Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Remembering My Brother on Memorial Day

Forrey family, fall of 1942. I am at extreme left, Ed in uniform, back row

     While doing chores on Memorial Day morning, 2015, I was listening with one ear to the Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio. She was interviewing the author of the recently published The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War. The focus of the interview, and The Invisible Front, was on the effect  of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, on American military personnel in the series of endless wars the US has been  involved in during the last half century or so. The subject was of interest to me because  my oldest brother Ed  suffered from an undiagnosed case of PTSD,  not as the result of his brief service during the Second World War  in  the Coast Guard, but  just months earlier, in May 1942, when he was a nineteen-year-old member of a crew  on a fishing  trawler off the coast of Newfoundland that was sunk by a German submarine, called a U-Boat.
     The U-Boat didn’t waste a torpedo on the trawler. It  had surfaced about a mile from the trawler, I learned from old newspapers, and as the submarine churned steadily forward a German  manning the deck gun  began firing at the trawler. The 21 or 22 (there was a discrepancy in the number) members of the crew of the trawler began scrambling for the one lifeboat and the one life raft as the U-Boat bore down on them. The 59-year-old captain of the trawler and most of the rest of the crew got into a lowered lifeboat and rowed away from the trawler as fast as they could. My brother and two others, a Scandinavian and a Greek, judging by their names,  didn’t make it into the lifeboat but got into a decrepit  life raft instead where  both of the old oars promptly broke. So the three of them just sat there helplessly in the life raft as the U-Boat, with its deck gun firing constantly, approached. They must have feared for their lives; my brother in particular, only nineteen years old, may have felt terrified, judging by the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder he developed as a result of what he experienced then and in the next  forty-six hours. An estimated sixty or seventy shells in all were fired from the deck gun, but only about half hit the trawler. There was another crew member trying to swim to the raft, but he never made it because one of the shells landed in the water five feet from him. “After that,” my brother told reporters later, “all that was left was an empty lifejacket.”
     The life raft remained next to  the trawler just below the shells that were being fired at the trawler, just below the direct line of fire. The sixteen or seventeen men in the lifeboat, including the captain by this time, was almost out of sight. Their oars did not break. As the U-Boat got very close,  firing at point blank range at the trawler, it passed the life raft, and, surrealistically, crew members of the U-Boat were on deck taking snapshots of my brother and the other two men in the  life raft, perhaps as souvenirs that ended up in scrapbooks back in Germany.  In contrast to the way Jews, homosexuals, communists and others would be treated in concentration camps in Germany and Poland later in the war, the goal of the Germans in the  U-Boat obviously was not to kill the fishermen but to sink the trawler. If Americans were killed, that was incidental.  The goal of the Germans  was to ratchet up the war and show that even smaller American vessels, with no military involvement with the war, such as a rusty  22-ton trawler, were not immune from attack. The trawler was the first non-military American vessel to be sunk in the war, which occasioned widespread coverage of the incident in American newspapers. (My source was the Associated Press report in the May 17 Gettysburg Gazette.)

     My brother and the two others in the life raft witnessed the sinking of the trawler and the hasty submergence of the U-Boat. The survivors in the lifeboat rowed vigorously through the afternoon and long night, for 29 hours, toward Newfoundland, which was 85 miles away. They reached the lightship off Halifax  in the afternoon of the next day. My brother and his two older mates on the raft drifted helplessly for about 46 hours, for two days and two nights,  before being rescued by a Canadian naval ship. If instead of the middle of May  the incident  had taken place in the middle of the freezing winter, when the weather in  the North Atlantic was notoriously bad, my brother and the two others probably would not have survived. 
     I recall reading a few days after the crew members were rescued   a front page story of the sinking of the trawler and a photo in a Boston newspaper of my brother and his older raft  mates, in a posed post-rescue photo,  lighting their cigarettes on a single match, reenacting  what they apparently had done during their ordeal in the life raft. Like the majority of adults in the western world, they were addicted to nicotine. Even if they were at death's door, nicotine addicts have to smoke that last cigarette. Three men lighting cigarettes on a single match was superstitiously believed by soldiers and sailors to bring bad luck. I suppose the posed photo was meant to suggest that these hardy Americans had defied the superstition and lived to joke about it. But my brother had such a long stretch of bad luck after violating the superstition that he may have wished he hadn’t been one of three smokers on one match.

Short-lived Celebrity

     However, he appeared to get a lucky break immediately after he was rescued, becoming briefly the short blond nineteen-year-old who had survived both the U-Boat and forty-six hours adrift in the North Atlantic.  It was perhaps his short-lived celebrity status that enabled him to join the Coast Guard several months later, in spite of his having, like my father,  gotten no further than grade school and having no more work history to point to than serving in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression and as a fisherman on a trawler during the first year of war.  His celebrity status not only may have got him into the Coast Guard, it probably also got him a plum assignment as a member of the crew of the Sea Cloud, formerly one of the most beautiful and luxurious private yachts in the world. Built in Germany, of all places, in 1931, the Sea Cloud  was owned by an American heiress who donated it to the Navy after the beginning of the Second World War. President F.D. Roosevelt, a former Secretary of the Navy, was so fond of the Sea Cloud that he objected to its being employed by the Navy, fearing it might be damaged. The Navy did not want the responsibility for such a prized yacht, which may explain why the Coast Guard ended up with the Sea Cloud, which it refitted to serve as a weather ship, which entailed few risks. Though my brother,  a fifty dollar a month messman, was low man on the Sea Cloud’s totem pole,  he was proud as a peacock in his smart uniform, in which he looked like an officer. Unfortunately, his undiagnosed and untreated PTSD combined with his precocious alcoholism spelled trouble for both him and the Coast Guard. The official records show that after several  AWOL incidents, he was discharged from the Coast Guard  after only five months. But as  befitted a former celebrity,  he was not dishonorably discharged for being AWOL. Instead, he was given a  Good Service Button. But the unflattering official reason given for his discharge, as revealed in official records that I obtained,  was that he was “inept for military service.”

Sea Cloud, built in 1931, as it looked in 2008

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

     Because he was seldom home in the 1930s I did not get to know my brother until I was in my early teens, when he was already emotionally unstable and showed all the characteristics of what would later be called PTSD. I don't know what he was like prior to his traumatic experience in the North Atlantic. The experience that had temporarily made him a celebrity and something of a hero, had also rendered him not only unfit, or "inept," for  military service but also for life. Following his quasi-honorable discharge from the Coast Guard, he was able to join the U.S. Merchant Marine, a private service that provided seamen for the so-called Liberty Ships that were crossing  the Atlantic during the war, when U-Boats preyed on them like sharks. I never knew my brother to sleep without having nightmares, which probably plagued him during his service as a Merchant Seaman. But at least he could not go  AWOL in the middle of the Atlantic, and he became a dedicated reader of books on politics and economics during those transatlantic crossings. In the Merchant Marine, he became a member of the National Maritime Union, which was charged by the government after the war as a Communist dominated organization. Communist Russia had been our ally during the war, but after the war the Soviet Union soon resumed being America’s Number One Enemy.  After he  joined the Communist Party, not only was my brother plagued by PTSD demons during his sleeping hours, he was also harassed  by FBI agents in his waking hours. Because of the shame my brother was bringing on the family, my conservative Democrat father, who had served a term in jail for bootlegging,  told my brother to stay away from our home.  But to prove we were a patriotic American family called for an American flag. The first flag he tried to fly would have better suited a battleship  and it was hot. One of the longshoremen who frequented his waterfront tavern in East Boston had stolen it and given it to my father, who might have paid him off in free booze. Because the flag was much too big for our little flagpole, my father donated it to the junior high school near our house. In the ceremonious first raising at the school, one of my older sisters, who was a student at the school, participated in the  first flag raising. It was the hypocrisy such as the flag business that led my older brother to tell me our father epitomized the evils of capitalism. 
     Much later in life, when he had mellowed considerably,  my father told my youngest sister that my oldest brother  was never the same after the U-Boat attack, implying he had been much more stable in his teens. My youngest sister also told me  that when Ed first visited her in her home near Logan International Airport, he had been warned beforehand about the noise of the low flying passenger jets. But  the first time one flew over her house, during dinner, he dove under the kitchen table like a cowering dog in a thunderstorm.

Identified with the Underdog

     I don’t know if it might have been somehow related to his PTSD, but my brother had  a passionate commitment to the underdog. That was one of the reasons he became a communist, but even after he left the Communist Party—I suspect he was expelled because of his instability—he continued to crusade for those he felt were being treated unfairly, whether because they were too short (he was only five-six), or too fat, or were discriminated against because they were black, or Jewish, or homosexual, or something else. Once he brought an attractive New York woman with him back to Boston. She may have been a communist. I think he may have introduced her to me as his wife, but if he did I don’t think she really was. He was just providing cover for her among his conservative Irish-Catholic relatives. But  some years later, after his  emotional life had worsened, I  visited him  in a nightmarish situation in Manhattan  where he was living with  a somewhat troubled, unattractive  Jewish woman and her schizophrenic son. Another time  I ran into him in Greenwich Village where he and a buddy of his from his Merchant Marine days had opened a kind of knot museum or gallery on MacDougal Street, if I have my streets straight. I don’t think there was any charge for admission, though there may have been a contribution jar. But on the whitewashed walls were all kinds of complicated knots, as they may have looked on a nineteenth-century schooner. I doubt my brother was an expert on knots. I figured it must have been the hobby if not the obsession of his buddy. But the knot museum or gallery was bizarre, even for Greenwich Village. And I now wonder whether a narrative poem I wrote called “The Village” (click here) involving the wrought iron frame of a butterfly chair, which was mistaken for a piece of sculpture,  might have been inspired by those Greenwich Village knots. 
     But when it came to being tied up in knots, no one was more torturously complicated  than my brother. How much did his tortured life have to do with PTSD? Although I didn’t think so when I was younger, I now think, as our clinical understanding of the disorder has deepened, that it had a lot to do with the disturbed person he became. Whether suffering from PTSD had anything to do with it or not, my brother at the same time he became more disturbed also became more compassionate. He cared deeply for and became identified with the oppressed, with those who were discriminated against and exploited. These feelings were what led him to join the American Communist Party sometime in the mid-1940s.

Birmingham, Alabama: 1948

     In 1948, my brother was in Alabama trying to recruit blacks at the Southern Negro Youth Congress, urging them to join the Communist Party, but he was arrested by  the notorious “Bull” Connor, along with several much more prominent people, including Idaho’s U.S. Senator Glen H. Taylor, who was the running mate of former US Vice President Henry Wallace on the Progressive Party ticket in the imminent presidential election. "There's not enough room in town,” Connor said at the time, “for Bull and the Commies." In Connor’s view, anyone who was against segregation was a communist. If it had been the early 1960s, and not the late 1940s, my  brother, whose nickname was Whitey because of his blond hair, might have been lynched as Goodman and Schwerner were in 1964.  Instead of becoming a  communist martyr,  my brother  became an embarrassment to the  Communist Party, which apparently expelled him because of his disturbed behavior, which was the result, I now believe, of his undiagnosed PTSD. It would not surprise me if he had gone to Birmingham to recruit blacks on his own, without clearance from higher ups in the Party. He was probably as “inept” in the Communist Party as he had been in the Coast Guard, and as he would have been in any organization or party he was part of. His desire to bond with oppressed Southern blacks would have overridden any commitment he might have had to Party discipline.
     As he aged, my brother continued to fight for the underdog on his own, if in a somewhat pathetic and even ludicrous ways. One of the last campaigns of his life was trying to stop the demolition of a rollercoaster on Mission Beach in San Diego. Why a rollercoaster? Was it  because he had been on a roller coaster ever since the U-Boat attack on  the trawler  on May 17, 1942? He apparently became addicted late in life to some painkiller, which may have been the final straw.  Like a number of others who suffered from PTSD, he committed suicide, in 1991. What would his life have been like if he didn’t suffer from PTSD? I’ll never know, but I can’t help wishing he hadn’t had it, or at least that if he had to have it, that it had been in a more enlightened age, when its existence was acknowledged and its treatment became a priority.  Unlike the physical wars, which had been fought on real fronts, the war against PTSD was fought endlessly on an “invisible front,”  which was everywhere and nowhere. As long as there has been war, from ancient times to the present, there presumably has been PTSD, though it hadn’t yet been diagnosed and named until relatively recently. Because not every combatant is afflicted with it, that does not mean that those who are afflicted are cowards or malingerers, or just crazy, which is how many of them were viewed.
     The author of The Invisible Front made the point on the Diane Rehm Show, on Memorial Day, that PTSD, rather than being an illness,  is a natural human reaction to the horrors of war. It is those desensitized combatants who are not traumatized by the horrors of war, who do not have PTSD,  who are reacting to war somewhat unnaturally and inhumanly. Whether or not that is the case, de-stigmatizing PTSD may be the first step in ameliorating if not curing it. I wish  my brother had not lived in the dark ages where PTSD was concerned.  Just as he had lived in an age when there was a massive conspiracy to hide the carcinogenic effect of smoking, so he lived in an age when there was denial, if not a denunciation, where PTSD was concerned. Whether it was one or three on a single match,  cigarettes are killers, and so is war. Avoiding war, like avoiding  cigarettes, is  a sane and healthy life style. If my brother should be remembered for anything on this Memorial Day,  let it be as a reminder that war is not only an unhealthy but also an insane life style, which, when it doesn’t lead to death, too often leads to PTSD. 

My older brother Ed and me, c. 1935