BANGOR, Maine — Each small group of students that interviews World War II veteran Harold Beal hears about the two boats the young gunner’s mate lost just off Omaha Beach on D-Day in June 1944.
They see the miniature torpedo he made from the propeller of a Messerschmidt aircraft he later helped shoot down over Normandy. The youngsters look at Victory mail letters and the German wooden bullets that the Southwest Harbor man, 87, explains weren’t very accurate, but were damaging at close range because they exploded into splinters on contact.
No doubt many of the students caught Beal’s D-Day anniversary interview in June on the local evening TV news without realizing what a miracle it was for him to tell the tale. Beal himself certainly knows it.
“I had 60-some years I couldn’t talk to nobody,” Beal recalled recently.
He spent his working life as a truck driver, but it wasn’t just the independence of the road that appealed to him after the war.
“The reason I wanted to drive [a] truck was I didn’t want to talk to anybody,” he said.
If he could avoid talking about the war, it might be easier to avoid thinking about the time he saw 36 soldiers cut down by German fire in seconds as the ramp went down on the Navy landing craft at Omaha Beach.
A longtime sufferer of post-traumatic stress disorder from seeing so many killed on D-Day, Beal knows that his PTSD has been hard on his family, especially his wife.
“It would break my heart to see him sit and watch war movies like ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and cry,” Marcia Beal explained.
Harold Beal spent more than 15 years attending a PTSD group for 1½ hours every Monday morning at the Bangor Veterans Center to receive support from other veterans and a counselor. “I was one of the worst he had,” Beal said.
Another fellow in the PTSD group had started participating in the Veterans Interview Program at Cole Land Transportation Museum in Bangor, answering questions about military service from groups of three or four youngsters in middle school or high school.
“The counselor said, I want you to go up and sit in a couple of times, see what they do, and try it,” Beal said.
So he did.
“When he first started, I thought, ‘he’s going to break down,’” Marcia Beal said. “But he came home and he looked so contented.” And, she added with a smile, “we’ve gotten closer since he’s been up there.”
Her husband has begun talking to his daughter about the war, as well.
Not only war veterans and active service members experience PTSD, but they are more likely to have the disorder than someone who has not been in the military, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Among the symptoms of the anxiety disorder — called shell shock, battle fatigue and combat exhaustion decades ago — are nightmares, reliving the event as a “flashback,” anger and irritability, efforts to avoid crowds and other fearful situations, trying to keep busy in order to keep from thinking or talking about what happened, an inability to remember parts of the trauma, trouble sleeping and a tendency to jump at loud noises.
According to the Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD at ptsd.va.gov, the disorder occurs at higher rates among military veterans, compared to 7 to 8 percent of people in the United States who will have PTSD at some time in their lives.
The center estimates that PTSD occurs among about 11 to 20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, up to 10 percent of Gulf War veterans, and about 30 percent of Vietnam War veterans.
Statistics were not kept on Korean War and World War II veterans, as the disorder wasn’t defined until after the Vietnam War.
Cole Land Transportation Museum founder Galen Cole didn’t realize early on that Beal, whom he’d first met decades earlier, had been struggling with PTSD.
Cole was happy to connect with Beal again at the museum and pleased that talking with the youngsters helped his friend to heal from war’s memories. Cole has heard from other veterans with PTSD, as well, who have told him they find some peace in sharing their war service with the students — and having that service appreciated.
Beal saves every thank you note and letter he receives from grateful students from schools in towns around the state such as Holden, Pittsfield, Brewer, Gardiner, Oxford Hills and locales in Aroostook County.
A couple of years ago, Brewer High School student Whitney Seymour earned second place in the Cole museum’s essay contest, “What I Learned About Freedom After Interviewing a Veteran.”
“Talking with Mr. Beal that day really put a lot of pride and admiration in my heart for all American veterans,” Seymour wrote in part. “Seeing his face cringe while recalling explicit images of his time at war gave new light to my thoughts on our precious freedom and what it costs to us. Young men and women willingly abandon their own lives and freedoms to protect ours. And the ones that make it back suffer the consequences for the rest of their lives thereafter. The toll that war has taken on our veterans, both physically and mentally, to secure our freedom is enormous. If there is one thing I learned at the Cole Transportation Museum that day, it was that freedom is most definitely not free.”
Harold Beal was one of the first Allies to land at Omaha Beach, and one of the last to leave. For more than 25 years, he has marched or ridden in Bangor’s patriotic parades, and he did so again on the Fourth of July.
Those interested in volunteering for the Veterans Interview Program at Cole Land Transportation Museum may call 990-3600, ext. 13, or visit www.colemuseum.org.