A Servicemember in My Family was Never the Same after WWII—My MotherBreaking News
tags: World War II, military history, PTSD, womens history, trauma
At the end of World War II, my mother, Phyllis McLaughlin, was sent home after weeks in a battlefront hospital tent, her legs wired and sutured together. She had tumbled off a mountain in the Bavarian Alps in a jeep accident that nearly killed her. Her scars were familiar to me, born 10 years later, but I did not understand that the wounds from her service would never heal.
Her nightmares woke us nearly every night, leaving her hoarse. She had inexplicable outbursts of anger during the day. A battered Army footlocker in the living room held her mementos, but my mother carried World War II inside her like a ghost. She had never been a soldier, but she volunteered to serve with the Red Cross Clubmobile Service and followed the troops into combat.
The Clubmobile Service was essentially a mobile social club for the battlefront. The “Donut Dollies” drove two-and-a-half-ton GMC trucks, three women to a crew. In the back of the truck: a galley with huge electric urns for making coffee and a doughnut machine, a record player, sometimes letters from loved ones to be delivered. My mother was trained to always be a friendly face, ready to listen, comfort and encourage. Which meant she and the other women were also direct and secondhand witnesses to everything that happened during that brutal war. I now recognize my mother was tortured by PTSD, her nightmares and outbursts classic symptoms of something she would never understand: After all, “battle fatigue” was for the boys.
I got a brief glimpse of what she survived when she took me at age 15 to see the film “Patton.” She dragged me out of bed and we marched to the bus stop to see the first showing of the day at San Diego’s California Theater. I surreptitiously watched my mother laugh, smile and rock in her seat, weep and sigh as we sat through one, then two and finally three showings of the film. If it hadn’t been getting dark outside, we would have sat through two more.
While watching the movie, my mother was alive in a way I had never known her. “That Georgie Patton was a very naughty boy,” she said with a knowing smile and faraway look. And I knew it wasn’t only about George C. Scott; she was reliving perhaps the time of her life. Though I couldn’t see the connection at the time — the film didn’t offer even a glimpse of the Clubmobile Service — clearly my mother had lived a life I did not know. After she died, I needed to understand her and how World War II affected our relationship. How did this insouciant New York sophisticate become an isolated, lonely woman battling her own memories?
Everything changed for my mother when she volunteered for duty in the European theater at the age of 27. Through her scrapbooks and diaries, I was able to piece together a rough sketch of her journey. After several weeks of training in Washington, D.C., my mother arrived in Britain only to have her train bombed. She spent the weeks surrounding D-Day at a B-17 base outside London and saw the first buzz bombs hit the city.