Things Soldiers Don’t Talk About

My Uncle Phil served in the Pacific during WW2. He was with the US Sixth Army in 1944, in the campaign to liberate the Philippines. After extended periods of heavy combat he was hospitalized and shipped stateside. He’d gone blind. The doctors said there was nothing wrong with his eyes, as such. They called it “hysterical blindness.” This is how that works: When a man has seen too much horror, his vision will sometimes shut down. The eyes function well enough, sure they do; but the brain refuses to process the images they see. So the man goes blind, to protect his sanity. That’s more or less what happened to Phil.

After a few months stateside his blindness receded and Phil slowly got his eyes back. The war refused to recede. If anything it got worse. The army wanted to send him back for the main event: the invasion of Japan’s home island. Phil shook his head when he told me: “Honestly — I was ready to shoot myself before I’d ever go back there. I was ready to shoot myself.” He meant it. Then, thankfully, the Japanese surrendered. And Phil lived to marry his beautiful wife and raise his beautiful children.

I used to work for a Mexican-American in Los Angeles. His brother Ralph had served with the Army Rangers in the Pacific. Ralph was a tall, powerful man, and his officers sent him on night missions. The Rangers would go behind Japanese lines with orders to bring back prisoners. For questioning. Ralph would sneak up on them in the dark. He’d cut a guard’s throat, jump another one, knock him senseless, drag him back to friendly lines. He could do it without waking the others. Unspeakably difficult missions, given the enemy’s reluctance to surrender. Let alone be taken captive. Ralph never talked about the things he’d done during the war. And he never talked about certain things that happened, after the war. I only know about this particular incident through his brother Bill.

With the shooting finally over, and the world at peace, Ralph was coming home. His mom took the streetcar to the Army Surplus store in Culver City. She wanted to buy him a winter jacket. The government had millions of surplus items after the war. So long as it was olive drab, you could buy almost anything for under a dollar. Ralph was, (as I say), a strapping man, and when he tried on his jacket, she saw the sleeves were too short. She took him back to the store for an even exchange. The rest of the story comes from his younger brother Bill.

Ralph was a soft-spoken fellow. The store owner, an ill-mannered lout, had spent the war well away from gunfire, in the peaceful calm of Culver City. He laughed at Ralph and said, “No. No, I won’t take your damn jacket back. No refunds. No exchange. See the sign? Buy something or get out.” Ralph reasoned with him. The shop owner, he didn’t care for that. “Buy something or get the hell out of my store!” He promised Ralph that if he didn’t leave he’d toss him out on his ear, and his mother too. That man had no idea what his words and his threats had done. Absolutely no idea.

Ralph grabbed him by his shirt front, dragged him over by the store’s plate glass, kicked out the plate glass, held his neck over a shard of broken glass, and told him: I’ve killed better men and I’ll gladly kill you too. You’re giving me a refund or you’re giving me another jacket.

Somebody managed to calm him down. Ralph was a sweet and gracious man, yes he was. But only weeks before he’d been cutting Japanese throats to survive. That shop owner had no idea. He couldn’t imagine anyone killing him, all over a few words. Over a dollar. But the war had changed Ralph. Made him a different man.

The cops came. It was 1946. They’d seen this sort of thing before. Policemen post-war were used to dealing with veterans. Sixteen million had served in that waking nightmare. How many came back changed? No one really knows. They didn’t use the phrase “PTSD” back then. But they knew the effects. The veterans’ parents, wives, and children, they knew the effects.

Likely as not, the policeman’s brother or son went through the same hell Ralph had lived through. The cops glanced at his Army ID. Army psychiatrists then provided special documents for certain men. Ralph didn’t want to show me his. But that ID, designed with the arresting officer in mind, told the cops (more or less) this:

This man has served extended periods in front line combat. His nerves are at the breaking point. Consider him dangerous.

You can imagine what went through the cop’s head. He probably felt Ralph had already given enough. Been through more than enough hell. The cop did what any feeling person would have done. He cut him some slack. He ordered the shop owner to give Ralph a new jacket. Then drove Ralph and his mother home. And the worthless little shop owner? He got no sympathy from the cops. He got nothing but contempt. He had, (if nothing else), learned his first good lesson in veterans’ affairs.

Ralph and Phil were like millions of other veterans. Their deepest injuries were invisible. We owe each of them debts no one can ever repay. God’s kindest blessing, God’s grace and peace be upon them all.