The effects of living through an event like the attack on Pearl Harbor are bound to be profound and lasting. Even for those who weren’t on the naval base itself at the time of the attack, being in proximity to it would have been enough to remove any sense of security they may have had. The noises of battle, the sounds of men screaming for help, the flashes of light when bombs struck their targets – all of these things stick with people, often hindering their ability later on to enjoy what in other circumstances would be considered a normal situation or event.
The survivors of Pearl Harbor underwent a trauma that, for many, lingered until their final days. As if the shock of the surprise attack alone wasn’t enough to traumatize, the horrifying sight of sailors perishing all around would fuel nightmares for a lifetime. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a serious concern for anyone who’s seen battle, and when it came to the survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack, PTSD was a common occurrence.
In 1991, the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder released a detailed, quarterly write-up about PTSD in older veterans. Of course the topic of World War II came up, specifically the Pearl Harbor attack, and, at the time of the study in the 1980s, 65 percent of a selected group of veterans reported experiencing symptoms of wartime imagery flashes. Forty-two percent of the control group also admitted to suffering from survivor guilt and a lasting anger towards anyone of Japanese descent. Among members of the same group, 25% suffered adverse responses when specific noises, like the roar of an engine, hit them.
Many of the heroes of Pearl Harbor didn’t return from the attack as the stable-minded, strong-willed men that they had shipped off as. One case in point was a man named Sterling Cale. At the onset of the attack, Cale was just finishing up his shift onshore and had a clear view of the destruction being wrought throughout Pearl Harbor. Without hesitation, he dove into the choppy waters to assist the sailors that he could. While he succeeded in saving the lives of several of his fellow sailors, many more perished in the attack. As he emerged from the assault unscathed, Cale was made responsible for collecting the dead from waters still aflame from burning oil.
It’s a difficult enough job to do if you don’t know the people whose bodies you’re collecting, but to someone like Cale, these were brothers who served the same purpose – protecting the United States of America. The effects of Pearl Harbor stuck with Cale, even in the most innocuous scenarios. Once, while enjoying a family picnic at the beach, Cale’s son was dragged out into the ocean by an unexpected wave. Though he reacted quickly to save his son, Cale was frozen in place by the trauma of having pulled the bodies of his comrades from the waters of Pearl Harbor. Luckily, Cale’s dog was around and rescued his son, but Cale’s is just one story among dozens upon dozens of traumatized veterans.
PTSD may not be at the forefront of conversation when discussing the effects of Pearl Harbor, but it’s there nonetheless, and affected many veterans well into their adult years.