Sometimes a Hero is Not Always Heroic
David G. Mitchell
In the hours and days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, thousands of young American men were infused with rage and a sense of patriotism that compelled them to enlist in the armed services. That is not surprising when one considers the emotionally charged tragedy that brought the United States into World War II. Hugh Warren West, however, did not want to enlist. An “old man” of twenty-six, in December 1941, West had a wife, a job and a mortgage. War was not for him. Of course, the government of the United States got to make the final decision, and Hugh Warren West was inducted into the army after being called to duty in 1942.
In Recon Trooper, West, with the assistance of John Scura, tells his story as a reluctant but dedicated member of the 14th Armored Division, both during its two years of training in the USA and its many months of fighting in Alsace and across the Rhine into Germany. West’s story is largely anecdotal, although Scura does weave in information from official unit histories in order to bring greater context to West’s experiences. The resulting book thus reads very much like a chronological compilation of memories that are somewhat similar to the memories shared in the memoirs of so many other soldiers, and although fundamentally readable, not particularly memorable.
To a degree, what sets West apart from his contemporaries such as Raymond Gantter (Roll Me Over) or Donald R. Burgett (Currahee! and other works), who have already told their stories is his frank, and sometimes brutal, candor. West is honest. He does not tell his story to be told he is a hero. He tells his story because he wants to record his history as he experienced it, with both his good moments and his less than perfect moments. Perhaps it is West’s age, or the distance of the years that made the truth easy to tell, or perhaps it was his background as a school teacher. Whatever the reason, West makes it very easy for a reader to understand his emotional state—the fear of death, the hatred of his enemy, the elation at surviving a bombardment—better than many other veterans have managed to do so. It is not so much that West’s contemporaries portray themselves as heroes as it is the case that West seems to go out of his way to portray himself as less than a hero, and to make his readers understand why sometimes that is okay.
Perhaps the greatest honesty that West shares is his description of his own descent into mental illness after months of intense combat. At the time, doctors would have described West as suffering from shell shock. Now he would be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. For West it was an almost complete dissociation from his day-to-day experience and even from reality. Now, West can clearly recall the onset of his condition:
At dusk it was our turn to launch a big night attack. The lead tank platoon moved all of two blocks. It cost them three tanks. They seemed to be fighting blind in the smoke and the darkness. It’s hard enough to see what’s happening around you in a tank during broad daylight. Under the conditions of that night, it was insane.
Something else happened that night. I noticed a certain numbness spreading inside me. It seemed to start in my brain. My responses to questions were slower. My words were clipped. I mumbled sentence fragments. The constant roar of explosions and screeching of rockets was battering my whole being, and it was getting inside my head. The heightened, uninterrupted state of fear was sucking the juice out of my brain. Somehow, I kept functioning. I followed orders like an automaton.
Eventually West would be removed from the line for a time so that he could recover from the mental and emotional strain that was causing him to unravel. It would not keep him out of the war for good, but he would have nightmares for the rest of his life and difficulty returning to civilian life after the war, as would so many thousands of other soldiers. Having read so many memoirs of soldiers who survived WWII, it strikes me as remarkable that more veterans have not addressed personal experience with mental illness caused by the trauma of combat during that particular war, as compared to the soldiers who returned from the conflict in Vietnam a generation later. Perhaps the omission of the World War II generation is just a literary artifact of post-World War II America, when mental illness was not really confronted or even treated in the same manner that it would be when the next generation returned from Southeast Asia twenty-five years later. Then again, it may just be that very few World War II veterans recovered enough to actually offer a public reflection on their mental anguish and sickness during the war.
Unfortunately, although West is upfront about sharing his shell shock with his readers, Recon Trooper does not really introduce experienced students of the Second World War to anything particularly new. West was worked very hard in basic training. Basic training lasted a long time while plans were made for the invasion of France. The food was not very good. Combat was terrifying. All of this was true for countless other soldiers who participated in the war in Europe. That sameness makes Recon Trooper somewhat forgettable to a reader, like me, who has read so many memoirs of the war.
Of course, I do not mean to minimize West’s contribution to the war effort. Indeed, his reluctance to go to war, coupled with his decorated service in combat, serves to enhance his heroism, at least to my way of thinking. Nevertheless, West’s story does not add to the collective knowledge of World War II in any way that takes his readers beyond his own personal experience. In that sense, writing Recon Trooper must have been cathartic for West, but reading it amounts to little more than interesting distraction for any serious student of the war.
David G. Mitchell spent most of his youth arguing with his elementary school librarian about the merits of Enid Blyton’s works and why it was a crime that Blyton was not represented in the school library. He lost that argument, but that did not stop him from trying to read his way through the school library anyway. Over the years, he has immersed himself in the classics, science fiction and fantasy, history, biography, philosophy, popular religion, cooking, folklore, sports and just about every other genre that can be imagined. Between books, he received a degree in history from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College Law School. In addition to practicing law, he has worked as an interpreter of the history of historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts, and participated in the archaeological survey of Boston Common. David currently has his own law practice. He is also a contributing writer at SavingAdvice.com where he finds connections between frugal living and almost every aspect of life, and a contributor to Renaissance magazine and Book Page. He lives in Florida with his wonderful wife, two sons and a labradoodle named Biscuit. Contact David.