Article from NYT, 8/14/09 - for educational purposes
August 14, 2009
Keeping Alive Memories That Bedevil Him
By DAN BARRY
MANCHESTER Township, N.J.
A retired postal worker, living not entirely at peace in an adult community called Leisure Village West, recently sent remember-the-date notes to large newspapers and television networks, then followed up with calls that often bounced to voice mail. The 14th of August; remember the date.
He was not asking so much as he was demanding.
Friday is the 14th of August: a dog day to many but always V-J Day to some, including this man, Albert Perdeck. It is the 64th anniversary of the surrender by Japan to end World War II. Attention must be paid, he says with urgency. He is 84.
“Last year, 2008, there was no mention of this on the news,” reads his handwritten note to The New York Times. “I am requesting to have the day remembered by your in-depth reporting.”
In addition to “V-J,” as in Victory over Japan, his note contains other abbreviations, including “P.T.S.D.,” as in: “The 17 months I was in combat still causes terrible flashbacks and nightmares of the mutilated bodies I helped to recover.”
He does not care that some people are uncomfortable with V-J Day, given the close relationship the country now has with Japan, and given two other dates in August 1945 (the 6th: Hiroshima, and the 9th: Nagasaki). To him, the day carries its own political correctness: It celebrates the victorious end to a world-saving war in which hundreds of thousands of Americans died far from home. He saw some of them die.
Mr. Perdeck sits in a small community room at Leisure Village West, surrounded by the brittle newspapers and old photographs he carries with him. “Everyone’s laughing,” he says of today’s world, voice rising again, tears coming again. “And I still smell it! I smell it now — beyond 60 years!”
You’ve seen these Al Perdecks all your life — sipping early-morning coffee, say, with buddies at McDonald’s — but less so now. Stocky, not tall, with shock-white hair and a Norman Mailer look of pugnacity. Wearing shorts, dark socks and a boxy baseball cap embroidered with the name of the ship on which he served. You’ve seen him.
Now imagine him in June 1943, the just-drafted momma’s boy from Newark. Hadn’t finished high school, hadn’t been with a girl. Soon he and a couple of thousand other sailors were aboard the U.S.S. Bunker Hill (CV-17), the aircraft carrier that would distinguish itself in the Pacific Theater. His job: tending to the fighter planes on the flight deck and giving the thumbs-up to the pilots before they soared into uncertainty.
He turned 19 onboard, then 20. One day he is doing Donald Duck impressions with a friend, the next he sees a crewmate killed by shrapnel from a near miss. He is boy and man, both.
On May 11, 1945, a kamikaze attack turned the flight deck of the Bunker Hill into an inferno. Pilots in the ready room died in their seats. Planes caught fire, their machine guns discharging rounds. The smoke created a black curtain that Mr. Perdeck could not quite part.
Wounded: 264. Missing: 43. Dead: 346.
V-J Day came just three months later. Mr. Perdeck remembers hearing the news while on liberty in Seattle. He ran through the streets shouting: “The war’s over! The war’s over!”
Discharged as a seaman first class in 1946, he returned to Newark and met a young woman named Elaine at a dance at the Y.M.H.A. They married in 1950, moved to Ocean County, raised a boy and a girl, and struggled. A wood-pattern maker by trade, Mr. Perdeck finally took a post office job; for the security, he says.
But that black curtain never quite parted. He hated Fourth of July fireworks and struggled with flashbacks, but it was more than that. Mrs. Perdeck said her husband would overreact when disciplining the children, when dealing with a conflict at work, when confronted, really, with everyday life. “He was always angry,” she says, with love.
He could not shake free of the war. The burned and mutilated body parts. The rows of dead crewmates on the flight deck. That strange moment in the enveloping blackness when he stepped on a prostrate sailor, then yelled at the man to get the hell up, this is no time to sleep. The sailor, of course, could not wake.
In 1997, 51 years after his discharge, Mr. Perdeck told his wife he needed to talk to someone. She knew what he meant. It’s about time, she said.
A clinical psychologist, Dr. Walter Florek, eventually gave a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. Now the rage that Mr. Perdeck felt, the isolation, the anxiety and the sadness had a name.
Mr. Perdeck spent six weeks in a veterans’ hospital, where he attended lots of meetings but does not recall encountering another veteran from his war, the one a half-century past. Did his hospitalization help? He shrugs.
These days, Mr. Perdeck accompanies his wife to various social functions at Leisure Village West, and he is active with the U.S.S. Bunker Hill Association, whose annual gatherings get smaller and smaller. When he speaks of other alumni by name, he usually adds a “May he rest in peace.”
He also works to keep V-J Day alive. Last year he contacted The Asbury Park Press and asked how it planned to honor the day; the paper published a story about him. This year he went national, though he says he spent most of his time talking to machines.
And every other Thursday, he drives to Dr. Florek’s office on Route 70 in Lakewood for a group session with a dozen or so World War II and Korean War veterans, all of whom have P.T.S.D. A patient counselor named Olga Price guides the discussion.
The group met again Thursday. An Air Force veteran with a squawking hearing aid. An Army infantryman with a cane. A Navy flyboy, now blind, who still sees the devastated Hiroshima he flew over 64 years ago. His walking stick is adorned with a small American flag.
You’ve seen these men, these men who would never talk about it. But now, in the embrace of their own, they did, sometimes with sobs. One of them recalled killing an enemy soldier who was little more than a boy.
“I see him virtually every day,” he said. “It just goes on and on and on and on.”
The other men nodded without saying a word, including the one in shorts, dark socks and a shirt with the words “U.S.S. Bunker Hill” over his heart.