As families gather this holiday season, they often think of loved ones who cannot join them; but for military families, that feeling is all too familiar—even when their soldiers have returned home. Between 11 and 20 percent of servicemen returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD, and 22 US veterans kill themselves every day. According to Hale Bradt, that tragic reality is not limited to modern wars.
“My father, Wilber Bradt, was 45 years old when he killed himself—shortly after returning from World War II,” says Bradt, author of Wilber’s War. “Outwardly, his future seemed assured. So, why did he do it? I have some 700 letters he wrote, and have learned he felt depressed, tired, and teary, with no energy to look for a job. But that wasn’t all.”
I had a chance to interview Hale to learn more.
My father’s suicide shortly after returning home from overseas and unanswered questions about the paternity of one of my sisters led to me to search for letters my father had sent during the war. Upon finding a few addressed to me, I was immediately struck by their literary quality. Then and there I knew that, if I could find more, I would have the keys to a profound view of the war and how it affects military families. Eventually, I found some 700 letters he had written, mostly to my mother and to his parents.
Describe the evolving relationship between your parents, Wilber and Norma, as they strove to keep their marriage vital while coping with forces beyond their control.
Wilber was totally enamored of Norma and wrote beautiful, sometimes poetic, odes to her beauty, her kindness, her providing two wonderful children, and her support of him when he was discouraged. In turn she apparently reciprocated with letters almost daily with news of home and sending him materials he needed, such as new watch and cleats for his shoes. As his departure overseas neared, the correspondence became passionate and sometimes explicitly sexual. As the months wore on—he was overseas three full years—his letters became more and more pragmatic, but with a bit of adulation of Norma in each. Later when Norma was dealing with her secret pregnancy under the pretense of doing secret war work, Wilber became almost frantic with worry about her well-being. In the final years of the war, the correspondence continues with each providing emotional support to the other, as each dealt with the challenges in their own lives.
When your father returned home after combat in the Pacific Theater, he killed himself. What led to his suicide?
Suicide is so illogical, one can never know for sure, but Wilber was carrying heavy burdens after arriving home. He was discouraged and did not feel like returning to his former job as a chemistry professor; and he was “too tired” to look for a job. He still had a piece of shrapnel in his eyebrow, and he was suffering from malarial symptoms the morning he died. Also the hidden story of my mother’s pregnancy during his absence may well have been a factor, though we do not know how much he knew about that.
What role did PTSD play in your father’s tragic death?
His letters describe a number of “close calls” including the 500-lb bomb that landed eight feet from him and put that piece of shrapnel in his eyebrow, while killing several men, and Japanese machine gun bullets passing inches over his head during a firefight, and his young officers and men being killed as the result of his orders. Finally, when the war ended he was about to lead a regiment in the invasion of Japan, a battle he did not expect to survive. Upon reflection, it is inconceivable to me that those scenes would not be replaying in his head during those weeks he was back in the USA.
Why do you consider your mother a heroine, in addition to your father as a hero?
Her war was on the home front. She had all the worries of caring for the family: finding apartments, choosing schools for the children, and managing finances, all the while supporting Wilber from afar and working to improve her impressive musical and writing skills so she could better support the family should Wilber not return. As a very religious woman, her pregnancy would have been devastating to her, but she carried on with it while supporting her older kids and later her new infant and also Wilber overseas. In the end, Wilber was not able to continue with life, but Norma—despite lifelong feelings of guilt—carried on for many more decades as a dutiful mother and also as loyal wife to a second husband. Her war was on the home front; she fought it and persevered.
What were the challenges—and the heartrending outcome—of a soldier’s return home after a long absence, a topic with considerable relevance today?
The sad fact is that during the absence, both the expectations and lives of the spouse and the soldier evolve along independent paths, especially when their experiences during the separation are as different as they are for soldiers in combat and at-home spouses and children. When they merge, the risk of tragedy is real. Wilber was overseas a full three years, which surely made the adjustment to home coming more difficult, but the multiple deployments today’s soldiers face could be even more trying.
How was your life altered as a result of World War II, and what impact did your father’s deployment have on your entire family?
We survived; life carried on. You have seen above, how my mother fared. During Wilber’s deployment, we all (my mother, my sister Valerie, and I) developed a sense of independence that served us well in later life. I became a college professor and Valerie became a highly accomplished journalist. Valerie, who was nine when Wilber went into the service and thirteen when he returned, still, even now, feels deeply the loss of her daddy during her teen years. I must add though, that we never lost the sense of his presence during his absences; his letters and occasional leaves made his presence very real to us. But that all ceased when he died.
How was your life impacted by the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941?
Well, for me it was especially memorable because it was my 11th birthday. We were living in New York City then, and we knew war was coming. On that day we knew for sure that Wilber would be facing death in combat. Wilber too knew it was an epochal event; he wrote us a letter from his Florida camp while listening to radio broadcasts from Hawaii during the bombing there.
How did your family deal with the holidays during your father’s deployment?
On Christmas 1941, just after Pearl Harbor, we traveled by bus to Florida to be with Wilber for Christmas. I remember my wonderment at the warmth of Christmas day. Our subsequent holidays were sometimes spent with friends but since, we did not have other family in Maine and New York City, they must have been rather lonely, when I think about it now. However, I have no memory of such a feeling, probably because Norma was so adept at making wherever we were a happy “normal” home for her children.
Hale Bradt is the author Wilber's War: An American Family's Journey through World War II.