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VA Doctors Lobotomized Hundreds of Troubled American Veterans

After the war, doctors at overwhelmed veterans hospitals lobotomized about 2,000 emotionally devastated World War II veterans—and probably hundreds more. Some patients benefited from the procedure, but often lobotomies led to seizures and destroyed men’s memories and motor skills. About eight percent of lobotomized veterans died soon after undergoing the operation. The Wall Street Journal documented widespread use of lobotomies on veterans in a December article based on old letters and government reports and memoranda.

Congress has ordered the Department of Veterans Affairs to report on care of lobotomized vets. “We need to ensure they benefit from today’s state-of-the-art mental health treatments and get the benefits they deserve,” said Jeff Miller (R-FL), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

During the war, military hospitals admitted 1.2 million troops for psychiatric and neurological damage, nearly twice the 680,000 hospitalized for battle wounds. Doctors were at a loss to deal with “shell shock” and “battle fatigue,” as the profession then labeled such disorders. “We didn’t have anything else to do for them,” psychiatrist Max Fink, who worked at an army hospital in Kentucky in the 1940s, told the Journal. “You couldn’t help but have the feeling that the medical community was impotent,” Elliot Valenstein, 90, a psychologist who worked for the Veterans Administration in the early 1950s, said. Doctors “were prone to try anything,” he added. Families sometimes demanded the procedure.

In a lobotomy, also called a leukotomy, surgeons drilled two holes in the skull to insert a tool used to cut the prefrontal area behind the forehead away from the rest of the brain. The theory in the procedure’s heyday was that this disconnection limited extreme emotions and compulsive behavior.

But the surgery often left damage. Wisconsin native Roman Tritz, 90, traumatized by serving on bombing runs over Germany, was lobotomized in 1953. The retired machinist lives on Social Security payments and an annuity but isolates himself, believing government agents follow him and that he has magnets in his head.

With the introduction of antipsychotic drugs in the 1950s, lobotomy lost favor. In the 1970s, doctors began to diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder. That condition is treated through psychotherapy and medication.

Artist Reconstructs a Wartime Childhood

James McMullan was just a kid in 1937 when Japanese forces entered Chefoo, the Chinese town where he had spent part of his childhood. He recalls Japanese tanks “rattling along and grinding up the pavement of the main street” that day, and the roadblocks at which imperial troops would demand identification papers, forcibly vaccinating with used needles anyone unable to provide evidence of having gotten cholera shots. And he remembers the day in 1941 when he and his mother left China and their charmed expatriate life in Chefoo (now Yantai) and Tsingtao (Qingdao) to escape the war. His businessman father joined the British Army and wound up with the commandos made famous in The Bridge on the River Kwai. McMullan grew up to achieve success as an artist—he is best known for a series of theatrical posters for New York’s Lincoln Center Theater— but his boyhood remained “a confused muddle” until he opened a box containing his parents’ wartime letters and began to piece together his family’s story. The result is a candid new memoir, Leaving China, published by Algonquin Books.

Prosecution Sought in Notorious French Massacre

They shot the men and burned the women and children alive in their church. The June 10, 1944, killing of 642 inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane was one of the worst Nazi atrocities on French soil, but the officers who ordered and oversaw the slaughter never faced justice. Now authorities in Cologne, Germany, are pursuing charges against one of the enlisted men involved, a former SS member identified under German privacy laws as “Werner C.” The juvenile court in Cologne, where Werner C. now lives, is handling the case because he was 19 at the time of the incident. The war crimes prosecutor reopened the case in 2010 after learning that an SS commander at Oradour had declared: “Today there must be blood.” This suggests that soldiers present must have known a massacre was about to take place. Werner C. and another man are said to have killed 25 men in a barn with a machine gun, said Achim Hengstenberg, a court spokesman in the city. “He is also said to have aided the burning down of the village church.” The suspect doesn’t contest being at Oradour but denies having a hand in the killings, his attorney, Rainer Pohlen, told The Associated Press.

The massacre, four days after the D-Day invasion, was the work of SS veterans of the Eastern Front, where bloody reprisals against civilians were frequent. Possibly in retaliation for Resistance fighters’ kidnapping of a German soldier in an adjacent hamlet that they mistakenly thought was Oradour, troops of the notorious SS Das Reich division herded the village’s men into barns and machine-gunned them, then burned the women and children. Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann, commander of the battalion that did the killing, died in combat three weeks later. Brigadier General Heinz Lammerding, the division’s commander, survived the war and was sentenced to death in absentia, but West Germany refused to extradite him. Lammerding died at home in Bavaria in 1971.

Leaving the charred remnants as a memorial—somber footage of them bookends the 26-episode BBC documentary series The World At War— the French government built a new Oradour-sur-Glane nearby, but the SS action left only six villagers alive. One, Robert Hebras, told France’s BFM TV, “It’s important that we find someone even if it’s 70 years afterwards.”

Warehoused Guillotine Linked to Nazi Beheadings

A guillotine found in storage at a Bavarian museum may have a connection to Nazi-era beheadings. The device, stored out of sight for decades by the Bavarian National Museum, may be the guillotine Nazi executioners used to execute hundreds of dissidents, including the brother and sister who led the nonviolent White Rose group. The guillotine had been thought lost, perhaps thrown into the Danube River.

An 18-month investigation has left museum officials “pretty certain” they have the guillotine used to behead White Rose organizers Hans and Sophie Scholl, senior curator Sybe Wartena told the German news agency DPA. The device at the museum includes modifications used by Germany’s public executioner, Johann Reichhart, who put an estimated 3,000 people to death. Upon assuming power Adolf Hitler ordered 20 such devices built; during his regime’s 12-year rule its officials beheaded some 5,000 people, said Museum of Jewish Studies historian Jud Newborn.

Beginning in 1942, White Rose members produced six antiwar leaflets that described the murder of Jews and the German defeat at Stalingrad. The Scholls—Sophie was 21, Hans, 24—were arrested in February 1943 for distributing the sixth of their leaflets on campus at the University of Munich. Four days after taking them into custody authorities executed them.

The decision on whether and how to display the killing machine requires “the utmost sensitivity and reverence,” Bavarian National Museum spokeswoman Helga Puhlmann told the New York Times. Though the art and culture history museum is one of Germany’s largest, the guillotine most likely will go to a museum that better addresses the Nazi regime’s history, if it is displayed at all. A commission of historians, members of the White Rose Foundation, and moral philosophers will make the final call. “It’s not an item to exhibit disrespectfully,” Bavarian State Minister of Education, Science, and the Arts Ludwig Spaenle told DPA.


Originally published in the June 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.