a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Monday, November 9, 2009

A World War II vet barely survived Burma

Thomas L. Beveridge, standing second from left, and his flight crew pals posed for this photograph with residents of India during World War II.

It’s been four years since I wrote this newspaper column for the Observer-Reporter in Washington, Pa., and an appropriate time to publish it again here with Veterans Day approaching in two days. It’s about my uncle, Tom Beveridge, who was assigned to what has been called the most-dangerous duty in World War II. It’s important to remember people like him who struggled until his death to put the war behind him, especially because so many years have passed since this war ended and people are beginning to look at it through rose-colored glasses. There were thousands of stories such as his which didn’t make the pages of Tom Brokaw’s 2004 book, “The Greatest Generation,” that tended to glamorize the post-war lives of these veterans.

By Scott Beveridge

World War II was over, and Sgt. Thomas L. Beveridge was ready to put the U.S. Army Air Forces behind him.

But returning to the real world stirred more anxiety in the young Charleroi, Pa., man than did his flying the most dangerous airplane missions in the war effort.

“I'm more afraid of facing civilian life than I was ever afraid of facing the Army and a war,” he wrote in a letter to his mother, Madge, while awaiting his separation papers after the war ended in 1945.

It was a profound message from a man who would never come to terms with the demons that haunted his soul.

The 1942 graduate of Charleroi High School, and my father’s brother, was eager to serve his country as an extension of his boyhood fondness for airplanes. He was so anxious that he lied about his age to enlist at age 17, one year shy of the minimum age to serve.

“From the looks of the situation, it seems that we are really getting on with the war. I wish to hell I would get my chance to fight it,” Tom Beveridge wrote home June 10, 1943, from his station at Tomah, Wis.

“I'm a radioman and I know my job and all I want to do is to get my chance to do it,” he boasted in the letter sent just before he was deployed to Delhi, India.

At the time, his call to arms was top secret. It soon would have him intercepting enemy radio transmissions while aboard cargo planes delivering supplies to China's forces engaged in battle with Japan.

With the Burma Road cut off by Japanese troops in early 1942, there was no way to supply China’s defense other than from air bases in India. It was the worst flying route ever assigned to air transport, according to Air Force Magazine Online.

The duty over the Himalayas was dubbed, “Flying the Hump,” with planes loaded to capacity and struggling to maintain safe altitudes in thin air above the mountain range.

They crew typically faced “extreme turbulence, thunderstorms and icing,” the magazine reported in March 1991.

In late 1943, there were 155 accidents and 168 fatalities in just one month. Downed airmen were exposed to thick jungles, temperatures of more than 130 degrees in the shade and headhunters.

The flight crew work was especially demanding, with some pilots in the air as long as 165 hours a month.

“Sometimes I think I'm more in the air these days than on the ground,” Beveridge penned in a letter home in June 1944.

Conditions on the ground were not much better.

“Everything is a total mess,” he wrote five months later, describing his garbage-filled and ant-infested barracks. A nearby comrade named Mac had been flying all night, “and he looks like he is dead,” Beveridge wrote.

That letter, meanwhile, was written about two months after he was missing in action when his plane crashed in Burma. He and another airman parachuted to the ground, becoming the only two survivors of the crash.

They used a machete to cut their way out of a jungle, spending five days with nothing more to eat than an ant-covered chocolate bar. He also experienced a brief period of amnesia after being rescued by Allied troops, and, ultimately, returned to duty.

“I am OK now and in the best of health, just a few scratches,” he wrote in an Aug. 11, 1944, letter to his mother.

On the surface, Beveridge might have appeared healthy.

But he would spend the rest of his life as an alcoholic, known to drink hard liquor by the iced-tea glass as the years went by. He managed to earn a business degree from West Virginia University, Morgantown, after being discharged, and went on to carve out a successful career as a finance executive in Los Angeles.

Unlike today, though, veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam were simply given their walking papers to civilian life.

Post-traumatic stress disorder was not identified as a diagnosis until the 1970s, said Chuck Williamson, director of veteran affairs at California University of Pennsylvania.

“We know millions of World War II veterans suffered various degrees of PTSD,” Williamson said.

The disorder, he said, can lead to depression and self-medication with drugs and alcohol as a way to deal with their stress.

“We've learned that from my generation” said Williamson, a Vietnam War veteran.

A more-recent Army study indicated that about one in six soldiers in Iraq reported symptoms of major depression, serious anxiety or PTSD, The New York Times reported in December 2004.

With the number expected to rise sharply, the Army deployed combat stress control units to Iraq to provide fast treatment to shell shocked soldiers and keep them close to their units, the newspaper reported.

Beveridge, as a survivor of a plane that crashed in a jungle, would have had similar issues to resolve, Williamson said. War flight crews such as his spent countless hours together, and were known to form close, family-type bonds, he said.

“In fact, they were kids going off to do the most horrible things a man can do,” he said. “That's severe trauma.”

Soldiers who survived such experiences could spend the rest of their lives questioning why they lived when their best friends did not, Williamson said.

“You can't reconcile that,” he added.

My uncle twice attempted detoxification to no avail. He suffered a fatal heart attack at age 65 in 1989 in a liquor store in Los Angeles.

The man with a fascination with flight was purchasing booze at the time in bottles the size of those served on commercial airlines.


Alison said...

Thanks for writing this, and reposting it here.

Scott Beveridge said...

You're welcome.

ms.sow said...

I was born in Charleroi. My parents were born and raised. Classes of 1930 and 1938. My dad was in the CBI theater. He played sports in high school. I 'd love a high-res of your football photo.

Scott Beveridge said...

Which football photo?

lonna said...

My father was in Burma and the story you wrote about cutting through the jungle with a knife sounds like the story in my father's book, "Hell is Green". He suffered like your Dad. My dad's name was William (Bill) Diebold. He also parachuted into the Burmese jungle. Were they in the same unit or knew each other?

lonna said...

My father was in Burma and the story you wrote about cutting through the jungle with a knife sounds like the story in my father's book, "Hell is Green". He suffered like your Dad. My dad's name was William (Bill) Diebold. He also parachuted into the Burmese jungle. Were they in the same unit or knew each other?

Scott Beveridge said...

I'll have to check my files. The name Diebold sounds familiar. But, this story is about my uncle, not my father.

Brewenn Chausset said...


I collect objects of the world war two, I find an object of a member of the crew of Thomas Bereridge. His name was Frederick Martin Brownewell, He his dead in the crash of their plane, Your uncle survives.
I have find many documents about this crash.
If you want I can give then to you by mail.
Do you know if Frederick brownewell is in the picture on the top of the page?

Sorry for my mistakes, I'm french and I try to don't use translator.

Lisa said...

Fantastic photo and history.