BY HALE BRADT
December 1945 was not a good month for my family. My father, Lt. Col. Wilber E. Bradt, recently returned from three years overseas in the Pacific, took his own life on December 1. He was 45 years old. My mother, Norma, had turned 40 the day before, I was a week shy of my 15th birthday, and my sister, Valerie, was 13. Valerie and I were downtown at dancing and violin lessons when he went into the basement of our Washington, D.C., home and put a .45 caliber bullet through his heart. Valerie’s memory of that day is particularly vivid. She calls it “The Day Daddy Died:”
It was a big day. The plan was for me to go downtown with my brother, a year older, for a dance lesson for me and some other appointment for him, but I would come home on the trolley by myself, from Georgetown to Tenley Circle.
I had made it almost home that day, walking from the trolley stop on Wisconsin Avenue down to Alton Place. When I passed the neighbors two doors from our house, they stopped me and insisted I come in for lunch. I did not want to because it was the first day of my first menstrual period and I was afraid to have an “accident.” (Mother had taught me that it was a natural process, but I was still afraid.) They insisted I stay for lunch and even blocked my way, so I gave in and went into their dining room for lunch.
Their three daughters stared at me the whole time. I was uncomfortable, but I did not know what to say to them. Then the rector of St. Columba’s Episcopal Church came to the house and I was told to meet him in the living room. He ordered me to sit down. I did not trust him because he had stood passively by weeks earlier when the boys were tickling me on the floor in the church parish hall and I was almost hysterical. In that small living room, I sensed that something was wrong. He said, “Sit down.” I said, “No.” He repeated, “Sit down.” I said, “No” again. He said, “Okay, your daddy is dead.”
I felt a sort of dead anger. I walked out of that house and went down the sidewalk to our house onto the porch and into the dining room to find my mother sitting in a chair crying. There were police and military investigators throughout the small frame building. I asked her what happened. She said there was “a terrible accident.” My brother arrived and he was told to go see the minister. He left on his bike for what I knew would be up the long hill to another message of death.
I walked into the kitchen and picked up a paper bag, went upstairs and stuffed my nightgown and a toothbrush into it, walked out and went to Mary Ann Frankenhauser’s house. We were not friends, but I did not know where else to go. I said nothing to anyone and stayed there at least a week. I guess her mother called mine and left me alone. I did not go to the funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. My brother went in the heavy rain with my mother, helping her to accept the folded American flag. I felt terrible about that.
Our daddy had come home after three years overseas and was now gone. I did not know why. I was left in a bleak, dry, empty space that turned into anger. I was driven to get a degree from Columbia University, which led to an extensive career in journalism. The anger finally dissipated, but never my regret for losing those years with my father.
– From Wilber’s War, by Hale Bradt, with permission
Wilber died on a Saturday and Valerie and I were both back in school that Monday. Norma, terribly devastated of course, insisted that we maintain our routines. We had moved to Washington only the previous August and had few close friends or relatives to embrace us. We were fortunate, though, that a young US Navy sailor, half-brother to Norma, was then stationed in Washington. In those early months, he made our home his home, and was like a big brother to Valerie and me. I remember little about the subsequent days and weeks, but my 15th birthday, December 7, and Christmas must have been somber affairs indeed.
Wilber had recently returned from three years overseas in the Pacific Theater in World War II. He had been an artillery battalion commander, earning the Legion of Merit and three Silver Stars, the latter for personal heroism, and had been twice wounded. He was by all accounts an aggressive and highly effective commander.
As the Philippine campaign wound down in May 1945, he was transferred to the infantry and placed in command of an entire regimental combat team, about 4500 men. They would have been among the first troops ashore in the invasion of the Japanese homeland, an invasion that could well have been a bloodbath. But the war ended without that final conflagration, though at the cost of two Japanese cities destroyed with atomic bombs.
PERPETUAL PENANCE: Norma Bradt at her piano; She took her children to New York City in the hopes of furthering her music career should Wilber not return from the war.
Shortly after the Japanese surrender, Wilber’s division was shipped home to San Francisco, arriving on October 8, 1945, where it was demobilized. Wilber was a National Guardsman, so he too would soon be released from active duty. He was suddenly in command of . . . nothing . . . except his own future. Outwardly, that future seemed assured. He had a wife and two children at home in Washington, D.C., and his old job waiting for him as head of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Maine.
So, why, why, why did he kill himself? Did he suffer from PTSD? Perhaps. There is rarely a definitive single answer in a suicide, but one is compelled to look back for some insight. Wilber was a prolific letter writer. I have some 700 letters he wrote, mostly to his wife and to his Indiana parents, which I probed for his take on the combat, his marriage, his family, and his own psyche. I learned of his “close calls,” (like the 500-lb bomb that landed a mere eight feet from him), saw that he took risks in combat if he thought the possible benefit was sufficient, and found that he took to heart the loss of close friends and soldiers in his command. He admired the ordinary American soldier, he idealized his wife in poetic loving letters and worried about her well-being, and on occasion he would admit to being in a blue funk.
We have a few letters written to his siblings after his return home in which he told of being depressed, tired, and teary, with no energy to look for a job. And he was still bothered by a small piece of shrapnel from that bomb embedded in his right eyebrow. On the morning of his death, he was suffering a return of malarial symptoms, with fever and chills.
But that wasn’t all. When Wilber entered the military, Norma took my sister and me to New York City to further her musical and literary ambitions, and thus to better her employment prospects should Wilber not return from the war. Two years later, when Wilber was overseas, she became pregnant by a somewhat older family friend, Monte, a newspaperman. Norma was a very religious person, and the choices she faced were all daunting, given the social climate of the 1940s. She, or they, chose to proceed with the pregnancy but in great secrecy. No family members were apprised of it, and my sister and I were placed in camps and boarding schools that year.
When Wilber returned from overseas, the child, Gale, was just two and was being cared for by Monte and his mother at their home, also in Washington, D.C. The mother of Gale was said, falsely, to be another woman to whom Monte had been briefly married. It is still not clear how much Wilber knew about all of this that fateful day, but it is likely he had guessed the truth. If so, this was yet another burden he was facing upon his reentry into civilian life. His idealized view of post-war family life was, sadly, not the reality. Life on the home front had moved on, and in ways he did not expect.
Throughout her pregnancy and the rest of the war, Norma maintained her active and encouraging correspondence with Wilber and conscientiously cared for her children; she was ever the dutiful and patriotic war wife. In 1947 she married Monte. They had a long productive 32-year partnership in various journalistic enterprises, and another daughter was born in 1950. The mixed family was thus able to evolve as a single unit; all four of the children grew to have productive and satisfying lives.
But Norma suffered deep guilt for the rest of her long life, believing—we infer from her words and actions—that she was the cause of Wilber’s death. She once said, in reference to her difficulty in single-handedly caring for Monte in his post-stroke years, “This is my penance!” But she never gave up on life and her family; she persevered when, sadly, Wilber could not. Wilber is the hero of our family story, but I consider Norma to be its heroine. •
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Hale Bradt served in the Korean War in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He is Professor of Physics Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His trilogy, Wilber’s War: An American Family’s Journey through World War II, was published in August 2015. His one-volume Wilber’s War (abridged) will be released on Dec. 7, 2016. See www.wilberswar.com