My best friend when we were growing up in Hamilton, New Zealand, was Stephen Walker. The only thing we had in common was that we were both born on D-Day, 1944, just a little ahead of the baby boom. I liked camping, fishing, swimming, cricket, and riding my bike. Stephen liked playing the piano, reading, and listening to Ray Conniff records. But we were mates and during school vacations I spent my time at his house. He had bunk beds, so I often stayed over. My mother worked all day and I had the misfortune of an older sister. But Steve was an only child and his mom was a housewife. Life was cushier at the Walker’s.
Mrs. Agnes Walker was gentle, well-read, loved music, and had a college degree. She was also American and that was very exotic. She served Kool-Aid in brightly coloured aluminium mugs—both of which were quite unknown in 1950s New Zealand. She was an excellent cook and fed us well. She made salads with pieces of grapefruit and avocado immersed in lime Jell-O, another novelty.
Mrs. Walker was a Christian Scientist, but her husband, Mr. Harry Walker, was Church of England. Steve was very close to his mother, but, perhaps to avoid conflict, he went to the same doctor as I did when he was sick, and we both went to the same Anglican school for boys in Hamilton. Unfortunately, in those days there was a lot of bullying—maybe it goes with the parochial-school territory: too much attention to God and not enough to tolerance. Steve was bullied; mostly teased about his weight and his distaste for rugby, the other school deity. In sixth grade, he persuaded his parents to let him switch to a public school, and I saw much less of him after that. But until about the age of thirteen we were inseparable.
During those formative years I rarely spoke to Steve’s dad. Harry Walker was a large hearty man with a big belly and a bristly moustache. He ran a one-man importing business: Raleigh bikes, the latest light-weight models with drop handlebars. He travelled the country and was only reliably home on weekends and some evenings, when he sat in an out-of-shape, just as he was, over-stuffed armchair in the living room. He smoked a pipe and drank beer. He was affable, told me to call him Harry, and, despite my tender age, always offered me a beer.
“Don’t be silly, Harry,” Mrs. Walker remonstrated. “Robert’s far too young to drink a beer. His parents wouldn’t approve.”
“I was only suggesting a shandy. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Rob? I drank beer when I was twelve.”
I expressed my eagerness and Steve and his mother dragged me away. In the safety of his room, Steve said, “Dad’s drunk. You mustn’t talk to him. You mustn’t encourage him. He’s abusive. I hate him.”
“That’s cock and bull, Stevie.”
“Wrong. He rubbishes the Christian Scientists and makes hostile remarks about Mum. He hates her because he feels inferior. He never finished school. They only got married because she got preggies with me. He thinks I’m a sissy. He likes you more than me because you ride your bike over here and listen to the cricket on the radio. I try to drown out his radio by playing the piano very loudly.”
“Well, no wonder he doesn’t like you, stupid. But anyway, that’s crapola, I’m sure he loves you.”
“I’m sure he doesn’t.”
The conversation didn’t look like it was going anywhere, but my curiosity about Harry was, for the first time ever, piqued. So one Saturday afternoon, when Steve was helping his mother in the kitchen, and I was just hanging about, I asked Harry a question.
“How did you meet Mrs. Walker, Harry? She’s American. Did you go to America?”
“No, I met her in Auckland during the war. Her father had come to New Zealand as a missionary. I was in Whenuapai to train pilots in the Royal New Zealand Air Force. I’d been in the R.A.F., Bomber Command, and my flying days to Europe were done. They sent me over here. I met Agnes at a dance…”
“Wow,” I interrupted excitedly, “were you a pilot?”
“Yup, I was. A Squadron Leader, flying big Lancasters…”
At that moment Mrs. Walker came into the room. “Don’t start Mr. Walker on his war experiences, Robert. He’d rather not talk about them. War is shameful.”
“I think Robbie might be…” He stopped. Harry sounded angry.
I didn’t know what I might be—interested, impressed, grateful, awestruck? But even as a twelve-year-old I could sense that I was unwittingly stumbling into a family dynamic to which I was unentitled, so I made an excuse and went off to find Steve. But when I got home that day, I told my dad that Harry Walker had been a pilot, a Squadron Leader in the R.A.F.
“Really?” my dad said. “That’s impressive.”
“Well, Squadron Leader is a very high rank. I think it is the equivalent of a Major in the army. It takes a lot of skill and courage to get to be that important. What did he fly? Spitfires?”
“Yeah, that must be it. Do you think he flew with Douglas Bader and Guy Gibson?” I was totally into war stories. I had read lots of POW escape tales, like The Latter Days at Colditz, and The Wooden Horse, and I had a picture book called The Boy’s Book of V.C. Heroes.
“I don’t know, Robbie, you’ll have to ask him. We’ve never talked about anything like that.”
“Mrs. Walker says he doesn’t like to talk about the war.”
“Lots of men who saw active service don’t like to think about it. War’s horrible.”
Then my dad, more thinking aloud to himself than conversing with me, added: “I’ve always found Harry a kind of morose sort of chap. He drinks heavily when we all get together, and he says sarcastic, snarky things to Agnes. It’s a bit awkward. He doesn’t seem to enjoy his business. But what a contrast his life right now must be. Going around the country as a traveling salesman. Think of that, compared to the splendid days of being a Squadron Leader in the Royal Air Force. Everyone’s hero. Everyone looking up to you. Men under your command. Flying bombers to defeat the Germans—dangerous as hell, but every sortie brought distinction and honour, munitions factories destroyed, railways lines smashed, bridges demolished, all that sort of stuff. For some men their war years exposed them to extreme horrors; probably for Harry they were glorious days. The best days of his life. And now look where he is, twelve years later, struggling to make ends meet…”
“Do you think he’s struggling? Steve seems to have everything I have.”
“I’m pleased, but isn’t he going to leave your school? Harry told me at the last family Christmas get-together that they couldn’t afford private school fees any more. I shouldn’t have told you this. Don’t say anything, for Pete’s sake.”
Of course I wasn’t going to say anything, but as I thought back to that conversation as an adult, it was Dad’s phrase “twelve years later” that hit me like a dental drill striking a nerve. Twelve years. When I read all those war books and the heroics of those who won the Victoria Cross, I thought it was history, like the Romans, the Pharaohs, and Napoleon. In a way it was history, being born the day of the Normandy landings. But not ancient history. Twelve years. It was within most people’s immediate memory, not just living memory. Now that I’m seventy-two, what happened twelve years ago isn’t history at all. It’s like yesterday—twelve years back Barack Obama declared his candidacy for president, the Virginia Tech shootings occurred, Venus Williams won Wimbledon for the fourth time, and the first iPhone was introduced. But when I was thirteen, twelve years ago was as before my time as Julius Caesar. God, what stories Harry Walker could have told! What adventures. What risks; what daring. When I was twelve, I knew all about ack-ack fire, and dodging searchlights, and strafing by the Luftwaffe. Two years earlier my whole family had gone to see the movie The Dam Busters, with Richard Todd playing Wing Commander Guy Gibson. What heroism. Why, oh why, hadn’t I asked Harry Walker about his war experiences?
I did try again. The Walkers had invited me up to Whangerei. They’d borrowed a friend’s holiday cottage for two weeks that summer. Steve would like a pal, the Walkers told my parents. We drove in Harry’s two-tone Chevy Bel Air, with white sidewall tires. Before we set out, I told them I get car sick and needed a Dramamine.
“Nonsense,” said Harry. “It’s all in your head, boy. Taking a pill makes you think about it. You’ll be fine if you don’t think about it.”
Maybe to distract myself I asked him to tell me about flying the big Lancasters.
“Don’t ask Harry that,” Mrs. Walker said, immediately. “He hates to think about those awful years, raining destruction on the people below.”
Steve kicked me in the back of the car and put his finger to his lips.
“Shush,” he whispered, “Dad doesn’t like to talk about it. He’s ashamed. All that killing. They did atrocities just like the Nazis. Dresden. Mum has some of their china. It’s beautiful. Obliterated in a firestorm. Other cities wiped out. The killing. It’s sick.”
I remember my feelings of puzzlement as I listened to his words. Straight out of the mouth of his mother: sweet, Kool-Aid serving, music-loving, pacifist Agnes. I wish I’d persisted, or Harry had ignored her. But he clammed up right away, and that was that.
Fourteen years later I was on internship in clinical psychology at the VA hospital in Palo Alto. My decision to do my doctorate in the U.S. after finishing a psychology BA at Otago University had proved to be an excellent one. For advanced study, anywhere overseas was the goal. My closest childhood friend, Stephen Walker, had been accepted to a doctoral program in English literature at McGill. And now here I was in 1970 in a prestigious internship dealing with the psychological casualties of the war in Vietnam. Nascent peace talks had begun in Paris, but the VA was full of men suffering what we called then Combat Stress Reaction, or Acute Stress Disorder, depending on how debilitating the symptoms seemed to be.
Finally, I realized, I now understood Harry Walker. And I regretted that I had not, even as a child, managed to get him to talk about the horrors he had witnessed, the deaths he had caused, and the prolonged stress of flying deadly raid after raid into Germany. It was inevitable he’d have become a badly damaged man, depressed, abusing alcohol, harsh with his family, traumatized. Talking about it, rather than suppressing the guilt and shame, would have been therapeutic, as we were now beginning to discover. I talked to Steve on the phone and told him about combat neurosis and asked him how his folks were doing. He thought his mother was miserable and missed him. His dad was drinking more heavily. Steve wasn’t very impressed with talk about the psychological consequences of combat.
“It doesn’t justify Dad’s mean behavior to my mother, or to me. He was thousands of feet above the savagery of his bombs destroying innocent lives.”
“Maybe German civilians weren’t that innocent, Steve. Look at what the German people did in Europe. Maybe they deserved what they got. Your dad saved us from being overrun. I’ve been opposing the war in Vietnam here, but I can’t get away from the sacrifice made by the men I’m working with. And even hinting that it’s an unjust war is terribly damaging to them. I cringe when we see protests dominating the nightly news on the TV in the patients’ day room.”
“Well, you always excused my father, but I know he was deeply ashamed of all the killing he did. And that’s why he refused to talk about it.”
I felt the conversation was not likely to be productive. Our lives were drifting in new directions, so after some other idle chat, I hung up. It wasn’t too late to get to hear Harry’s stories. A new generation of New Zealand kids were becoming fascinated by World War II, and their country’s efforts in North Africa and Italy, and documentaries, memoirs, and books were pouring out. The grizzly horror of it all was fading. I was determined, as soon as I could find the time, to get back to Hamilton and finally interview Harry Walker and get him to disclose his personal story of horror and stress and guilt. I was sure restructuring painful memories would be therapeutic for him.
But we all know what happens to good intentions. After my internship, the VA hospital in Boston offered me a job, and for the next six years we worked on trying to better understand the plight of returning veterans. All the ideas that eventually merged into the definition and treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, were being worked out in that and other hospitals across the country. I hardly ever saw Steve, but Harry Walker was often on my mind. We had begun to discover the forms of psychotherapy that actually worked. Surely he would have benefitted thirty years earlier.
We had some patients, however, who seemed so far gone that they had become chronic mental cases in the back wards of some of the less sophisticated hospitals. I was contacted by a psychiatrist acquaintance of mine who wondered if I’d come over to central Massachusetts to see a man who’d failed to respond to any treatment. Would a strictly psychotherapeutic approach work, he wondered?
When I got to see Ray Cohen a few weeks later, I doubted there was much I could do. He was being heavily medicated, and he spent most of his time sitting in the day room, staring blankly at the walls. He was like a caricature of a regressed hospital patient. My offer of a candy bar animated him somewhat, and I managed to persuade my friend the psychiatrist to try taking him off some of the anti-psychotic drugs. Reverting to the oldest days of mental hygiene before the emergence of vast institutions of the previous century, I took Ray for walks around the spacious hospital grounds. He didn’t say much, at first.
His voluminous hospital file had little information on him prior to 1947 when he was admitted. “Query schizophrenia; query combat neurosis,” someone had pencilled in and then initialled it. It didn’t seem that much querying had gone on—no psychometric testing, for instance. He was in the U.S. Air Force at the time of admission, but part of a ground crew. It wasn’t clear he’d seen any combat at all. When I finally felt he trusted me enough, I broached the issue, challengingly, that while the shrinks thought he had something resembling PTSD, there was no evidence of him being in actual fighting.
For the first time he looked at me and asked: “You sound funny. You a Brit?”
“Not really. I was born in London but grew up in New Zealand, and I’ve lived in the U.S. since 1966. I guess I haven’t entirely lost my accent. Why do you ask, Ray?”
“I thought you were a pom. I served in the RAF. Met lots of fellas from New Zealand, Australia, all over.”
“Goodness, how interesting. Your records say you were born in Springfield, near here. How did you get into the RAF?”
“I went to Canada in 1939. It was easy then. I volunteered, and they shipped me off to England.”
“Why on earth did you volunteer?”
“I was young and stupid. The good ol’ U.S. of A. was dragging its heels. Before Pearl it looked like we’d never get involved. I’m Jewish. We knew some of what was happening to Jews in Europe. I wanted to go over and give little Hitler a hiding. That’s all.”
“So were you a pilot?”
“Nah, I was trained as a bomb aimer.”
“Like a bombardier?”
“I guess, but that’s an American term. The Brits called us bomb aimers.”
“How interesting,” I said again rather feebly. “What sort of planes?”
“Heavy bombers. Lancasters.”
“You know Ray, this is more conversation than we’ve had in two weeks of getting to know you. You seem to remember it all.”
“I remember it perfectly, Doc, like it was yesterday.”
“I know someone who flew Lancasters. His name was Walker, he was a Squadron Leader…”
“Yes! Amazing! Good God, Ray did you know him?”
“Know him? I flew with him. I was in his team. Big guy. Moustache. Liked his pint. How do you know him?”
“He’s the father of my best friend growing up. How about that! What a coincidence.”
We stopped under a shady oak tree on the edge of the hospital grounds. There was a bench there, dedicated to a patient, maybe suicidal. His parents must have donated the bench and had the little bronze plaque engraved: In loving memory of our son, Alan, who left us too soon, to be with Christ.
“Can we sit here Ray, and you tell me more? I’ve got another Snickers bar you can have.”
“OK. Haven’t talked about it for years.”
“What is ‘it’, Ray?”
“The night the Germans got us good. It was my fault. Afterwards, I quit the RAF and was assigned to the USAF—we were finally in the barney by then. No one knew what I’d done, thanks to Harry.”
“Will you tell me?”
“OK. It’s not much really. Our first raids were against German ships at anchor, places like Rotterdam. We flew high, left our visiting cards—fourteen thousand friggin’ pounds of high explosives. We were a team. Seven of us, or eight when we had an extra pilot. First time I’ve ever felt really close to other human beings. We weren’t in much danger. We had two gun turrets, upper and rear, and the fighters didn’t like to engage us. Harry was the Squadron Leader. Everyone loved him. He was a Yorkshire lad—well, you would know that.”
I shook my head. “I don’t know as much as I should. Tell me more.”
“Well, after 1940, Bomber Command stopped playing Mister Nice Guy with the Germans. We were still targeting factories, railway stations, mines, power plants, but they didn’t give a shit if there were civilian casualties. Harry was real careful, but the raids weren’t always accurate—we were given coordinates and when we reached them, bingo, I dropped our load.
“The night that changed everything was a full moon. That made it dangerous, but clouds and rain were forecast for when we got to Germany, so we took off anyway. When we were over the target area, Harry gave me the order to release the ordnance. I couldn’t fuckin’ do it, excuse my French. Over the intercom I heard Harry shout ‘Release the bloody bombs, Ray, we got to get outta here.’
“‘I can’t, I shouted, and I heard him mutter to the other pilot to take over and he’d come back and find out what was going on. He stormed into my bomb bay, yelling like a madman. ‘I said release, you little shit, that’s a direct order. Do it now. Unless it’s stuck, you’re facing a court martial and a life in prison.’
“‘It’s not stuck, sir,’ I said, at which point Harry hissed in my ear, ‘Turn your bloody intercom off and tell me what’s up.’
“‘There were breaks in the cloud. I could see below us, sir, you couldn’t. There ain't nothing but little houses down there. A small town or a village. It was clear in the moonlight. Shit, sir, I could see swings in the gardens and push chairs by the front doors, washing hanging out, even a kid’s tricycle in the yard. That’s not a military target, sir, the coordinates are wrong.’
“‘What sort of arsehole bomb aimer knows better than the boffins in Bomber Command?’ he yelled. ‘What little Yankee Jew-boy questions our orders? I’ll do it myself.’
“Harry got onto his own intercom about then and told his co-pilot to radio the rest of the squadron to go home, and for him to circle around and make another pass over the site. The co-pilot complained that it was dangerous with this moon, but Harry yelled some more ’Just fucking do it, Fred.’
“Then he asked me what else I had seen down below, and I said nothing much. Houses had blackouts, but it seemed to me to be farmland beyond the bombing site. I was shaking, Doc, I was terrified. I’d disobeyed an order, and the goddamned squadron leader was now going to personally bomb the bejeesus out of some helpless little town with kids and families.
“‘They may be families of Gestapo, has that occurred to your peabrain?’ he demanded.
“‘I don’t care,’ I replied, ‘I can’t do it. It’s not a military target, not even close. The coordinates are wrong.’
“Just then his intercom crackled. ‘Prepare for Ray to release down there, sir, we’re thirty seconds from target.’
“Then Harry totally amazed me. I’ll never forget it, Doc. He got onto the intercom again and said to his co-pilot. ‘We seem to be short of the target, from what we can see. Go four more miles in the same direction and tell us when that is.’
“Well, the pilot came back in what seemed like an age and said, ‘Overshooting by four miles—now!’
“So old Harry yanked open the bomb doors and slammed his fist against the release knob and the bombs went down. ‘Turn on your intercom and shout bombs gone, Ray.’
“As soon as I did that, we felt the bird bank sharply and turn for the Channel and our airfield in Norfolk.”
“Bombs gone?” I interrupted. “What happened to ‘bombs away’?”
“Another Americanism, Doc. Brits are weird. Anyway, the cloud had returned by now and we couldn’t see much, but the first bomb to land lit up the countryside like it was daylight. We saw rows and rows of plants in a big field and then the rest of the ordnance obliterated everything in a great fireball of flame and debris.
“Harry covered both our intercoms with his big hands. ‘That was a cabbage field, if I’m not mistaken, Ray,’ he snarled. ‘Those innocent Gestapo families are going to go without their sauerkraut this winter. Another contribution to the war effort by Bomb Aimer First Class Ray Cohen, RAF. Don’t bloody breathe a word of this Ray, to anyone.’
“Then he was gone, back to the flight deck, and all hell broke out. Damned Messerschmitts started attacking us. We’d pushed too far into their territory. The gunners did well, but the rear gunner bought it before we could drive them off. We lost two engines and a third one must have been hit, because Harry warned us we had only one working engine and we’d have to crash-land on a field. ‘Hopefully it’s in England,’ he said. We were totally shot up, Doc, but the Lancaster is an amazing crate. Harry got us down in one piece, or as much as was left of us. It was an incredible feat of flying, I’m telling you. That was the most terrifying thirty minutes in my life.
“I don’t know if the rest of our team ever figured out what had happened, but Harry recommended me for an honourable discharge from the RAF and suggested I be assigned to ground duty in the U.S. Air Force, which had just arrived at our base field of East Wretham. I never saw him again, but I had heard that he had requested a new assignment to go somewhere overseas to do some training. Maybe South Africa.”
“It was New Zealand.”
“People wondered if he’d lost his nerve. I knew differently. He’d lost his stomach for killing. He was a peace hero, not a war hero, and that wasn’t popular. It was me who lost my nerve—fear and guilt and doubt and worry about being exposed, really messed with my head. They sent me to the funny farm in England and then back here, from one hospital to another. You’re the first shrink who’s ever asked me questions.”
New Zealand is about eighteen hours ahead of Massachusetts, but back in the hospital I paid no attention to the time and asked the operator to get me an overseas number.
Agnes answered the phone. Her voice was tired and shaky. I was excited and didn’t notice. “It’s me, Agnes, Robert. Can I talk to Harry, please, it’s important.”
“I’m afraid not Robbie, Harry’s very ill. He’s had a stroke. The doctors are not sure he’ll make it.” She started to sob. “Steve’s on his way from Canada. Any hope of you getting here?”
“I’ll try, Agnes, I’m just stunned, I’m so shocked. Harry’s too young. I’ll do what I can. Here’s my number in the U.S. Do you have a pencil? But meantime, can you try to give him a message from me? It’s terribly important.”
“He’s coming in and out of consciousness. I’m not sure he’ll understand.”
“Try, Agnes. Do your very best to help him understand. It’ll encourage him. This is the message. Be sure to say it exactly like this: ‘Steve’s old friend Robert Fleming called. He was asking for you. He said he had talked to a Yank, an airman called Ray Cohen, a bomb aimer. And now Robert knows exactly what it was you did in the war.’ Have you got that, Agnes?”
Half an hour later Agnes called me back. The line was not good.
“I gave Harry your message, Robbie. I had to repeat it and I wasn’t sure he understood at first. But then he gave a little smile, the first for the past few days, and he muttered something. It was clearly for you: ‘Tell Robert to have a beer and to remember old Winnie’s famous words: ‘This was his finest hour.’ I’m sure Harry said ‘his’, Robbie, but he got it wrong—Churchill said ‘their finest hour’.”
“No, Agnes, Harry said it right. Absolutely right.” I paused. “I’ve got a flight home from Boston via San Fran…”
“Oh, Robbie, I hope you won’t be too late…”
“I won’t be—you’ll find I bring peace, reconciliation, and absolution for us all.”