In one of the few accounts written, here is a realistic appraisal of the social readjustment of WWII veterans, contradicting the popular portrayal promoted by the news media and Hollywood.
April 30, 2009 – We are all familiar with the “Greatest Generation” storyline. A generation raised during the Great Depression fought and defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan; returned home and quickly settled back into civilian life. They worked hard, had families, and enjoyed—one might even say built—the American dream.
For many veterans, of course, homecoming did go smoothly. Some hit the ground running and never looked back. Others, after an initial period of stumbling readjustment, quickly regained their footing in the civilian world and moved on. Their stories are important, often inspiring, and they have been told in volume.
But what about those veterans whose re-entry was more troubled, those long-ignored men (and their families), who found readjustment a disruptive and wrenching process?
For the past 10 years, I have conducted countless interviews, visited numerous oral history collections around the country, read letters, diaries, and the newspapers and magazines of the post-war period.
What emerges from that research is a picture of veterans’ postwar experience that is more complex, more sobering than expected. That picture does not diminish the wartime generation’s epochal accomplishments—they deserve all the testimonials and public tributes they get.
But it does suggest that the price they paid was far higher. The toll extracted from them and their families was far greater, and their struggles far more protracted than the glossy tributes to the “Greatest Generation” would have us believe. Theirs is a struggle—and a heroism—of a different order, and it deserves to be told.
‘Suffering Isn’t Over’
“The shooting war may be over,” Gen. Omar Bradley, head of the Veterans Administration, warned the American public in 1946, “but the suffering isn’t.”
Tens of thousands of men were arriving home badly in need of medical attention; millions needed jobs, a place to live, even clothes (ordinary white shirts were impossible to find). Despite government programs to ease the transition to civilian life, returning veterans found themselves in for a severe jolt of postwar reality.
In 1946-47, unemployment among veterans was rampant — triple the rate for civilians. Among disabled veterans it was astronomical. For all the public pieties about the sacrifices of “our boys in uniform,” employers were wary of hiring the handicapped, even if they were veterans.
In January 1946, more than 52,000 disabled veterans applied for jobs. Only 6,000 got them. Bradley worried that veterans were already being forgotten “when the war has been ended only six months.”
Adding to the difficulties of readjustment was a severe shortage of adequate housing. Few houses had been built during the Depression and war years. Although homelessness was not in the social vocabulary in those years, the phenomenon was certainly present.
Veterans scrambled to find anything — trailers, converted military barracks, barns, even cars. Many moved in with relatives. In early 1946, an estimated 1.5 million veterans were squatting with friends or family. In many cities, as many as one-third of all married veterans were living with parents, in-laws or friends.
Veteran anger over these unexpectedly harsh postwar realities was everywhere in the news. After interviewing veterans from around the country in the fall of 1946, the distinguished journalist Agnes Meyer described a mood of “appalling loneliness and bitterness.” Over two million veterans were without work and “floating in a vacuum of neglect, idleness and distress.”
So widespread was the sense of disenchantment that virtually half (48%) of all ex-servicemen in 1947 felt that their military experience had left them worse off than they had been before.
In fact, one 1947 poll indicated that approximately one-third of all veterans felt estranged from civilian life, even after more than a year of peace. And another survey found that 20% of veterans felt “completely hostile” to civilians.
Brig. Gen. Leon W. Johnson, in charge of the Army Air Force’s Personnel Services, made a public plea for understanding. Veterans didn’t want to make raids on the treasury or receive preferential treatment. “All they want is a place to live, and a chance to have gainful employment consistent with their abilities and skills,” he said.
“Surely they are entitled to that much, and yet, these are the very things they aren’t getting. … Today I think I see a frustration, a sense of being lost and a hint of fear in the faces of young veterans. These are the same men who were so fearless and resolute brief months ago, when they went forth to risk their lives.”
From Neuropsychiatric to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
These problems intensified the personal and emotional troubles experienced by veterans. During WWII, 1.3 million American troops were hospitalized for what were referred to as “neuropsychiatric” (NP) symptoms.
On Okinawa alone, the Marines suffered 26,000 psychiatric casualties. Some required only a brief hospital stay and were released back to duty. Others endured symptoms for years, most often in private.
Many veterans returned to civilian life with little apparent difficulty. But for others the war and its traumas could not be left behind.
By war’s end, the Army had admitted over a million “neuropsychiatric” patients to its hospitals (40% of its discharges had been for NP cases). By 1947, some half the beds in VA hospitals were occupied by men suffering from neuropsychiatric problems.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) went undiagnosed until 1980. Yet in the aftermath of WWII, depression, recurring nightmares, survivor guilt, outbursts of rage (often directed at family members), “exaggerated startle responses” and anxiety reactions—all of which are recognized today as classic symptoms of PTSD—were as common as they were unnerving.
For many, the problems began long after combat. For others, the nightmares and other symptoms began immediately and lingered for decades.
An infantry veteran who fought in northern Europe was typical: he “had recurring bad dreams … [that] went on very heavy for about, oh, 15, 20 years.” Another who landed on Omaha Beach and fought into Germany still had “flashbacks” — some 60 years later—of the grisly things he saw.
One Marine survivor of Peleliu and Okinawa recalled that “for the first 20-odd years after my return, nightmares occurred frequently, waking me either crying or yelling, always sweating, and with a pounding heart. Some nights I delayed going to bed, dreading the inevitable nightmares. Old comrades wrote me that similar troubles drove many of them to drink and to the ensuing misery of alcoholism.”
Divorce to POWs
These problems undoubtedly contributed to another often forgotten aspect of the war’s aftermath. Americans married in record numbers during the war, but they also divorced in record numbers when it ended. Between 1945 and 1947, petitions for divorce flooded the courts, in some cities even outnumbering marriages.
VA duly reported that the divorce rate for veterans was twice as high as for civilians. More than 500,000 marriages ended in divorce in 1945, and the figures climbed again in the following year, becoming the highest in American history.
Nor were these troubles confined to the immediate postwar years. In the 1990s, older veterans were beginning to turn up at the VA—men who had made a successful readjustment to civilian life after the war. Yet they still suffered from recurring nightmares, problems with close relationships or anger.
These men had coped more or less successfully with their memories and had not sought treatment before. After all, society expected them to put all this behind them, forget the war, and get on with their lives.
But big life changes, retirement, a death in the family, divorce, could trigger symptoms of PTSD, reviving long-repressed traumatic experiences.
Former prisoners of war are particularly vulnerable. One study found “high rates of persistent PTSD almost 50 years [after liberation] among former prisoners of war.” More than one study revealed that the “prevalence rates of PTSD among elderly former POWs exceed percentages found for elderly combat veterans.” This was particularly true of prisoners of the Japanese.
For a time, the troubled emotional legacy of the Vietnam War generated tremendous public interest in the experience of veterans’ readjustment. But in ways that seemed to suggest that any problems that arose—PTSD, homelessness, substance abuse and shattered personal relationships—were somehow unique features of the Vietnam experience.
If veterans of WWII were mentioned at all, it was to draw a striking contrast. They had fought “the good war” and returned home to a grateful nation, healthy, happy and well-adjusted, or so the storyline went.
The reality was a great deal more unsettling. Although largely forgotten today, many of the profoundly disturbing social and personal problems arising from the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan were glaringly present in the aftermath of WWII.
It is time that we recognize the emotional aftershocks of that colossal conflict. Not just for aging veterans and their families, but also for a new generation of veterans struggling to adjust to a life interrupted and forever changed by war.
Thomas Childers is the Sheldon and Lucy Hackney Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of three books on WWII. The latest is Soldier from the War Returning: The Greatest Generation’s Troubled Homecoming from World War II, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, out in May 2009. Professor Childers was an Army 1st lieutenant serving as an infantry platoon leader in 1972-73 at Ft. Benning, Ga.