Thursday, April 24, 2014

Slient scars: Trauma, memories of war remain

By CRYSTAL HERBER, Herald Staff Writer | 11/9/2012

The history book authors weren’t there. And the re-enactments in movies can’t quite depict what really happened.

But a few old warriors who witnessed the second World War first-hand remain.

The history book authors weren’t there. And the re-enactments in movies can’t quite depict what really happened.

But a few old warriors who witnessed the second World War first-hand remain.

Frank Gibbons, Ottawa, still carries those images with him today, 70 years later.

When Gibbons was just 19, a letter came in the mail — one he said he’ll never forget. Yellowed with age, the words still can be read clearly: “Frances J. Gibbons ordered to report for induction Dec. 28, 1942.” The single piece of paper began Gibbons’ service in the U.S. Army and Air Force in World War II.

“I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it. It come up kind of short,” Gibbons recalled about the day his letter came. “When I got this letter, I said, well, I gotta go.”

Seated at a table covered in black and white photographs, yellowed sheets of paper and newspaper clippings, a now-90-year-old Gibbons doesn’t appear to show any severe after-effects of the war. He wasn’t severely injured in any way, he said, although he was sent to the medical tent after minor incidents. Still, talking about his war experience takes it’s toll on his mind as he speaks slowly with frequent pauses.

“It was a very  learning thing ... I don’t know ... I was luckier than some of the fellows. They didn’t never come back,” Gibbons said with his head down. “And those were the fellows I felt for.

“I had some good friends that are still over there.”

Gibbons was never diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, but he and his wife are sure that’s what it is. Commonly called “World War II Disorder,” as well as “shellshock” and “combat stress reaction,” in the 1940s, PTSD was not yet solidified as a diagnosis and therapy was somewhat taboo. Gibbons could have been among countless soldiers who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

He was given a medicine to help “calm him down,” he said, because after the war he got angry easily. The doctors he visited tried to determine what was wrong with him, but without much avail, he said.

Bonnie, Gibbons’ wife of more than 30 years, said when they first were married in the 1970s, Gibbons still had bad dreams of his time in the service.

“He’d wake up, and if we were in bed together, he’d be trying to attack the Germans because they were attacking him,” Bonnie Gibbons said. “Or he’d be trying to pull me out of the water because I was drowning.”

The nightmares have subsided for about the past 10 years, Bonnie Gibbons said, and her husband is off of his PTSD-related medications. But images on the television sometimes trigger a bad memory, he said. His eyes wander frequently when he describes seeing someone shot.

He doesn’t remember exactly which base he was sent to for basic training after being drafted, but he knows it was on the East Coast. His squadron didn’t go through any kinds of special training, he said, but he learned enough.

“You soon learned after you got in the service [to soak it] all in if you was wanting to live,” he said.

His memories of war remain fairly sharp. He remembers participating in the Battle of the Bulge and landing on Omaha Beach shortly after D-Day, June 6, 1944. His unit, the 6th Tactical Air Communications Squadron, was charged with radioing coordinates to air support so they would know where the target was. That brought his unit close to the front lines, and occasionally behind enemy lines.

“We was behind the lines after they sent us out in the woods, we were radioing back what we saw the Germans doing,” Gibbons said of the Battle of the Bulge. “We could talk to the planes in the air to find the coordinates.”

His unit was on call 24 hours a day, he said. One thing that stands out in his mind was the weather during the war.

“It was rough going. It rained all the time, then it got real cold and froze,” he said.

Gibbons received special commendations for service from Belgium and France. He was in Europe until the Germans and the Italians surrendered in early May 1945, later discharged May 24, 1945, after nearly four years of service.

After leaving the military, Gibbons farmed for a short time and eventually opened Gibbons Auto Salvage in Ottawa. There, he made a decent living, he said, until retiring after 22 years.

A lot of time has passed since his days in the service, but the pride for his country from fighting in the war remains. A mental callous has formed, allowing him to tell his stories more easily, he said.

“You get kind of toughened up to it. You know it’s going to be tough, but you’ve got to take that and get it in your heart or in your mind, and slowly say well, it happened. That’s the way it’s supposed to be and just go on,” he said.

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