Family & Friends · Lifestyle

The Father Who Came Back From WWII (VIDEO)

Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. is a Gynecologist, Director of the New York Menopause Center, Clinical Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Weill Cornell Medical College, and Assistant Attending Obstetrician and Gynecologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She is a board certified fellow of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Dr. Allen is also a member of the Faculty Advisory Board and the Women’s Health Director of The Weill Cornell Community Clinic (WCCC). Dr. Allen was the recipient of the 2014 American Medical Women’s Association Presidential Award.

I never knew the man who became my father. He was described as mischievous, fun-loving, risk-taking, devoted to family, handsome and hard working by those who knew him before he became the person that I would know. I remember a picture of him, probably taken after completion of basic training in 1943: very tall, black hair with a soldier’s cap tilted at a jaunty angle, fit, good looking, and appearing very proud of his uniform and himself in it. And that face … full of optimism, joy, pride and finished with a smile that would melt any woman’s heart.

Lawrence would have been in his mid-20’s when he went to war. He was just the kind of man the U.S. Army was looking for: fearless, determined and a good man with a gun. He had grown up in hardship during the Depression, almost the youngest of five children who lived and worked all the time with the fear that they might just lose the farm. Times were so hard that it was routine for strapping boys to leave school at the end of sixth grade and that is what he did, too. He was intelligent in ways that did not come from schools and books. Long days of farm work, deprivation and a will to survive were the elements that made him the perfect private for this deadly war.

No one ever talked about the war. After, I mean. Just whispers when something didn’t seem right or tempers flared at Sunday afternoons with his family on the farm. I never knew how he became the man who would be my father until I saw the 2007 Ken Burns documentary series for PBS, “The War.” Burns used four small cities and towns in different areas of the United States to show how the War changed everything for the men who left to fight and the families they left behind. He followed the lives of a few men throughout the War from Luverne, Minn.; Mobile, Ala.; Sacramento, Calif.; and Waterbury, Conn.

My father was in the Italian campaign. That was all that I ever knew and I don’t know how I knew that. Lawrence never had any respect for men in authority after the War and I never knew why he had such profound disgust for all people in power. The men in WW ll used an expression in this documentary that I had not heard since my days at home, FUBAR. This means Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition. The men who were part of the Battle of Anzio landed on a beach in amphibious vehicles and the only hope for their survival was the element of surprise since this area was surrounded by rough terrain and mountains inland, where the Germans were entrenched. Delay in moving forward quickly, inadequate preparation and frequent isolation from the commanders who were making the decisions but taking no risk with their own lives resulted in months and months of fighting with enormous casualties among the U.S. troops.  “The War” shows clearly how it must have been for those men to watch their friends and comrades suffering and dying all around them, certain that this fate would be theirs next. This campaign was in the winter and in the mountains. The U.S. soldiers pushed forward into Italy for months with changes in plans too many times for the men in danger to comprehend. My father was hit in the eye, lost his vision in that eye and was wounded in other places and other times with shrapnel. He was given ribbons for bravery, the Purple Heart and others without names since these decorations were never a subject for discussion.

Ken Burns follows the young soldiers from Luverne, Mobile, Sacramento and Waterbury throughout the war. Then he interviews the lucky ones who made it home in their old age about their experience in the war. The theme of their memories that caught me off guard was that of horror, of loss of personal control, and their exposure to dehumanizing experiences. These men could still not forget the needless loss of lives and injuries that never went away, even if those injuries were not visible.

These men, in their 80’s and 90’s, still talked about the recurring nightmares, the unexpected flashbacks, the isolation that they had endured for all of their lives … after. No one knew that they carried the reels and reels of memory footage filled with the sounds of shelling, shooting, screaming, and the constant refrain of death. They carried these memories locked up in their minds because the “other” Americans who stayed at home, just didn’t want to know. They couldn’t comprehend the place our soldiers had been. They just wanted the boys to “get back to a normal life.”

Well, my father never found that normal life. He married my mother, a red-headed school teacher whose beat was the one room schoolhouse, bought a farm and probably did his best to just get back to normal. But the man he had been before the war was left buried there. The man who came home was a shell filled with nightmares, intolerance to loud noises, and certainly filled with anger aimed at those in power and at anyone who defied him.

Defiance early on was my middle name. I know now that I had a role to play in the tragedy that was the relationship I had with my father. He had no respect for education, achievement or advancement for women. He expected his daughters to marry farmers who would help him with his work and his sons were expected to work just as he had done as a child and to never leave him or the farm.  Education, books and the gentle support of my mother gave me my life.  Teachers, 4-H leaders  and the Dominican nuns who ran the local hospital where I worked were mentors who saw something in me worth saving.

I chose not to have a father early on in childhood. There was this person in our home who was unpredictable, who hurried his children into a car in the middle of the night when there was a violent thunderstorm and drove around until it was over but I never knew why. He was volatile one minute and kind the next. But the unpredictability was always the certain and sure thing.

The noise of the thunder creating a need to escape the death and destruction of war never occurred to me, not at 5, not at 9 and not when I left home, too early to do so but too afraid to stay.

We were estranged when he was diagnosed in the spring of 1972 with inoperable liver cancer at 54. He knew that I was to begin medical school in the fall of that year and had pronounced it “the biggest God-damned waste of money and time that anyone could imagine.” I saw him last when he was taken from the operating room to the recovery room, still sleeping from anesthesia. I was there for my mother as she heard the surgeon say, “No more than a few months.” I stayed with her until it was time for her to see him and begin that terrible time of dealing with his denial and anger and pain and death.

I never went home. I never said, “Let’s make this better before you go.” Defiance was the gift he had given me and I used it all my life to ward off the pain of the eternal loss of the father I never had.

Ken Burns gave me back my father this spring. I am old enough now to understand what shell-shock and post-traumatic stress mean, and what they do to the wounded in spirit. I know now that this young man from a simple country life who was thrown into the unexpected hell that was the reality of the war was one of those who never came back.

Father’s Day has always been the saddest of holidays for me. But, today, I have the peace of knowing the why of my father’s life and can forgive us both for who we were.

 

 

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  • Andrea June 17, 2016 at 7:26 pm

    Pat- thank you for sharing your very personal and moving tribute to your father . My Dad, 93 years old, an OBGYN for 50 years, fought in Japan in WW2. He has never spoken of his experiences during that time. That generation was one of silent suffering- hopefully our children and their children will not ever know the horror our fathers endured. Perhaps we can teach them not to keep such traumatic experiences locked away,alienating loved ones who want to help relieve their suffering. To say that your father would be proud of you is an understatement- we are all proud of you, dear Pat. Happy Father’s Day to all

    Reply
  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. June 17, 2016 at 12:04 pm

    Thank you Mickey.
    I re-read it today as well and was surprised at the raw emotions I described and which the post evoked anew.
    This Sunday I will celebrate Father’s Day with The Husband and two of the four boys he has loved, mentored and championed.
    Dr. Pat

    Reply
  • Mickey June 17, 2016 at 11:47 am

    Reading this, 4 years after you wrote it, my WWII combat veteran father died in 2014. He told only a few stories about his war. He was wounded, his buddy was killed. Thank you so much Dr. Allen.

    Reply
  • Gwen Milner June 22, 2011 at 10:47 am

    Dr. Allen,
    I cannot thank you enough for this essay. I was directed to it through Dominique Browing’s blog. If I could write…this would also be my father’s story. The family always would dismiss his rude, almost hateful, behaviour as “that’s just Ross”. I had thought for so many years that WWII was the reason…aunt’s and uncles had referred to as much. He was never happy….if he “accidently” smiled, he would almost become angry with himself. After he died three years ago, I reconciled that I could not regret for the rest of my life what I had missed not having a father that truly cared about me.
    Again thank you,
    Gwen

    Reply
  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. June 21, 2011 at 5:31 pm

    Dear Gay, Patricia, and Agnes,

    Thank you so much for sending along your shared memories of living with a father who was changed forever by this war.

    Pat Allen

    Reply
  • Patricia Moscatello June 21, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    Dr. Pat,
    Thank you for sharing your Dad’s story.
    Mine is so similar, my Father was in the Pacific campaign and came back decorated (bronze star, purple hearts ) and changed as well. He left at a very young age and never turned back to Gadsden AL. Farm family, hard working, clan of many in the hills of Alabama.
    He is 92 this year and has allowed me to take him for care and awards from the VA. He certainly needs the help and it seems to have given him some peace. The VA has has new and very helpful programs for all Veterans. I highly recommend them to children of Veterans for their Dads or Moms in this era. it may be a great help.
    Again I thank you for the beautifully written and shared words.
    Patricia Moscatello

    Reply
  • gay Hartigan June 20, 2011 at 10:49 am

    As always a beautifully written essay. I had the complete opposite experience of
    a father who went through WW II. But your article reminded me of him. He was a
    MASH surgeon in the Europe and during his time there he liberated Bergen-Belsen.
    His description ( and pictures) always was related with a certain look in his
    eyes. His letters from that era told not of horrors, but of his comrades’
    bravery and youthful courage. He didn’t want to upset his immigrant parents and
    siblings with how horrible it really was. When I would press him on how it was,
    he then would talk about the smell, the enormity of dead bodies, of surgery in
    tents, of a lack of anesthesia and of how so many men were mentally tortured by
    their experiences.
    He returned to set up his surgical practice and eventually to marry a southern
    girl and have 3 children. Looking back on my life with him I see that that war
    never left him either. No matter what happened nothing would ever be that
    terrible. So he always had a positive view on life, over coming hardship and
    making something of your life. He made us each know that we had everything to
    live for and much to give back to others, whatever our life course was. He
    believed in life, in this country, in education and knew that the horror of war
    could ruin a life forever.
    Without age and the education he had, my father might have had your father’s
    experiences.
    However, they both gave something to each of us that made us who we
    are….whether to fight against their dark side or to aspire to their bright
    side.
    Thank you for bringing back those memories.

    Gay

    Reply
  • Agnes Krup June 19, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    Dearest Dr. Pat:

    What a wonderful essay. Thank you. My father, born in 1930, was just that bit younger than yours that saved him from being drafted towards the end of the war. He grew up in Nazi Germany (and really, never anything but Nazi Germany) and thus spent all of his young adolescence during those six terrible years of war. Those too young to be sent to the front got taken away from their families during the war for stretches of many months in what was called “Kinderlandverschickung”. This meant they were evacuated, often with their complete schools, from urban areas to the remote country side, ostensibly to be safe from air raids on the cities. There was some justification to this argument — while my father was away, his parents, in the British raids on Hamburg in the summer of 1943, lost their home and all possessions (family lore has it that my grandmother escaped in her night gown, carrying with her the first and only thing she could grab: A piece of soap). But, truly, the separation of these young people from their families was another calculated, perfect opportunity by the regime for relentless indoctrination under complete, 24/7 supervision, far away from any mellowing influence at least some parents might have had.

    I loved and love my father, but both our fights and our silences, while I was growing up, were searing. My mother would always say (and your essay makes this so much clearer!) that he and I were too much alike, both headstrong and stubborn as old mules. It took me, too, many years, decades even, to figure out why we could never get along. Even though now, in his old age, I am learning to accept our relationship for what it is, I have never been able to really change or fix the situation. What a terrible loss for all of us, that whole generation of young men!

    Reply