On this day 81 years ago, hundreds of Japanese fighter planes made a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, leaving behind a hellscape of mangled battleships and bodies. For many survivors, the trauma lingered a lifetime, as did the nightmares. Retired Marine Hank Smith can relate. He experienced his own Pearl Harbor.
Hank, a pseudonym, would likely be the first to agree that his experience in DaNang, Vietnam, 31 years after Pearl Harbor paled in comparison with what sailors lived through during the “day of infamy.”
Unlike survivors of Japan’s unexpected attack, Hank was spared from the agonizing sounds of men screaming for help and the flashes of light each time a bomb hit its target. But being nearly killed by one of many 122-mm rockets that had rained down on his airbase changed him.
He experienced his own Pearl Harbor, and his subsequent post-traumatic stress (PTSD) is just as real.
Why Hank’s Story?
I tell Hank’s story because it’s Pearl Harbor Day. And for whatever reason, I’d never considered the lasting emotional trauma the survivors of Pearl Harbor may have experienced. To me, the attack was academic—the event that forced America into World War II.
Research opened my eyes.
A study by the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder revealed that 65 percent of a selected group of veterans relived the sights and sounds of the attack, 42 percent suffered from survivor guilt and lasting anger toward anyone of Japanese descent, and other 25 percent was triggered by specific noises.
“Many of the heroes of Pearl Harbor didn’t return from the attack as the stable-minded, strong-willed men that they had shipped off as … PTSD may not be at the forefront of conversation when discussing the effects of Pearl Harbor, but it’s there nonetheless, and affected many veterans well into their adult years,” according to PearlHarbor.org.
Hank’s story helped put it into perspective.
The Wooden Shack
Hank is squared away. He’s slim, clean-shaven. Even his haircut looks military. His stature stands out. Some might even call him a runt. Certainly, the teenage toughs in Dayton, Ohio, where he grew up, thought so. They throttled him every Wednesday at school—a fact that factored large later in life.
When he arrived in Vietnam in 1972 as an ordnance technician with the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, the newly married 19-year-old looked like a preteen … a kid now responsible for maintaining F-4 Phantom fighter/attack jets. “We unloaded more ordnance than any other squadron in Vietnam,” he says.
It was midnight when his life took a dramatic turn.
“Wouldn’t It Be Crazy…”
He and another ordnance technician, a guy named John, had just started eating their dinner inside a nine-by-nine wooden shack at the end of the runway.
‘“Wouldn’t it be crazy if the gooks started rocketing us,’” Joe remembers John saying.
“I told him to shut up.”
Within seconds, they heard whomp, whomp, whomp, like a giant walking across the air base. The sirens screamed, and in a flash, they were thrown to the floor, scrambling for cover under a metal table. “We giggled the whole time,” Hank says. A reaction that had to do more with stress than anything else.
When they emerged following the 20-30-minute attack, they saw a tent that looked like Swiss cheese. And to the right next to the shack, a 10-foot wide, five-foot-deep crater.
“Realizing we were almost killed, we started shaking, and we didn’t say anything for the rest of the night.”
He experienced his own Pearl Harbor.
People react to shocking, frightening, or dangerous events differently. Duane Vincent, a side gunner in Vietnam—a man profiled a few weeks ago—didn’t suffer from PTSD. But another veteran, Bobby Charles, also featured here, did after his stint in Afghanistan.
According to an article on Healthline, one in three people who experience severe trauma will develop PTSD. A few factors seem to put people at greater risk, including having a history of depression, panic disorder and OCD or receiving little support from loved ones after the traumatizing event or experiencing further stress surrounding the event.
That certainly could have happened to Hank. After the attack, he and John were transferred to Thailand. A month later, however, Hank’s staff sergeant, who’d already threatened him once before, smiled broadly and said: “Happy July 4, you’re going back to Vietnam.”
Hank’s mind snapped. He didn’t care if he lived or died and refused to take cover when incoming rockets blasted the base. He stopped writing his wife and started using drugs. His family got worried.
His father, a World War II vet also traumatized by his combat experiences, then notified the American Red Cross that he was undergoing a life-threatening surgery and needed his son home. Only then did Hank rotate out of Vietnam. In 1974, the Marines discharged him, but the suffering continued.
“Hank didn’t sleep through the night for 38 years after Vietnam,” says his wife, Susan. “On all these nights, he’d obsessively clean the house … loudly clanging dishes as he washed them and running the vacuum cleaner at 3 a.m.”
The couple’s five children bore the brunt. “He wasn’t a violent PTSD’er, but an angry one. All our adult children rely on alcohol and drugs,” Susan says. “They all have anxiety issues and depression. Our entire marriage has been stressful because of it.”
If life weren’t bad enough at home, he took his issues into the workplace. Whenever he perceived someone disrespecting him—an emotion triggered, perhaps, by the heartless staff sergeant and school bullies—he’d become enraged and then he’d lose his job.
The cycle continued until he became an active-duty reservist in 1983.
How Did They Cope?
How did Hank and Susan cope over their 51 years of marriage? Medication certainly helped, as did something else. “Without our faith in God we could never had made it through this and stayed together,” Susan says. “His presence is abundant here.”
While Hank still fights thoughts of worthlessness, he does see light. Yes, he experienced his own Pearl Harbor, but he’s not succumbed. However, his buddy, John, can’t say the same. He took his life—a tragedy that Hank learned of only a few years ago. The news brought him to tears.
“As a man thinks, so is he,” Hank continues. “(PTSD) creates a life of chaos from which there’s no escape unless you ask God to intervene … Jesus is carrying both my family and me.”