The story Wally couldn’t tell

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If you’ve ever attended a Twins game and sat upstairs behind home plate at the Metrodome, the chances are pretty good that you know Wally Englund, 85, of Richfield. For 14 years he was an usher at the Dome and other sports facilities in the Twin Cities.

But only his wife, a few family members and some season ticket holders who’ve become his close friends over the years know the secret that, until recently, he couldn’t talk about: He is still suffering from his time in the South Pacific during World War II.

Eileen Smith (center below), one of the Twins’ season ticket holders, contacted me about Wally. She only found out about his struggle during an enlistment ceremony at the Metrodome in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.

“‘They have no idea what they’re getting into,’” she recalled him saying.

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Wally told me his story because he doesn’t want returning soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq to live with the post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that began in August 1943, about a year after he graduated from high school in Alexandria and convinced his parents to allow him to enlist and go to war.

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“Things were hot and heavy in the South Pacific, so they were sending everybody. I took a bus over the San Francisco bridge, and sailed under the San Francisco bridge in August 1943. About the beginning of November, I was down in the engine room with some motor machinist mates and some electricians, and a guy all of a sudden appeared — I didn’t know who he was — I knew everybody by their faces but not everybody by their name. And he says, ‘You don’t belong here. Go upstairs.’ So I obeyed his command and then just seconds later the ship went down real fast and heavy. A few of us jumped into the water and then the ship went down real fast and most of the guys were sucked down with the ship. I saw a piece of board or something and I swam to that and hung on for several hours until I was rescued.”

  1. Listen Wally Englund: The sinking of his ship

Englund knew everybody on the ship. But he’d never met or seen the person who saved his life.

“Everything happened so fast. It was early in the morning; I don’t know if we hit a mine or what. It happened fast and all hell broke loose,” he said.

Of 100 men on board the U.S.S. Artisan ( AFDB-1) — a floating dry-dock — only he and one other man survived.

When the war ended and he returned to Minnesota, he tried to tell his mother and father about the morning that was now haunting him at night. Every time he’d try, he’d start to cry. And men don’t cry. Today, he fought tears each time he remembered.

  1. Listen Wally Englund: The pain of remembering

“I was having these nightmares and flashbacks in the middle of the night and when I first came back, I’d try to tell people my story and I’d start crying. So I thought, ‘I’m a man now, I’m not supposed to cry,’ so I quit sharing. And the longer I did that, the worse it got. I kept shoving it down and down, and I went through all these years with flashbacks and anger came in, and guilt and all kinds of things. I had a rough time for many, many years,” he said.

“All the rest of the guys that I talked to ‘em the night before and the next morning they were gone. We were like family. We worked together; we slept together. Ate together. We were a pretty close outfit.”

It wasn’t until 1950, the year he and his wife, Katie, were married, that he was able to tell his story to someone.

  1. Listen Wally Englund: Telling his story

“One of the nights in bed, Katie says, ‘Wally what’s going on, the bed was just shaking all night. Are you holding something inside you’re not sharing?’ I told her the whole story and cried like a baby. What a release it was. I didn’t care whether I cried or what happened.”

And that was the last he spoke of it for more than 40 years.

About 20 years ago he got a letter from the other survivor, who described a similar suffering to what he was going through. But he lost the letter and couldn’t write back.

About 10 years ago, he tried to talk to his older brother, Bob, about it.

“His ship was sunk in the South Pacific, not too far from where I was about the same time,” he said. “He was a few days in a life raft and he was rescued, and they took him to Hawaii and he spent one month in the hospital and all he did was cry every day.

“I asked Bob a few years ago about our experiences. I says, ‘Bob, how are you doing with your experiences when that ship was sunk?’ And he said, ‘I’m fine.’

“I said, ‘How do you do that, I’m still having problems?’ and he says, ‘I don’t think about it.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t either but it’s still there.’”

Sadness, depression, anger, guilt. Wally felt them all. But since he had no obvious wounds, he didn’t know the Veterans Administration could’ve helped him. A few years ago, however, another stranger — he thinks it was someone at a Twins game — showed him the path out, telling him the VA could help him.

And it did.

“I love the VA; they helped me so much. I want to say to these guys coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan, I want to say if they’ve gone through an experience like I have, get help right away. Don’t wait as long as I did,” he said.

He now sees a psychologist every other month. He also found out he’s not the only World War II veteran still suffering from the wounds of war.

“After 60 years I thought time would heal and it still hasn’t,” he said. “But it’s much better.”

His grandson is in the Marines. Wally says he’s told him his story, but never tried to change his mind.

“I still don’t tell many people,” he said

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(Click for larger image)

You probably know someone with an interesting life’s journey. News Cut loves to tell their stories. Contact me.

  • Joanna

    Thank you for sharing Wally’s story. So many men returned from WWII and were haunted by what they were unable to share. My uncle was one of them.

  • Kevin Slator

    This is a sad story with a long-delayed happy ending. What ship was he on that sank?

  • Nathan Matson

    Amazing story, Bob. Sadly, I feel many men Wally’s age are holding back emotions…

    I have many friends in the military right now. Every time i ask them how it (Iraq or Afghanistan or both) went, they say “it was bad.” Then they stop the conversation…

    “War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”

  • Bob Collins

    //This is a sad story with a long-delayed happy ending. What ship was he on that sank?

    It didn’t have a name per se. USS ABS #1 It was a floating dry-dock for battleship repair, thus they had to be close to the action. It was the first one that was built.

  • Darren Byrnes

    This is why I participate in WW2 Living History. I meet and talk to the old Vets and they see us in their old uniforms, wearing the equipment they had, with the same rifle they had “back in the day” and I can see it take them back to their youth. They open up and tell their stories… stories that their own families didn’t even know about.

    We try to honor these Vets by keeping the memory of what they went through alive as we are losing these Vets at an alarming rate and with them, their memories and experiences.

  • private benjamin

    Wally is my hero too.

  • Alma Thompson

    I’ve had the priviledge of hearing another WWII hero’s story. His story is much the same, in having shame of tears so he buried his needs. My father-in-law never could tell his story and thus it haunted him in the last months of his life.

    We need to hear, we need to know, and we need to do all we can to spare our current soldiers.

    Thanks you for sharing so boldy.

  • Eli

    My family is just realizing that my dad has lived with PTS all of these years since WWII too. More than once in his tour of duty all of the men in his unit were killed and he survived. This after a life of abject poverty during his childhood in the Depression, his family’s home burned and farm was repossed and they were homelessness and near starvation. He did not talk about the war my whole life. Now he is 87 and can’t talk about the war or the Depression without crying. Horrific experiences. Not sure how the Vet Admin could help him now, he wouldn’t admit he needs help. To others in younger generations – get help for the vets in your life. I realize now that much of the rather deep dysfunction in my family growing up was due to my dad’s issues of pain he was burying.

  • Eli

    //War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.

    Do you realize how deeply you discount the sacrifices of those who have gone before you and paid for the freedom you take for granted (to say such a thing) with their lives? I went to a veteran’s day celebration with my WWII Vet dad and he wondered if he was overdressed to wear a suit. I knew most people would show up in jeans but I said to wear what he felt was appropriate. “The suit is to show respect for the ones who didn’t come home,” he said.

    The ones who have a sense of that are a generation quickly passing.

  • Fran

    I was one of the lucky one who knew Wally at the Twins games (Eileen, too). Thanks for sharing his story with others