Battle Fatigue

| February 14, 2019

In his autobiography The Sound of Sleat, Jon Schueler refers to specific events that greatly affected him, but did not deter him from training as a B-17 navigator before deploying to the European theater.

Excerpts are here:

Scroll down to the page titled: “Quotes from The Sound of Sleat: A Painter’s Life by Jon Schueler”. He makes it abundantly clear that he struggled desperately to understand what was going through his head, but could not.

He was sent back to the States in 1944 and hospitalized for a time. After he was medically retired, he put his energies into art, following in the footsteps of Willem de Kooning, a superb realist who turned to abstract expressionism, and Jackson Pollock, the drip painter who drank between bouts of painting.

One of the persistent subjects that Schueler infused into his paintings and wove into his writings was his experience in World War II when he served as a navigator in the U.S. Army Air Corps. His war memories, and undiagnosed PTSD, haunted him and continually found expression in his post-war work. He specifically struggled with deep guilt over the lastminute change of plans – precipitated by his decision to marry – that resulted in his escaping the practice flight that killed the whole crew in a tornado during training in El Paso, Texas. In Europe, he was one of only two men in his squadron to survive the wartime missions over France and Germany, and this perceived alteration of fate never found a place of reconciliation within his psyche. Following medical retirement in 1944 he embarked on a career path of painting, first in San Francisco and then in New York. Then, after successful exhibitions, in 1957 he consciously chose a kind of creative exile and went to Mallaig, a small fishing village on the west coast of Scotland in sight of the Isle of Skye. Without fully understanding why, he centered himself in this rugged, dramatically changeable environment for months at a time, painting quickly in inspired bursts of energy charged with his full life force, as though he wasn’t sure if he would have time to finish. Vigorously responding to the emotions invoked by the clouds, sky, sea and land, he lived, in a way, inside of his paintings, and without realizing it, slowly started healing his unseen war wounds. – Exhibition proposal for Lost Man Blues exhibit by Jon Schueler.

In the first half of the 20th century, post traumatic stress associated with warfare was referred to by several terms, including shell shock and battle fatigue. We’ve already had comments from several people who have said “Dad came home from the war and never talked about it until….”

B-17 Flying Fortress

N.B.: Photo added after AW1Ed found one for me. Thanks for that!

In Schueler’s recollections of flying as part of a bomber squadron, he witnessed planes in his squadron being hit and plummeting toward the ground, but no sign of parachutes, which meant the crew had not escaped. As he saw this kind of thing more than once, he no doubt felt his own helplessness to do anything, like many other people in WWII, and internalized it until he could no longer function as a navigator. When he turned to art, hoping to find some success in the modern art world, he found his greatest inspiration and did his best work in the village of Mallaig in northwestern Scotland, located on the Sound of Sleat.  Inspired by the skies of the Sound, he worked through his issues and, in my view, brought the same light into expressionism that Turner brought into Impressionism.

The difference between Jon Schueler and some of the people who claim what is now termed PTSD, but have other things going on,  is that he faced his issues and made them work for him, not knowing whether or not he would succeed. He did what used to be referred to as “toughing it out” on his own.

That’s all I have to say.

Category: Disposable Warriors, Historical, War Stories

Comments (27)

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Definitely not Bradley Manning who leaked to WikiLeaks because he tried to flip over a table on his NCO in Iraq and she whupped his ass for that, I’ll say.

  2. AW1Ed says:

    Losing your entire crew in training and being one of the last men standing in the entire squadron- yeah, anyone not affected by that isn’t right, mentally. Great story on how he coped with his PTSD, Ex. Thanks.

    For the record, that pic is a Brit Spitfire (I think) taking out a Nazi V-1 flying bomb. The pilot tips the V-1’s wing over with his own aircraft’s wing, causing it to flip out of control and crash in the country side, instead of London or other metropolis. Amazing how he fit his cojones into that small airframe.

  3. 5th/77th FA says:

    Not a big fan of abstract art, not a big fan of pr0n either. But I do know either when I see them. Him being a navigator, I can “see” his choice of subjects.

    We each have our own way of dealing with the demons in our heads. What ever way works for each is best. Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is easy peasy. Thirty minutes in their head? Not so much.

  4. 26Limabeans says:

    “Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is easy peasy. Thirty minutes in their head? Not so much”

    That is the FIRST time I have seen experience and effect correlated in a short concise statement. What you said is the key to understanding true PTSD.

  5. rgr1480 says:

    Mallaig, pronounced “mah-leg”.
    Sleat, pronounced “slate”

    I took the ferry from Mallaig and got off at Ardvasar (Isle of Skye) and stayed on Sleat Peninsula for 4 months working at Armadale Castle. I used to look out over the Sound of Sleat every day.

    Most days it was overcast; other days the rain was horizontal.

    Still, a nice summer job after 5 years in the military. Yes, even dipping sheep was better than my time in the USAF …. (except for the six-month TDY to Garmisch).

    Thanks for bringing the memories of Skye back to the front of my brain-housing-group; I ended up running away to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne with a girl who worked in the castle’s tea shop.

  6. aGrimm says:

    My father-in-law’s brother committed suicide about a year after he came home. He did 33 missions over Germany as a B-17 navigator. Shot down on that 33rd mission, he spent 15 months in Stalag Luft 1. News articles indicate no one saw any despondency. One can only wonder if PTSD wasn’t involved.
    If I knew how to post a picture here I could post a picture of his Stalag “dog tags” which are cool to see.

  7. Perry Gaskill says:

    Something not always recognized is that during the middle of 1943, the chances for crews trying to complete a 25-mission B-17 tour over Germany were about 50-50. This included the risk of KIA, WIA, and being taken POW. A main problem was that Allied aircraft used for fighter support lacked the range to help counter the Luftwaffe aircraft thrown up in defense. This would later change with the introduction of the P-51 and drop tanks.

    Sometimes I’m reminded of a poem written by Randall Jarrell who was in the Army Air Corps in England at the time. It’s called The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner:

    From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
    And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
    Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
    I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
    When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

    • 26Limabeans says:

      The G model with a pair of Brownings in a nose turret was a game changer. The Navigator and Togglier shared the single Brownings either side before then.
      My dad told me they could have used a third guy in the nose.
      Wish he were here to comment.
      Wish he were here.

  8. 11B-Mailclerk says:

    During a rough patch of life, I worked Sunday afternoons in a friend’s forge, making knives.

    You can work out a whole bunch of “angry” swinging an 8 pound sledgehammer into hot steel. You can also go from a medium-tall shirt to 2XL-tall.

    I still have some of the resultant blades. And, almost none of the darkness.

    Art can be a path to peace.

  9. FatCircles0311 says:

    Cultures that create forever victims that are perpetually helpless for their situation don’t help. Wonder why the West is currently going through skyrocketing suicide while quality of life is far better than the 3rd world that doesn’t have problematic suicide rates?