Surviving the war was only half the battle

Downey resident and WWII veteran Harold Hougland survived a Japanese attack on the USS Franklin, but as he would later learn, surviving the war was only half the battle.

In the aftermath of the attack on the ship I was serving aboard, which nearly sunk us and caused heavy loss of life, I was re-assigned to the U.S. Naval Training Station in Ottumwa, Iowa.

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My duty there consisted of entertainment, playing and singing with a big dance band – I had played in the ships band aboard the aircraft carrier. After the horrific experience of the bombing of our ship and helping bury at sea more than 700 of my shipmates, this was cozy duty indeed.  

Doing what I enjoyed while waiting to get out of the Navy on the points system (based on the amount of major battles participated in, etc.), I wasn’t regular Navy; only in for the war’s duration.

After a few weeks of enjoying my new soft-duty, I received a letter from my step-mother informing me that my best friend and high school classmate was in a psychiatric hospital in Indiana, not far from my hometown of Oakland City, in population of around 5000 souls.

According to her (my angel of a step-mother), he, my friend, Lennis, had been riding in a jeep with three buddies when they sustained a direct mortar hit, killing the three and blowing him from the vehicle, miraculously unharmed, physically.

Upon receipt of this news, I was devastated and began cogitating if there could be any possible way I might be able to help. According to the information in the letter, my friend wasn’t recognizing anyone visiting him; not even family members.

With this in mind I began to formulate a plan.

I thought that there might be a slim chance that my showing up to see him could possibly shock him into a semblance of reality – a chance I decided to take.

Armed with the letter I went to the commanding officer of the base (right to the top, no messing around). He listened intently to my story and my plan, and when I finished he said, “Will three days be all right?”

I said something like,  “Yes, sir, that will be fine, thank you. But don’t you want to see the letter?”

To which he replied, “No, that won’t be necessary. No one could possibly concoct a story like that just to get a three day emergency leave – here’s your pass and good luck with your buddy.”

I now resorted to the speediest form of transportation for a service man: hitch-hiking.

When I arrived at his facility and was guided to his ward, I looked through the metal grating searching for him. When our eyes met, he said, “Hougland, what are you doing here?”

Thank God, my slim chance plan worked.

Shortly after that he was released, with no memory of my visit, the hospital stay or the combat incident. When I asked him about the experience, he told me there was a period in his life that was a total blank.

Upon discharge he experienced no after-effects and lived a completely normal life. What a blessing!

Not me. I struggled for years with post war PTSD, wasting away years of my life in confusion and heavy drinking. Thank God I finally recovered, but will never be able to forget my war-combat, or stop grieving for my many precious lost shipmates.