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Post-Childhood Stress Disorder: Buddha Gift, Tarawa and the Guppy Beating
December 5, 2020
by William P. Meyers

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PTSD, second generation

It turned out the central event in my life was the battle of Tarawa, even though it happened over 20 years before I was born. I was perhaps 60 years old when I made this discovery. When I had first heard about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) it did occur to me that my father had some version of it. His was not a particularly bad case, so it went undiagnosed. It gave me PCSD (Post Childhood Stress Disorder), which is more common than you might think. Fortunately my life was easier and luckier than either of my parents had, so I coped reasonably well and gradually got over most of my fears and anxieties. Now I seem to have mostly the reality-based fears and anxieties appropriate to our era.

The Buddha birthday gift happened a couple of years after the guppy beating. I must have been ten or eleven because we had moved to Beacon Hills, a middle class suburban tract in swampy Jacksonville. Call it 1966. The Vietnam War was full tilt by then, but I was still in boy soldier mode, so it did not bother me yet. Money must not have been so tight as in the first few years after my father left the Marine Corps and started college at the age of 43. My father took me, my younger sister, and older brother to downtown Jacksonville to a relatively upscale department store and gave us each $5 (perhaps $60 in today's money) to buy our mother Christmas presents. I doubt he handed us cash; instead he set a limit of how much we could spend. After considerable worry I picked out a Buddha statue. I did not know that was what it was. My father had been stationed in Japan and so we had a couple of oriental decorations in our home. I just thought it was a pretty Japanese statue that my mother would like.

My mother had become a devout Catholic, though she had started life as a Baptist. I did not know that I had bought an unholy idol, though I suspect my father did. He was a lifelong Catholic, more worldly, confident, and tolerant than Mother. I knew, I had been taught, that there were bad people who did not accept the Catholic faith, mainly in three categories: godless Communists, Jews, and Protestants. In any case after opening the gift she did not act angry, she accepted it as a work of art and put it on the ledge over the fireplace, where it sat, at least until I left home.

Guppy cannibalism and the Battle of Tarawa

The following is from Captain Meyers' point of view. We never spoke of the guppy beating after it happened. It was just one of many beatings that made no sense to me at the time, and they were a drop in the bucket of beatings given for actual, or imagined, rule infractions.

It was not good, but that is not an excuse. I should not have gone off so easily. Sure, he should not be a cry baby at his age. He needs to toughen up. He will be okay. Here I am, trying to get through college, working long hours at Sealand, and what do I come home to? Billy crying because his guppy ate its babies. Okay, its weird, but they are not human. Don't know why it set me off. Okay, I do, but that was a long time a go. Twenty years now. That can't be why I lose my temper.

Guadalcanal was bad enough. Going over Jap bodies, looking for IDs and letters, looking for anything for intelligence. There were fresh ones, there were putrid ones, there were parts. There was endless paperwork to fill out. Not what I thought I would be doing when I joined the Marines. There were trenches to be dug, bodies to be buried. All the while American bodies were coming back from the jungle too. And for intermission we had dive bombing and strafing runs from Japanese Zeroes. Mosquitoes and heat. At least I did not know the Marines and soldiers who were killed and wounded. Wounded men, badly wounded anyway, are scarier than corpses. Made me think what it would be like to be a civilian like that. It would be bad.

Then there was my first bout with malaria. The heat, the fever, the corpses, and nightmares. Explosions. Nothing heroic for me, not like the guys who were exchanging fire with the Japanese. We thought they were pussies, we thought they would just wilt and run, but they were good soldiers, enough of them anyway. We, my squad, just searched bodies and filled out paperwork and buried corpses. Signal corps. Signals from hell.

But Guadalcanal was a tropical paradise compared to Tarawa. The fresh guys thought Tarawa would be easy. Sometime I thought it too. After all, there was no Japanese navy to contend with at Tarawa. We ruled the seas with carriers, destroyers, and battleships. Naval artillery hit them hard, knocking out their artillery. We ruled the air, too. It must have been hell on the ground for the Japanese. We were told the first wave of Marines would sweep the remaining Japs from the beaches, maybe the whole damned island. We, my squad, would be in the second wave, establishing communications, setting up targets for air strikes and the navy if necessary. But mainly we planned to count Japanese corpses and figure out what units they were in and eventually exactly where in Japan the poor bastards came from.

Only we had it wrong. The first wave of Marines headed towards Red Beach 2. Only Naval Intelligence had miscalculated the tides, so a lot of boats got stuck on the reef. And the ones that did approach the beach found there was plenty of metal hurling at them. Despite that, a few got ashore and behind the cover of the sea wall. Meanwhile, off the stinking tin can and into our Alligator and we were off towards the beach ourselves. We were pretty shot up before we got there. The armor was thin, then Wilson took a bullet to the head stepping out. I don't really remember anything until we were crouched behind the wall, dead and wounded marines all around. Just me, Capone, Sutter and Murphy from our squad, some of the others dead nearby in the sand or water. Murphy yelling at me, "Corporal, you're in charge, what do we do." And I just yelled back "Stay low."

1943 Marine Corps Recruitment Film, documentary of the Battle of Tarawa

No one cared about coms or intel. We started firing at the enemy, or at least in their general direction, like the other Marines behind the wall. There were explosions from artillery and air strikes. Eventually some higher up ordered us forward, over the sea wall. The groups we were with would shrink in size, then be merged or reinforced. I didn't do anything the dead Marines didn't do. Just did not catch a bullet, not even a scratch.

Baby guppies. I'll see to it that Billy toughens up. For his own good. But I have to control my temper. This isn't war. This is peace. Buy him something. Take the kids swimming, he likes that. He'll get over it.

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