Pat Brown wants the community to remember the Janesville 99 and learn from the soldiers’ horrific suffering to better understand the challenges faced by today’s combat veterans.
Brown, a Janesville Vietnam veteran, is helping organize a Sunday, May 19, ceremony and discussion honoring the 99 members of Company A of the 192nd Tank Battalion. The 99 men were sent to the Philippines in 1941. They were captured and subjected to the Bataan Death March. When the war ended in 1945, only 35 returned alive.
“I have a family connection to the Janesville 99, and that’s a main reason why I have joined others to hold this event,” Brown said.
Wayne Buggs, the father of Brown’s wife, Kerry, was a Janesville 99 survivor.
“The Janesville 99 was made up of very special Janesville area citizens who answered the call,” Brown said. “I want to do everything I can to preserve their memory.”
Brown said the May 19 event was made possible by descendants and family members of the Janesville 99 with special recognition to historian Jim Opolony, Chris Campbell and Marie Severson.
When today’s soldier returns home from combat duty and displays a prolonged reaction to traumatic stress—reliving traumatic events; changes in thinking or mood; physical issues such as headaches, chest pains or dizziness—we recognize what might be post-traumatic stress disorder.
In 1945, returning World War II combat veterans displaying similar symptoms were viewed as strange or even dangerous.
Brown said we can only imagine what the 35 survivors went through as they assimilated back into their civilian lives following the most horrendous forms of torture and deprivation.
That’s not to say that all of the Janesville 99 survivors suffered from post stress trauma.
“Some victims of traumatic events can compartmentalize,” said Bob Evans, the doctor of psychological health at the Wisconsin National Guard in Madison.
“If you can compartmentalize and say, ‘That traumatic experience is here, and this is now,’ you’ll likely be fine,” he said. “Some people can just work that out.”
Those who returned most likely had developed what Evans calls survival skills. Survivors often continue to rely on those skills—wariness, distrust and careful selection of friends. Those skills could be interpreted as being “different” or even weird.
It’s likely many of the Janesville 99 survivors displayed their survival skills in some form. More noticeable survival skills included food hoarding, paranoia and much different views of death.
“These men suffered unimaginable scenes of death,” Evans said. “It was an everyday occurrence to see their friends murdered or left behind to die. As the survivors developed a survival culture, it was likely some of them carried that culture home with them. In the 1940s, unfortunately, we did not recognize PTSD and its related illnesses. So, the survival culture was not only unknown to us, it was often misdiagnosed as a form of mental illness.”
While survivors struggled to assimilate into civilian life, their families and friends were faced with how to cope.
“Today, there are various organizations to help family and friends understand and help returning combat veterans who suffer from PTSD,” Evans said. “The Veterans Administration is a good source for help as well as the National Guard.”
Evans cautions families that their efforts to help combat veterans displaying post-stress symptoms might be misinterpreted.
“What does help look like?” Evans asked. “A veteran may believe that even asking about things can be viewed as an intrusion and the vet could become angry. They take that as a further insult to their ability to cope.”