By Norman Bussel
"...I gave you painted air - tears I couldn't weep – truths I couldn't speak - All the words that caught in my throat..." John Geddes, A Familiar Rain
For most POWs, and other combat veterans who carried home emotional baggage, talking about our war experiences was a topic we tried very hard to avoid. POWs felt it was impossible for family or friends to understand what it was like to exist behind barbed wire. To face the steely muzzles of guns every day. Guns carried by guards who wouldn't hesitate to shoot you if you disobeyed the rules. The humiliation of being denied food, medicine and other essentials was something you wanted to keep buried deep in your mind. Trying to explain that painful existence would be almost embarrassing. I call it the "naked mind syndrome."
So we chose not to open our souls and expose our wrenching torment to those who could not understand. Instead, we internalized the memories of POW misery and with that action, forever changed our personalities. Resentful that some seemed to take our time as POWs lightly, we became introverted. We led lives of controlled rage, except for the times when we lost it and our overreaction became a problem.
Of course we wanted to lead "normal" lives, so most of us got married and had children. My friend Steve Yarema called POW wives, "Our Angels," because only women with sainted dispositions could endure our quirks. But our wives were adults and capable of attributing our conduct to our POW experience. Our children, however, were unable to understand our mood swings, our reclusiveness, our quick temper, our overreaction to loud noises. It was easier for them to simply accept our peculiarities and stay out of our way.
Conversations with our kids were awkward or non-existent. And this is perhaps the greatest loss suffered by POWs and their families. Unspoken words left a huge gap in our lives and far
too many of us died without ever telling our children that we loved them. Our lips forever sealed to the explanation that would have helped them to understand; that would have forged a bond between us that we so desperately needed.
As time passed, we began to unwind enough to join service organizations such as: AXPOW, American Legion, DAV, VFW, Purple Heart and suddenly discovered that we could be comfortable discussing our war experiences in the company of fellow veterans. At this point, we might have been more open if our kids had asked questions, but past rebuffs had convinced them that this subject was out of bounds.
I didn't realize how pervasive our silence was until my book, MY PRIVATE WAR, Liberated Body--Captive Mind was published. Then I began to receive emails and telephone calls from POWs' children who were astonished to learn what their dads had been through. And it wasn't as if all of us tight-lipped guys were bad parents. Some of us just never did feel relaxed enough to talk about the past.
What really drove this home for me was a call from a daughter of my own waist-gunner, Merle Rumbaugh. Before our B-17 went down over Berlin on April 29, 1944, we were hit by German fighter planes and Merle took a large shell in his chest, which exited out of his back. He as gravely wounded and bleeding badly, but the Germans didn't take him to a hospital until the next day. We were in a small prison at an airfield and thought we were going to lose Merle. He was groaning but they gave him nothing to ease his pain. All we could do was use strips of our clothing to slow three flow of blood. More than a year later, after liberation, I came home to find out that Merle's wounds were so severe that he was repatriated in exchange for a German POW and after many months in an Army hospital, he recovered enough to be discharged.
Anyway, Merle returned to his hometown in Pennsylvania, married and had four kids. Karen, his daughter, said he was a wonderful dad but would never speak about the war. She said what astonished her most when reading my book was that her dad had been wounded. "My siblings and I saw the scars on his chest and back, but they had been always been there and we just weren't curious enough to ask about them!" We've had several long chats since then and I was so pleased to be able to tell her what a hero her father was.
Then came the sad calls. I began to hear from kids whose fathers never recovered enough to be fathers. None of them had figured out that their dad's mood swings, aversion to noise, quickness to anger, silence, was a result of his war experiences. They simply couldn't wait to be old enough to leave home and get away from an oddball father.
What I found so depressing was that every son and daughter who had lost their dad was heartsick because they never knew that the pain their fathers lived with until they died was the result of the trauma of war. And every one had the same sad lament, "If I had only known!"
If I succeeded in helping some kids to see their departed dads in a different light, I am very pleased. But I know that there are still many veterans who are distanced from their families and time for reconciliation grows shorter by the day.
Over many years of chatting with veterans at AXPOW conventions, Air Force reunions and various meetings, I was surprised by how many of them said, "Nah, I'm not really in touch with my kids."
I will be the first to admit that, basically, the fault is ours. As former POWs, we battled our demons as best we could. Some of us, including me, used alcohol as a crutch. Some worked long hours to avoid being at home. Others simply staked out space in a bedroom or den, which our families were made to understand was not to be transgressed.
But placing blame for the tragedy of unfulfilled parenthood is not my intention. My fondest wish is simply to bring together those fathers who are still estranged from their children before
it is too late.
It was too late for my dad and me. He was a veteran of World War I and although I worked for him for over twenty years, our conversations were mostly about business. The times when he tried to talk about other subjects, they always concerned personal issues which we disagreed on and our dialogue quickly
deteriorated. In retrospect, he had "shellshock" and I lived with "battle fatigue." Today both these conditions fall into the category known as PTSD: post traumatic stress disorder. It is
not surprising that we grated on each other's nerves. And no wonder that we never talked about war.
Over time, with the arrival of grandchildren who were curious about our role in our country's history, some of us were able to overcome our reticence to talk about our combat experiences. But too many fascinating stories remain untold and it is sad that so many have already been buried.
If I could be granted one wish, I would ask for the reconciliation of all those POW
families who have been estranged from loved ones. For some of us, the emotional baggage that we brought home has kept us apart just as effectively as the barbed wire that surrounded us in prison camp. This is not a time to point fingers, to place blame. The fault lies with those who held us captive, the affect they had on our minds, and if we fail to change our situation, we allow ourselves to still be under their control.
Do me this one favor: If you're a POW's kid, get in touch with your dad. Set a date for a visit. Grab the moment before it's too late. If you have children, be sure to being them with you. Grandchildren can open doors that you may not be able to access. If you have a camcorder, record the conversation. It
will become a family treasure.
If you're a POW, I don't have to tell you that time is short. We're losing buddies every day. Let there be no regrets. Hold your family close and create memories that will live long after we are gone. Most important of all: Make sure that these precious words we hold in our hearts do not go...Unspoken.