Excerpt from “American Icarus: A Memoir of Father and Country”
Chapter IV: Love and War in South America
The following excerpt describes my research into my father’s service during World War II as an airman for the Army Air Force Air Transport Command—a massive operation that supplied the troops abroad with ammunition, medicine, bombs, and money, and that ferried German prisoners and wounded soldiers—and how learning about this period in his life changed my perception of him and his wartime service. The South Atlantic Route my father, Joe Carroll, flew began in Florida, then extended down the east coast of Brazil to the wartime city of Natal, then across the South Atlantic, crawling with German subs, to a refueling stop on a pinpoint of volcanic rock called Ascension Island, and then on to the west coast of Africa. He also flew secret missions through the Andes Mountains, through steep mountain passes, in the dark of night and with no lights, so the enemy wouldn’t detect them. He said he’d flown some of the earliest flights through the Andes, with no instruments, and at times they’d been so turned upside down they hung from the ceiling. It was, my father mused, the first time he’d realized his extraordinary gift for navigation, for even during such heart-stopping, disorienting moments, he could always tell at what altitude the plane was flying.
The fact that I cannot find a single piece of paper or military memento among my father’s records documenting his stint in the service further deepens the enigma around his wartime experience. . . . All I have to go on is the collection of cryptic half sentences about what he did during World War II, spoken in the familiar fugue of shame, puffed-up pride, and goofy words that came down to my family and me from my father. Got sent to Natal, Brazil. Flew cargo planes. Repaired planes and took plane parts back to Africa. It was a staging ground for the invasion of Japan. Had a Brazilian girlfriend, boy was she sweet. Loved Rio, man it was “beeooouutiful.” There was brief mention of dangerous missions aboard patrol bombers, or PBY’s. And a speck of an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean where planes refueled on the way to West Africa.
Sometimes, I recall, my siblings and I would tease my father about what a “hardship” his military service must have been. “Oh, Brazil,” we’d chortle with the sarcasm of youth, rolling our eyes in mockery. “Must have been tough.” Facing his four accusers, his prowess as a man on the line, Joe would raise his head, wave his Pall Mall in one hand, his can of Budweiser in the other, and yell defensively, “It was dangerous! Planes crashed in the jungle!” Or, “We were preparing to invade Japan. We thought we were going to die!”
What I discover—not just about my father, but about Brazil and the story of aviation—is unexpected. As a regular Joe caught up in the colossal forces of history, my father’s wartime experience was, surprisingly, more eventful than he’d ever let on. During my research, hidden pieces of his character come to light that change my perceptions about him. In telling his story, I aim to focus his narrative through the lens of the “different light” that author Susan Griffin describes in A Chorus of Stones—that light in which “one can begin to perceive the edges of one shared movement in what we have called the private and the public worlds, one motion shaping and shaped by all that exists.”
Having known so little about my father’s military experience, I found myself unexpectedly drawn through my research into the blast and might of war. As I studied the pages of history that Joe lived, dry text turned into sounds, sights, and smells. In an instant, I found myself on the tarmac of a military base by the rainforest-rimmed beaches of Brazil, among throngs of American soldiers. The roar of planes filled my ears and the heat of the sun beat down on my shoulders. In a dream, I soared in a plane through silent spaces of endless water and sky, fearful that I wouldn’t make it to land. Staid Air Force documents transformed into a thrilling detective mystery. I, a lifelong pacifist, surprised myself by how easily I became enchanted by conflict’s allure. I discovered, as James Hillman writes in A Terrible Love of War, that war is a mythical happening, catapulting individuals out of ordinary reality into heightened states. For this reason, writes Hillman, no other account save myth can convey war’s pairing of inhuman tragedy and the divine intoxication of battle—the product, I imagine, of war’s proximity to the whirling vortex of history that sweeps everything into itself.
After all I’ve discovered, I now marvel at all my father didn’t say. He was more the hero, to me at least, than he’d ever allowed. Unless I’d made the effort in writing this book to dig deeper into his story, I’d never have discovered that, despite his obfuscation and short-hand bulletins, Joe Carroll had risen to the cause of his time and done what was asked of him. Surely, he must have felt the rush of history through his veins as he ferried supplies over impenetrable forests and submarine-infested oceans. Surely, blood-deep fear must have accompanied him as he flew secret missions over the Andes Mountains—silent, by the thread of instinct, suspended in the black of night. Even so, the short list of facts Joe shared in the years after the war with his wife and children conveyed hardly anything at all of the emotional magnitude of that time. The code of his profession didn’t help. Airmen, I learn from [author Ernest] Gann, were set apart by their “almost psychopathic modesty.” Nor did the code of the military help. “If your father didn’t distinguish himself by getting injured or killed in the line of duty, he vanished into obscurity,” an Air Force historian tells me. “It’s up to relatives like you to bring someone like him to light again.”
My father’s experience was not so different from others his age. As it has been said many times, the Greatest Generation served their country well. But their tight-lipped style of communication and repression of emotion did not serve them well in turn. Larry Decker, a California psychologist who works with veterans, says that World War II vets “just didn’t talk about” their experiences. The storied silences of that generation, however, could not inoculate them against war’s psychological aftereffects. These were the men and women who, in stoic fashion, endured economic hardship during their childhood, fought in World War II in their early adulthood, and then returned to marry, work, and raise their children.
They accomplished all this while pretending as if they had not grown lean and worried during the Depression. Or had lived through the most horrific mass killing the world had ever seen, or had their souls blinded by the glare of the first atomic bomb. Forced by circumstance to rebuild their lives from the ground up while ignoring what was going on inside, many of them fell, too, like my father, into bottomless pools of alcohol and depression. For though he was a gifted navigator who could pilot a plane through steep mountain passes, or bring it in for a landing without radar through rain, sleet, and snow, no one ever taught Joe Carroll how to ferry his soul back into his body to face the humdrum of daily life, and the inevitable gray weather of boredom and disappointment.
Many a time when we were growing up, my father’s dark moods hung over the house like those old-fashioned black crepe streamers that mourners used to drape around their homes after a death in the family. None of us had words to explain Dad’s sudden dives downward and inward, just a sixth sense of something menacing in the background. Easily spooked, I feared ghosts flitting in the darkness and robbers under my bed. My sister dreamed of snakes writhing on the wall and lions roaring in my parents’ bedroom. Bravely, my brother sang songs in his bed, while my younger brother developed an inconvenient habit of running away.
“Children often pick up those things that are ‘unlived’ in the life of the parent,” Jungian analyst Jerry Ruhl tells me. Many of his clients, says Ruhl, are children of parents who suffered through a historical tragedy, such as the Holocaust or World War II. Often, he says, “they come into therapy with unexplained feelings of deep depression and guilt that don’t seem to be related to their current life circumstances. This dynamic is probably what’s behind the biblical admonition that the sins of the father are carried unto the fourth generation.” Certainly, one of the legacies I inherited from my father, I confide in Jungian analyst Lionel Corbett, was the feeling that his suffering was mine to bear, and my responsibility to redeem. “He unknowingly put his suffering into you,” Corbett replied. “All parents do that, in some form. Whatever we can’t solve we hand on to our children. So there was a displaced experience, where he put his pain into you and you had to deal with it.”
I was not alone in the Carroll family in my experience. Of Joe’s older brothers who served in the army, it was my uncle Bob who suffered the worst of war’s miseries. On captain’s orders, he’d had to execute a deserter fleeing from his own unit. It was also Bob who, upon surprising a dozen German officers in a basement, had heroically raised his Tommy gun and shouted “Hande uber Kopf!” (“Hands on head!”).
After the war, he would credit that Thompson machine gun for not being killed. Bob was dead, however, by the age of fifty-six from alcohol and cigarettes. My cousin Patrick tells me that Bob was “a quiet man” who became a skilled carpenter, installed garage doors, and loved to read Shakespeare. Susan Blackston, Bob’s daughter from his second marriage, recalls that her father was very proud of having served in the 101st Airborne Division and of his wartime bravery in three major battles, D-Day, Operation Market Garden, and the Battle of the Bulge.
But there were lasting wounds: the large scar on his knee, which earned him a Purple Heart; the haunting memories of the trenches; the horrible cold; and the paratroopers he’d witnessed being shot in trees, unable to get away because their parachutes were tangled . . . . “I don’t think he ever had a moment’s peace,” recalls Susan. “He dreamed of the horrors of war when he slept and when awake he was in a constant struggle with alcoholism—either fighting against the intense cravings, or succumbing to them. And yet, in spite of it all, I never doubted his love for us; unspoken, but true.”
James Hillman makes the interesting point that PTSD suffered by veterans occurs with a wider syndrome: the numbing of the American homeland and its addiction to security. PTSD, Hillman writes with compelling force, “breaks out in peacetime because peace as defined does not allow upsetting remembrances of war’s continuing presence. War is never over, even when the fat lady sings on victory day.” As in the case of my Uncle Bob [and as with my father], peace for veterans is not an absence of war, Hillman continues, but “its living ghost in the bedroom, at the lunch counter, on the highway.” Society rejects the disturbed emotions of its vets just as it rejects the wider epidemic of depression. This rejection makes us ill-equipped, writes Hillman, to help vets tortured by the absurdities and horrors witnessed during the war.
Image: Author’s father, Joe Carroll, after the war.