Ralph F. Witt is a man with a big laugh and a contagious sense of humor.
He learned to play the drums in his 80s and builds K’nex toy perpetual-motion machines at his West Akron home.
He is also a war hero who fought on Leyte Island in the Philippines and on Okinawa during World War II. He still suffers from what he experienced on the battlefield.
Witt, now 88, spends time most days working on his memoirs, going over war documents and the hundreds of letters he wrote home to his parents, slowly writing what he hopes will become a book about what he saw during the war.
He earned several medals — a Purple Heart, three Bronze Star Medals, a Combat Infantryman Badge and a Good Conduct Medal — before coming home to a career in the trucking industry.
Sitting on a couch at his home, he holds a watercolor painting a comrade in his scout unit made of him after the war ended. It is clear from the painting that the man who will be 89 in the fall is the same man who once was a 20-year-old rifleman and scout.
All eight men in his unit of scouts survived the war.
Q: So many never spoke of the war. Did you?
A: I talked to my mother and my aunt. My aunt helped raise me. They were my psychiatrists. When I came home, a doctor said I had “battle fatigue.” I was all shook up.
Q: What did you experience when you came home?
A: Oh, I just went out and I had a good time. Went to Akron U. Got in a fight with one of the professors. A doctor said, “Go to work and [the battle fatigue] will disappear.”
Q: Did it?
A: No. I still have post-traumatic stress disorder. I go to the VA. I’ve been going there for six years. I never heard about it, but I have been living with this thing all my life.
Q: What made you start talking about the war and seek help?
A: I started thinking about the whole thing. I started writing my memoirs — what I could remember. I wrote home every chance I had. I have all the letters I wrote home. Probably 300 to 350 letters. My mother saved everything.
Q: Why did so many come home and never discuss the war?
A: I hit a few bars when I was younger. I listened to these guys in the bars and I knew most of them were just [talking] plain B.S. Barroom heroes, you know. So I couldn’t top any of the stories they had, so I just kept my mouth shut. … I just couldn’t talk about it. I would shake. I am shaking right now. I just can’t talk about it.
Q: When you would start talking about it you would shake?
A: Yes. I just can’t face it. I’m all upset now.
Q: Did you have nightmares?
A: All kinds of nightmares. I still have them. My wife would wake up and she would be in the bathtub or someplace. I would say, “What are you doing?” She would say, “You were raising so much hell and yelling and screaming, I couldn’t stand it.”
Q: Did you reread all your letters and was that part of the process of your getting help?
A: Yes. Then I transcribed them. I was trying to get my life squared away. I was retired. Nothing to do. My wife died … I got my computer and I started typing.
Q: You were hit in the hip in Okinawa?
A: I pulled it out. It was a piece of shrapnel. It went in about an inch and a half. That’s all I know. I got my bandage out. Bandaged it up and kept going. Got a Purple Heart.
Q: Where did you get the Japanese flag? (He brought home two from the war.)
A: We were in a cave. It was a banzai attack. A tomb really. Four guys came by. One of the guys threw a grenade in the tomb. I wrote in a letter that I thought I was going to die. I picked the thing up and threw it back outside and it landed … They all got killed. The next day, I took the flag and the spurs off the guy.
Q: Even though you are still suffering from the war, was your war experience a great thing in your life?
A: Yes. Tremendous. Tremendous. You couldn’t have a better experience, really. It was great. You are there with a lot of wonderful, wonderful people.
Q: Does the trauma ease as you get older?
A: As I get older, it gets better, but I still think about it every day.
Q: Do you feel the need to talk about it now so people will know what happened?
A: This was basically for my kids and some of the people I knew.
Q: How did your life change as a result of your war experiences?
A: I became more aggressive. People don’t believe the stuff I tell them. I say you do what you got to do. And if somebody’s going to shoot you, you have to shoot them first. The hell with being kind. You are out to save your life and your buddies’ lives. I watched all these movies where these guys were talking to each other. Nobody talks to each other. You are just so busy keeping alive. Hell, you just do it.
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.