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Our Returning Troops: A WWII Vet Opens Up About Survivor Guilt

Longtime Guideposts contributor John Sherrill, a veteran of World War II, opens up for the first time about his battlefield experiences and his post-war struggles.

by John Sherrill — Posted on Nov 24, 2014

Guideposts: Army Rangers scramble up a hillside during the bloody Italian campaign of 1943.

“Take cover!” the mortars began exploding seconds after the sergeant’s shout. I ran with the rest of our platoon. Nearest foxhole—that was the order in a mortar attack.

We’d dug some 30 of these little slit trenches earlier in the day, but in the near-dark, shrapnel blasting everywhere, they were hard to spot. I saw one and dove for it, arms flailing. There was a cry of pain.

“John! John, wake up!”

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I blinked in the sudden glare of the lamp at our bedside. My wife, Tib, was clutching her ear. “You hit me!”

I stared at her, at the dresser, the bed, the wallpaper.

“Was it the same dream?” she asked.

I nodded, part of me still back on that hillside in Italy.

“Can you talk about it?”

I shook my head. World War II was long over and yet, I thought, as I made a compress for Tib’s scarlet ear, the guilt over that night was sharp as ever.

Actually, the guilt began before I reached Italy. I hadn’t waited for the draft, and not out of unadulterated patriotism. If you volunteered for the Army out of college, the promotional flyer went, you’d be sent to officers’ training.

But I’d barely signed the enlistment papers before orders changed. I found myself on a sooty troop train headed for basic training in the 110-degree heat of Camp Wolters, Texas.

Three months later, with hundreds of other newly graduated grunts, I disembarked from a troop ship in Algeria, assigned to the Repple Depple in Oran.

Repple Depple? Army slang, someone had explained, for Replacement Depot. “Guess we’re headed for Italy.” In basic training, we’d watched newsreels of the amphibious landings on the Italian coast.

These were termed “great victories,” but apparently the successes had come at a staggering cost in lives. Replacements for these lost men, I realized, that’s what we green, hastily trained kids were. We began the slow trek up the boot of Italy walking in dead men’s tracks.

At first we traveled in open trucks, strangers facing each other with our M1 rifles between our legs. During basic training, and on the troopship, I’d made friends, but we were split up, assigned to fill out the ranks of decimated units. Across from me were battle-toughened soldiers returning to the front from restand-recuperation leave.

Closer to the combat zone, it was out of the truck and onto paths with heavy packs on our backs. At day’s end we’d bivouac in a field or on an abandoned farm, or, once, outside a still-smoking village. Occasionally we’d pass bodies. A German soldier stripped of coat and shoes. An old man in blue beside his donkey.

We seldom knew where we were, only that we were in rocky hill country somewhere south of Rome, and that the sound of artillery fire was getting closer. One morning our lieutenant assigned four of us to a reconnaissance patrol. An hour later we rounded a boulder and almost bumped into a Panzer. As the tank’s turret swung toward us we discovered new dodge-and-evade skills.

Foxholes became harder to dig as the paths grew steeper, the ground stonier. “Keep digging, private!” the sergeant would bellow each time I slowed down. Once in a while one of the veterans would offer a bit of advice. “Never go into a field where you see onions. Jerry mines those.” “Mortar attack,” another old-timer noted, “that’s the worst.”

Mortars were timed to explode at head-height, he explained, sending jagged shards of hot metal flying in every direction. “That’s when you’ll need a hole—any hole—in a hurry.”

A hole! Any hole! It was the only thought in my head the night the mortars hit. The night that would haunt my dreams forever after. With shrapnel thudding all around, I dove into the first foxhole I saw and flattened myself against the stones, jamming my fingers in my ears against the roar of what seemed one endless explosion.

The next instant the breath was knocked out of me as something landed on my back. The weight crushed me against the earth. It was a second before I realized that another soldier had dived into the foxhole on top of me. I struggled to breathe, spitting dirt, as we cowered together in that shallow pit with the sky exploding above us.

Then there was a scream. “I’m hit! Oh God!” The body above me jerked. “Oh my God!” he cried again. Something wet and warm was soaking into the back of my shirt. The screams stopped. My shirt got wetter.

It seemed a lifetime before the shelling stopped. The body pressing on mine didn’t move. I tried shouting “Medic!” and got a mouthful of dirt. For a long time it was totally dark. No movement, no sound above me. Then on the rim of the foxhole I saw moving lights, medics with flashlights coming close.

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The weight on me lifted. A voice. “You hurt bad, soldier?”

“I’m okay,” I managed to croak. “The other guy. He was hit.”

“We got him. He didn’t make it.” I felt my shirt being pulled up, fingers probing, voices conferring. “Looks like it’s the other guy’s blood.”

The other guy’s blood...The guy who took a hunk of shrapnel instead of me. By the time I got to my knees and looked around in the bobbing lights, they’d taken him away. I never saw his face, never knew his name. But since that night he’s never left me.

There were other deaths. Three times—perhaps because I could type—I was asked to inventory the gear of a soldier going home in a coffin. With every form I filled in, the question grew more acute. Why him? Why not me?

The closest I came to dying myself was not from enemy fire but from illness. One day we were herded into a field hospital for shots. “What’s it for?” I asked. “Roll up your sleeve, soldier,” was the answer.

Two days later I was running a fever. All around me men were moaning and vomiting. It seemed our entire company was sick—high fever, chills, headache, eyes and skin strangely yellow. A deadly outbreak of hepatitis, eventually traced to a contaminated batch of yellow-fever vaccine, given in anticipation of the European war ending and transfer to the Pacific.

They took us by ambulance to the U.S. military hospital just outside Naples. Again I watched others die. The guy on the cot next to mine. Another two cots away. Every morning, empty cots. Why them and not me?

It’s a question asked by combat veterans of every war. It even has a name. Survivor guilt. Some handle it by grouping together for support with other vets. Some handle it through their faith, but at that point I had none. I dealt with survivor guilt by clamming up. Willing none of it to have happened. Refusing to talk because that would make it real.

I suspect that’s how many veterans of my generation coped. We weren’t brought up to believe that talking about a problem helped solve it, so we kept quiet and did our best to move on.

Silence doesn’t work, of course. No one guessed my secret turmoil because in most ways my life was rich and full. Tib and I had a great marriage, children, rewarding jobs at Guideposts where we met hundreds of inspiring people and helped them tell their stories. We found our own church home, and faith became the center of our lives.

Yet the nightmare kept recurring. And with it, the question that haunts so many veterans: Why not me? Every wedding Tib and I attended. Every baptism at our church. Every time I held a grandchild in my arms. The guy in my foxhole never got the chance to hold a grandchild.

One day in the spring of 1989, when Tib and I were living in Normandy, our daughter, her husband and their 10-month-old came to visit. Our son-in-law was eager to see the American Cemetery, so the four of us walked, our little grandson on his daddy’s back, along those rows of white crosses and Stars of David stretching out of sight.

The others went ahead, but I stopped before grave marker after grave marker: 1923–1945, 1923–1945, 1923–1945.... Again and again, my birth year over the body of a 22-year-old who could have been—should have been?—me.

Twenty-five years later, when Guideposts asked me if I had anything to say to today’s returning soldiers, I discovered to my surprise that I did in fact have something to say to all of us who come home with memories we cannot talk about. Because we have another kind of secret too. We have a window into the unspoken pain of others.

A simple example occurred back there in the American Cemetery in Normandy. A few rows away I noticed a man, maybe in his mid-forties, standing alone like me, staring at a grave marker. I strolled over, asked him for the time, and we started chatting.

Suddenly he began to cry.“I never knew my dad,” he said. At once our conversation became personal. But from the start, with my question about the time, I was praying for him. Not with words but with caring and listening. With talking. We kept in touch for years.

Ever since the war it’s as if I had a second set of eyes. I can spot a lonely, anguished person a mile away. Someone grieving at a gravesite is obvious, but I can see through the heartiest all-smiles guy or gal in the room. When I’m granted this kind of vision, I wait, and if God opens a door, I step through. It’s led to some amazing, healing friendships over the years.

That’s what I want to say to today’s returning vets: We have work to do. We have stories to share.

This is the first time I’ve talked openly about my wartime experiences, and I only wish I had done it sooner. There are people we can help. And the wonder, for us war-scarred types, is that it happens not in spite of the pain, but because of it.

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