Just before Veterans Day, the last known survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor died at age 98. With the passing of George Hursey of Massachusetts, it closed that chapter of World War II (WWII) — the world’s most deadly conflict in which over 60 million people perished.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt called Dec. 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy.” During the surprise attack, 350 Japanese aircraft descended on Pearl Harbor and nearby Hawaiian military installations in two waves. More than 2,400 Americans were killed, and 21 ships were sunk or damaged.
Hursey lived to fight elsewhere in the Pacific Theater, including New Guinea and Guadalcanal, where he was injured. He was discharged from the Army in 1945 after reaching the rank of first sergeant.
According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, the men and women who fought and won World War II are now in their late 80s and 90s. They are dying quickly (400 per day) and the last estimate is that fewer than 389,000 of the 16 million Americans who served are alive.
In his book of the same name, Tom Brokaw called them “The Greatest Generation.” He wrote that these men and women fought not for fame or recognition, but because it was the “right thing to do.”
“They grew up during the Great Depression and went on to fight in World War II and contributed to the war effort on the home front,” Brokaw added.
World War II impacted every family. My father and his two brothers were Army veterans who served in the Pacific and European theaters. Letters from the battlefront were sporadic and my grandparents lived with the fear that representatives from the War Department would show up on their doorstep with the news that one of their sons was either killed or missing in action.
Even with today’s modern communications, war is difficult for many families who have loved ones deployed in foreign combat zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. It is equally hard for those whose relatives have been killed or suffer from permanent psychological and physical wounds.
There is a new appreciation for our military that was absent during the Vietnam conflict. And thankfully we are addressing important psychological needs such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We now recognize that mental and emotional wounds are as serious as the loss of limbs or mobility.
Once called “shell shock” or “battle fatigue syndrome,” PTSD is a serious condition that can develop after a person has experienced or witnessed a traumatic or terrifying event in which serious physical harm occurred or was threatened. PTSD extends beyond the military to law enforcement, emergency responders, rape survivors and those suffering the consequences of heinous crimes and disasters.
We are just scratching the surface of PTSD. While many World War II veterans coped with “shell shock” by parking it in the back of their minds and hoping it would just go away, we are learning that PTSD needs to be treated. Hiding it can lead to suicide.
In the United States, more than 40,000 people commit suicide each year. USA Today reports that 325 active-duty troops died by suicide in 2018 — a rate of 24.8 per 100,000. For comparison, the civilian suicide rate is 18 per 100,000.
While it is undocumented, the suicide rate among our military in WWII was thought to be much less than it is today. After WWII, speculation is it may have been underreported. Perhaps we can learn from WWII documents. That is a good reason to keep the memory of America’s “Greatest Generation” and veterans such as George Hursey alive. Studying their lives may unlock information helpful to treating military members and veterans suffering from PTSD today.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer, columnist and retired president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization. Brunell lives in Vancouver and can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.