berserk. I could understand why.
Finally the doctors decided I was not going to harm anyone and gave me a medical discharge. But I really didn’t want one; I had nowhere to go. I ended up staying with my sister in California. This gave me some semblance of living, and I gradually got to feel good enough to enroll in classes, including journalism, and join the glee club at Long Beach College. There was a lot of drinking going on around campus—one thing I was really good at. One day while driving intoxicated, I had a bad accident and nearly got myself killed. I had liked school, the education, the learning. But I screwed up. So I dropped out.
I went back to Wisconsin, to Kenosha. I felt hostility from everyone I met and again began to get the feeling that I wanted to kill everyone on the street. I ended up turning myself in to Downey Veterans Hospital in Illinois. The doctors put me in the lockup ward because I was seeing visions, and they gave me shock treatments. I felt I should not have come back from the war—that, in fact, I wasn’t really anywhere at all.
I don’t know how long I was at Downey. At last the hospital discharged me, and I returned to Kenosha and finally found a decent job at Alien A’s, a hosiery company. A little later I went to a dance and met Ruth. We hit it off from the start. She was twenty-two and I was twenty-five, and we both were ready to settle down. Within six months, on September 15, 1951, we were married. It was the first time since my enlistment that I was genuinely happy.
But I still couldn’t concentrate, and I still felt restless. I kept losing jobs and ending up in veterans’ hospitals. It got so bad that we had to move from town to town. I don’t know of anyone who has had more jobs than I have through the years. I quit one after another and never knew why.
We lived in Kenosha until 1964, when we moved to Madison. I got a job in the post office. Later we moved to Poynette, where Ruth and I managed a mobile-home court and owned a small grocery store, and finally to Fort Atkinson, where I bought a tavern for very little money because the owners wanted out. All this time I never talked about the war, not even to Ruth. No one wanted to hear about the war.