Jack Ackland, pictured here in November 1942, always told his children his service injury was from a plane crash during military pilot training. Credit: Courtesy of Len Ackland

The familiar car sat in an unusual spot – amid the growing line of vehicles parked along a busy street in the early morning hours by employees of the Fitzsimons Army Hospital. It was my father’s car. But he didn’t work at the suburban Denver hospital. Puzzled, I pulled over and crossed the street. No one was behind the wheel. As I got closer, though, I saw someone in the back seat. The deeply rippled, bruised face stunned me, but I recognized the bloody polo shirt and khaki pants. A handgun lay on the seat.

I ran back across the street and drove downtown to the Aurora Police Department. My father killed himself, I told the desk officer. Here’s where you can find him.

Then I went home to tell my mother and two younger siblings. I struggled with how to explain to my 6-year-old brother that he would never see dad again; finally, I kept it simple: He’s gone to heaven.

I had just turned 17, my life revolving around high school sports, good grades for college admission and my girlfriend. Suddenly, I was the “man of the house.” A guilty man, too. Had I done something to cause Dad’s death? Why hadn’t I realized he was in so much pain? Those feelings mixed with my grief, which was shackled by the firm belief that “boys don’t cry.” It thrust me into a lifelong quest to understand who and what was responsible for putting my father, Jack, in such a dark place.

Much of it I would learn from my father himself, in his own words.

But that quest would not start in earnest for years. Then, it would send me rifling through my mother’s scrapbooks, poring over correspondence with the Veterans Administration, locating a surgeon’s lab notes and journal articles, searching the internet for medical and other data. It would end with one big break: A huge archival fire destroyed 80 percent of vital U.S. military records; my father’s were saved. Along the way, I would learn the truth about a disfiguring injury and a drawn-out fight to be fairly compensated. And I would confront the limitations of my own memories – what was said, what was meant and what was left out.

The first and most surprising clue came from my mother. For many years, she and I never talked about Dad’s suicide – or his service injury, which wasn’t obvious to most people unless he wanted to be funny. As a kid, I’d always laugh when he put his index finger on the bridge of his nose and pushed his nostrils down against his cheeks. He could perform this trick because the cartilage and bone that make noses rigid had been surgically removed. When we were kids, my parents told us it happened in military training during World War II. My dad, Air Force 2nd Lt. Jack Ackland, aviation cadet, had crashed a plane.

It turned out that only part of that story was true.

During a conversation 15 years after Dad’s death, Mom and I were reminiscing and I asked about the crash. Was Dad a daredevil or what? She paused, then said: “There was no plane crash.”

An Army surgeon, a major, had coerced Jack into having unwanted nose surgery and left him crippled.

My thoughts were murderous. I wanted to find out who the surgeon was and punish him for causing my father’s suffering – and my own loss. But Dad’s death was still too raw. I let my questions fester for years, until time and emotional distance freed me to dig in.

To get to the bottom of it all, I had to first get to know my father better. And that took me deep into the “Grandparent Book” my mother made for my children – the first of many sources of information that would lead me toward the truth. 

*** 

In high school in Washington, D.C., Jack Ackland’s sociology teacher seated students alphabetically. He and Eleanor Yoder were at opposite ends of the classroom, but they soon noticed each other. Eleanor, a 5-foot-2-inch blue-eyed athlete, came into the room just after swimming class so her light brown hair was always “a mess,” as she put it in the Grandparent Book. Jack was a short, lithe, dark-haired, handsome man. Like him, Eleanor was being raised by a single woman, her mother; her father had died from an infection following kidney surgery when she was 4. Jack was being raised by his grandmother after his trapeze artist mother went to England to perform – and never returned.

Eleanor (Yoder) Ackland, pictured here in 1941, married Jack in September 1939, the same month that Nazi Germany invaded Poland.
Credit: Courtesy of Len Ackland Credit: Courtesy of Len Ackland

Their first date, Mom later wrote, was a moonlight cruise down the Potomac River to Mount Vernon and back after they graduated from high school.

Then, the war became a dominant force in their lives. Jack and Eleanor got married in September 1939, the same month that Nazi Germany invaded Poland. They had rented an apartment in northwest Washington. Jack worked as a typewriter salesman for Remington Rand Inc. for $200 monthly (about $3,600 in 2018 dollars), according to his military enlistment form, as Eleanor finished secretarial training at Strayer’s Business College. Residents of Washington couldn’t vote in federal elections in those days – but Jack and Eleanor supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt. They trusted their government and its leaders, Mom said, and grew increasingly worried about the threat posed by Nazis and other fascists.

As wars intensified in Europe and in Asia where the Japanese were on the offensive, there was never any question about whether Jack would enlist.

On Christmas Eve 1941, just 17 days after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Jack joined the U.S. Army Air Forces. It was the patriotic thing to do. Like many young men, he wanted to be a fighter pilot. I remember Mom telling me that when I was growing up, and evidence abounds in her bulging scrapbook of photos and artifacts. To one page, Dad’s dog tags are affixed with Scotch tape alongside a copy of a popular poem by a Royal Canadian fighter pilot, “High Flight.”

It begins: “Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth/ And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.”

Jack was assigned to the Third Air Force in Tampa, Florida. To become an aviation cadet required tests, training and references. In a letter from Jack’s military file, the principal of his high school described him as “approachable, frank, likeable, and friendly. Jack is possessed of a fine spirit and enthusiasm, and apparently has abundant energy.”

After completing basic training, Jack was appointed an aviation cadet. Eleanor’s scrapbook contains four thumbnail photos of him, under which she wrote “Passed the Aviation Cadet Exam,” along with clippings from two Tampa newspapers that ran a press release announcing that he and 11 other men had been accepted as cadets. His yellow cadet badge is pinned to the page with his dog tags.

Jack and Eleanor Ackland, pictured here in 1942, met in high school in Washington, D.C. Their first date was a moonlight cruise down the Potomac River.
Credit: Courtesy of Len Ackland Credit: Courtesy of Len Ackland

In September 1942, Jack reported for preflight training at Santa Ana Army Air Base in Southern California, one of three bases set up to process the tens of thousands of freshly minted aviation cadets, according to “The Army Air Forces in World War II, Volume 6: Men and Planes.”

Jack and the other cadets spent several weeks being indoctrinated into military life and undergoing mental and physical testing and training. Successful cadets were sent on for further training as either pilots, navigators or bombardiers and then to flight schools. In November, with a promotion to second lieutenant, Jack got his “laughter-silvered wings” and was sent to Arizona to learn to be a pilot.

To celebrate, Jack had a portrait taken. In it, he’s smiling broadly, looking sharp in his freshly pressed uniform. He sent it to Eleanor, who by then was working back in Washington as a secretary for the U.S. Office of Censorship, an emergency agency set up to screen communication into or out of the country. That 8-by-10 sepia-toned photo sat prominently on my mother’s chest of drawers for decades and is now in my study. When I took the picture out of the old frame, I found he had written on the back: “To – Darling Wife Eleanor, I do and always shall love you more than anything in the world. Your loving husband, Jack.”

On the back of this 1942 photo, Jack Ackland wrote a note to his wife: “I do and always shall love you more than anything in the world.”
Credit: Courtesy of Len Ackland Credit: Courtesy of Len Ackland

But Jack’s wings were clipped almost immediately. Nine months after he began flight training, the Army Air Forces discharged him from military service. I found one hint of why in Dad’s well-organized file of personal papers. Dated Sept. 1, 1943, his honorable discharge certificate says “Detachment Medical Department.”

Without extraordinarily good luck, I might never have learned what was behind that. Jack’s records were among 22 million U.S. military personnel files from the years 1912 to 1964 stored at the St. Louis branch of the National Archives when a devastating 1973 fire destroyed 80 percent of them. Most of the rest were damaged, by the fire or the water that extinguished it.

In March 2017, I requested Jack’s records and crossed my fingers. The archives responded two months later that his file was recovered “either in whole or in part.” For $70, I ordered photocopies. When the brown manila envelope arrived, I held my breath – and started through the 103 pages of documents.

It was like walking through my father’s past. There he was, enlisting. Seeing the fingerprints from the thumb and fingers on his right hand made me gasp. I chuckled that his enlistment form was accompanied by a notarized statement from Eleanor certifying that she was “not dependent for support” from Jack and was “agreeable to his enlisting in the U.S. Army.” There were mundane items, such as a clinical record about an abscess drained on his left foot at a Florida base, along with a “patient’s property card” listing everything from fatigues to one undershirt.

Then, there it was: a four-page “Certificate of Disability for Discharge,” typed on narrow paper that made it seem diminutive – almost insignificant. Pages 2 and 3 contained an August 1943 report from a board of Medical Corps officers. It said Jack was disabled by a nasal and sinus condition “manifested by severe chronic headaches, nasal obstruction and frequent illnesses. Incapacitated in that he is unable to drill, march or perform other duties required of a soldier.” And, the board wrote:

Defect is permanent and not amenable to treatment. Further hospitalization is not required as maximum benefit has been attained. Disability was incurred in line of duty and did not exist prior to enlistment. It arose during military service. Soldier is not a malingerer.  

Then, in the barest of terms, the crushing blow:

The CDD Board finds that the Army can obtain no useful service from this soldier.

Nine months after he began flight training, the Army Air Forces discharged Jack Ackland from military service. His honorable discharge certificate reads “Detachment Medical Department.”
Credit: Courtesy of Len Ackland Credit: Courtesy of Len Ackland

“No useful service from this soldier.” The words grated. They also conflicted with my memories of a dad who went off to work daily in suit and tie, his American Legion pin on his lapel. During my elementary school years, Jack worked in the personnel department of the U.S. Post Office in Roswell, New Mexico. He had begun his postal employment in Washington right after his discharge, which, because it was honorable, gave him priority status for government jobs. His poor health had forced our family to the dry West when I was 4. But I loved growing up in Roswell. I played Little League baseball, was a Cub Scout and an acolyte at our Episcopal Church, and received chocolate milkshakes as a reward for good grades.

While providing me and my two siblings a stable, safe, satisfying middle-class life, my parents carefully shielded us from the extent of dad’s physical agony. The only inkling I ever had was his malleable nose and frequent trips to the doctor – and the hospital. At home after work, as he sat in the living room in his reclining vibrator chair, he’d sometimes hold his head in his hands. A bad headache, I figured.

I had no clue.

***

Jack was almost done flying planes before he’d even started. Shortly after he arrived at Santa Ana in September 1942 for preflight training, he passed an extensive “Physical Examination for Flying,” detailed on a two-page form in the archived military records. The very next document shows that he was hospitalized a month later for acute sinusitis causing severe headaches. Other documents showed that Jack’s medical problems began during training in the base’s low-pressure chamber used to simulate high-altitude flying up to 38,000 feet.

As I pored through his records at my desk, I quickly realized that to understand what happened to Jack, I needed to know a lot more about both atmospheric pressure and sinuses. I was up to the challenge. By the time I finally received my father’s military personnel records, I had been a journalist and then a journalism professor for decades. I’d been an investigative business reporter at the Des Moines Register; wrote business, labor and technology stories at the Chicago Tribune; and then was editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists magazine. I’m drawn to complex topics and know how to find answers.

I Googled “air pressure” first, finding helpful sources such as the UXL Encyclopedia of Weather and Natural Disasters and the Institute of Physics. Then I needed to learn how atmospheric pressure affects our bodies and the details about how our sinuses work. That led me to numerous medical sites, including Merck Manuals.

At sea level, the Earth’s layer of atmospheric gas is dense and exerts a heavy weight of 14.7 pounds per square inch on our bodies. That pressure is literally about a ton of weight. We’re built to withstand that pressure with air-filled body cavities: lungs, abdomens, ears and sinuses that equalize internal and outside air pressure and keep us from being crushed.

Above about 20,000 feet, the atmospheric pressure is too low to push enough air into the lungs. So, in the pressure chamber Jack and the other cadets donned oxygen masks. For my dad, that wouldn’t be enough. He had a head cold when he took the training.

He wasn’t the only one. During pressure chamber training many cadets with head colds, along with some others, experienced painful earaches or sinus headaches, according to articles in a 1943 Santa Ana Flight Surgeon quarterly referenced in Edrick J. Miller’s history of the base. A helpful archivist at the Costa Mesa Historical Society dug it out and scanned it for me.

Colds had an effect, the quarterly noted, because air must flow freely between body cavities and the outside atmosphere for bodies to equalize the dramatically changing air pressure during a plane’s rapid ascent and descent. When congestion from a cold blocks the thin eustachian tubes connecting the middle ear to the throat, earaches can result.

Such ear problems, called aerotitis, afflicted more than 6 percent of the tens of thousands of Santa Ana cadets, the quarterly reported. It stated that the high percentage was “usually of little significance” because the ear pain was mild.

A much smaller number of cadets contracted aerosinusitis, where inflamed nasal tissue resulted in head pain. That’s what happened to Jack. The severe sinus pain he experienced in his Sept. 25 pressure chamber test recurred, forcing him to check himself into the base hospital two weeks later. The Santa Ana hospital evaluation in his military records shows he was diagnosed with infection-caused pus in his “right maxillary sinus.” From medical websites, I learned that the maxillary sinuses are a pair of large cavities behind our cheekbones. Along with three other sets of sinuses, the delicate, tissue-lined cavities create mucus to moisturize inhaled air, as well as clean and warm it on the way to the lungs. Tiny holes in the sinuses normally allow air to flow and drain excess fluid into the nasal passage and throat. But if they get clogged, as Jack’s were, the internal and external air pressure can’t be equalized and the head hurts.

“The sensation has been described by airmen to resemble a bee sting,” one Army Medical Corps physician wrote. He noted, “Excruciating pain over and about the affected sinus is present.” Other aviators reported even worse pain. It was “like sticking an ice pick into the sinus,” or “like being hit on the head with a crowbar,” another article quoted cadets as saying.

I was getting closer to understanding the pain that eventually made my dad choose death over life.

Jack Ackland’s dog tags are affixed to the page of a scrapbook, along with his aviation cadet badge and a copy of a popular poem by a Royal Canadian fighter pilot.
Credit: Courtesy of Len Ackland Credit: Courtesy of Len Ackland

At the Santa Ana hospital, Aviation Cadet Jack Ackland’s pain subsided after he received sulfa antibiotics and other treatment. The hospital released him after 13 days, his military records show.

He completed his preflight training and was assigned to Ryan Field near Tucson. In early February 1943, he began pilot training in small two-seater, propeller-driven planes. But, after a few days of flying, his sinus pain hit him again.

Jack’s flight instructor, Anton Lisk Jr., sent him to be examined by a flight surgeon. Lisk explained why he took that step in a heartfelt letter to Eleanor on Feb. 24, shortly after the examination took place. It said in part:

Your husband proved to be as eager a student as I have ever had the pleasure to work with, and his ability to absorb and retain instruction from day to day was far above average. In short he was getting along exceptionally well. 

However during his second week of training he mentioned to me that his sinuses were bothering him slightly. I know myself what an aggravating thing sinus trouble can be, so I began to observe him more closely while in the air, and could easily see that the poor fellow was torturing himself to even stay up. I knew that if I sent him to the Doctor with this trouble it would be all over for him, as far as flying went. However if I did allow him to stick at it and go through his primary air work under this handicap, how could he ever stand the rapid pressure changes present in acrobatic maneuvers which I would have to give him later on in the course? I am sure you will see it in the same light I did. Rather than let him torture himself to stay in the air, coupled with the possibility that his condition would only be aggravated and probably get worse under this strain, I sent him to the Doctor and you know the results.

The results were that Jack failed the flight surgeon’s physical exam. “After the examination I was informed that I was to be permanently grounded due to sinusitis and Atrophic Rhinitis,” Jack wrote in a lengthy letter nearly a decade later to John Alison, a VA hospital administrator. Atrophic rhinitis, websites explained, is a cold-like chronic inflammation of the nose’s mucous tissue.

I wondered if grounding was a common fate for aviation cadets who “washed out” of flight training for whatever reason. The answer came in Miller’s hard-copy history of the Santa Ana Army Air Base, which I found on Amazon. Miller, a now-retired Costa Mesa city assistant finance director and amateur historian, told me he wrote the book for the county historical society. Based on documents and interviews, Miller wrote that of the 149,425 aviation cadets trained at the base during the war, approximately 120,000 successfully graduated. “Most of the remaining 30,000 were sent on to schools for ground crews and radio operators.”

I again picked up flight instructor Lisk’s letter to Eleanor, on “Ryan School of Aeronautics of Arizona” letterhead. The letter confirmed that the instructor thought Jack wouldn’t fly again, but would find an appropriate position in the military, concluding:

At any rate Mrs. Ackland, I wanted you to know the circumstances, because I know how hard it is to go back to your family with the news that you didn’t make the grade. However this was certainly not a case of that kind; far from it. I am sure that you (sic) husband wil (sic) find the right job for himself in the Air Corps. Wishing you both the best of luck in the world.

Instead of finding the “right job” on the ground, Jack was retained as an aviation cadet and ordered back to the Santa Ana base hospital by the West Coast Training Command.

I thought Jack’s military records would explain why he was sent back to Santa Ana, since they document other cases when he was transferred. An oblong 8-by-4 transfer slip from Tucson showed the flight surgeon’s diagnosis of sinusitis and atrophic rhinitis. I noticed that the original typed date, “February 18,” was crossed out and replaced by the handwritten date “March 8 – 43” and, in the same handwriting, “Transferred to SAAAB Santa Ana Calif.”

Jack’s nasal surgery came next, I knew from the chronology I already had constructed from his correspondence. I flipped to the next page of his military records expecting to find details of the operations during his four-month hospital stay. I hoped to discover both the surgeon’s rationale for operating as well as the procedures he performed.

But the next document in Jack’s military file was dated July 9, from Tucson. The Santa Ana records from March through June weren’t anywhere in the file. I phoned the archivist in St. Louis to see if those medical records could have been stored separately. He said no. Later I visited the St. Louis archives to examine the original documents to make sure that the records really were missing. They are.

***

In the meantime, I began piecing the surgery story together from the military and VA records I did have, and the documents and correspondence in Jack’s personal file.

Jack described what happened to him in March 1943 in his letter to the VA’s Alison and signed with his bold signature. After failing the physical in Tucson, Jack wrote, he was ordered back to the ear, nose and throat unit at Santa Ana for “observation, treatment and recommendation with respect to my sinus condition.”

“At this hospital I was placed under the care of Maj. R. W. Wright, M.D., head of E.N.T. I was determined not to have an operation upon my sinuses but after considerable pressure was brought to bear I finally gave my consent to a sub muc. operation,” Jack wrote. “Sub muc.,” I knew by then, refers to a submucous resection that removes nose cartilage and bone.

That “considerable pressure” was in fact the threat of a dishonorable discharge, my mother had revealed to me. Jack told her that Dr. Ralph Wesley Wright gave him that choice. But, I wondered, why hadn’t my dad laid that out in his letter to Alison?

I reasoned through the options. For one thing, Jack was battling the VA over a big cut in his disability benefits. Bringing up the discharge threat might have distracted from his immediate goal.

Such threats were not unheard of during WWII. For example, soldiers tricked into taking part in mustard gas experiments were told they would be dishonorably discharged if they disclosed their participation, according to a 1993 Institute of Medicine report cited in a 2016 study prepared by Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill’s office.

But if Wright had threatened my father, why hadn’t Jack appealed to someone higher in the chain of command?

Then I pictured the scene. There was Jack, 25, a high school graduate whose dream of fighting for his country as an Air Force pilot had just been snuffed out. He was in perfectly fine health on the ground, just not in an airplane. He had reconciled himself to being grounded, but Wright wasn’t giving him that choice. A dishonorable discharge would have felt shameful, virtually treasonous to Jack. In addition, he was a lowly GI – “Government Issue” my mother liked to later say. He had volunteered to put his life under military control. His training during the previous 14 months had drummed into him a respect for authority. Wright was a powerful authority figure.

An experienced surgeon with a Stanford University medical degree, Dr. Ralph Wesley Wright, pictured here in his military ID, was a powerful authority figure.
Credit: Courtesy of Len Ackland Credit: Courtesy of Len Ackland

Wright, then 42, had received his bachelor’s and medical degrees from Stanford University. The son of an attorney, he was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, according to public records. He specialized in ear, nose and throat diseases, practiced at a prominent Palo Alto medical clinic, and lived in an affluent suburb. Upon enlistment he received the rank of major in the Army Medical Corps (typical for physicians with his experience), was assigned to Santa Ana and named head of the ENT unit.

Wright was clearly not the hack Army doctor I imagined finding when I first heard my mother’s account. But why did he apply any pressure at all on Jack to consent to facially disfiguring surgery? Why did he want to operate? I needed to know more about Wright’s medical work.

I retraced my steps, pulling out the May 1943 issue of Santa Ana Flight Surgeon, which included a 20-page article by Wright. He wrote that by that time he already had treated thousands of aviation cadets who took training “flights” in the low-pressure chamber. His article appeared, coincidentally, when Jack was in the hospital under his care.

Wright wrote that he had treated about five times more cadets for ear troubles than sinus conditions. In fact, only 1.5 percent of them experienced aerosinusitis. And he described a few cases – the last one from February 1943, before Jack arrived back in Santa Ana. I noticed that Wright identified the patients by initials, which sent me hunting for other articles where he might have used my father’s.

My online search produced a few medical journal articles by Wright. He also had donated some of his papers to his alma mater, the Stanford School of Medicine, and they are housed in its Lane Medical Library. A colleague photographed them for me.

Included in the papers are 187 pages of detailed “laboratory notes” on 57 aviators Wright treated at Santa Ana. The notes, with cases ranging from 1942 to early 1946, mostly involved ear infections and give the patient’s full name, chronology of treatment, temperature graphs and, often, X-rays. Jack’s name wasn’t there.

The rest of Wright’s papers at Stanford consist of 165 pages of writings, drafts and the manuscript he successfully submitted for membership in his profession’s prestigious American Laryngological, Rhinological, and Otological Society Inc. Cleared for publication by the War Department, the article was published in the society’s medical journal, The Laryngoscope, in August 1946, after Wright had left the military and rejoined the Palo Alto clinic.

This 34-page article, titled “Round Shadows of the Maxillary Sinuses,” focused on sinuses, giving me hope that it might include Jack’s case. Forty-two of Wright’s 78 patients, identified by their first and last initials, had operations, he wrote. Jack’s operation was not cited.

My last hope for getting Wright’s description of Jack’s case was a 10-page article titled “Aerosinusitis,” which he co-authored with another Medical Corps officer. It appeared in the March 1945 medical journal Archives of Otolaryngology and described six patients, identified by initials, treated in 1942 and 1943. Again, Jack was not among them.

I was disappointed not to fill in Jack’s missing military personnel records with Wright’s own description of his case. But I went back to Wright’s 1943 article in the base quarterly to see what concerned him during the period when he operated on my dad.

Wright wrote about a possible link between sinus and ear infections. “It is interesting to study the cause of aero-sinusitis as it sheds some light on aero-otitis media,” he observed. Specifically, he speculated that a set of tiny nasal bones called “turbinates” are often infected and could contribute to ear problems.

That sent me back to medical websites, where I learned that these six thin bones separate each side the interior nose into several air passageways. That greatly increases the surface area, making mucous tissue more effective in dealing with the air we inhale.

During Jack’s first surgery in March 1943, Wright cut out cartilage and bone in the bridge of his nose. Then he operated on Jack’s turbinates, in what is called a turbinectomy. Later, my father’s doctors would fill in some of the blanks about what went wrong.

“Not only was too much of the bridge removed which permitted his nose to drop, but the tips of his turbinates were removed giving him too large an air space which has resulted more or less in atrophic rhinitis,” a chronic cold-like condition, wrote Dr. William A. Morgan, a Washington physician who treated Jack before and after the war.

Other physicians had also criticized the surgery. Jack’s military records show that after he was released from the Santa Ana hospital, he was sent to Tucson to resume flight training. Army doctors there examined him and called the surgery “unnecessary.”

“I do not say this with rancor, but both Maj. Wilucki and Maj. Neff at Tucson made most uncomplimentary remarks regarding the work which had been done on my nose and expressed doubt as to my ability to continue flying but said that they believed I deserved the opportunity to try anyhow,” Jack recalled in his March 1952 letter to the VA.

Jack did indeed try, and he failed.

After completing basic training, Jack Ackland was appointed an aviation cadet. Eleanor documented her husband’s achievement in a scrapbook.
Credit: Courtesy of Len Ackland Credit: Courtesy of Len Ackland

“Symptoms were the same as before hospitalization at Santa Ana and pain over region of sinuses was accentuated by flying, especially in ‘pull outs’ from spins and dives,” according to the official July 1943 “Physical Examination for Flying” report in his military file. “Symptoms are so severe, subject is unable to fly.”

Jack was grounded, busted to the rank of private, “without prejudice,” and ordered to the Amarillo Air Force Base for assignment, he wrote in his 1952 letter. In recounting that moment, he used the word “butchery” for the first time:

Inasmuch as the examination for gunners was not nearly as stiff as that for Pilot, Bombardier, or Navigator (I qualified in all three designations physically and mentally), I was given another physical examination. I did fine until a Major in E.N.T. checked my nose, after which he asked me who in the world had done the job of butchery upon my nose, to which I could give only one reply – another Major. Recommendation was made by this Doctor that I be brought before a board for examination for Medical Discharge from the service due to my nose condition.

At that time I asked whether some treatment could not be given in order that I may remain in the Service as I had no desire to return to civilian capacity during time of war. However, the Doctors at Amarillo decided nothing could be done and I was subsequently assigned to the Medical Corps for discharge only and was so discharged in September, 1943.

***

Sitting at my desk, I looked again at Jack’s medical board report from August. The sentence, “Defect is permanent and not amenable to treatment,” jumped out. I now knew the details of his surgery, but I still had one important unanswered question: Why did Wright, an experienced senior surgeon, perform surgery so radical it left my father too disabled to continue his service?

One possibility would have been a medical experiment. Rapid advances in airplane technology during World War II were taking aviators to higher altitudes at greater speeds. An official 1955 Air Force history of the Medical Corps noted that “prewar knowledge of the flight surgeon became obsolete. Thus, the human factor – man’s physiological and emotional reaction to the stress of aerial combat – became a potentially weakening link in the air weapons system.” To address the issue, the military “was to carry out a vast aeromedical research program.”

That research was primarily conducted by the Aero Medical Laboratory at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, and by the School of Aviation Medicine, based in Texas with a branch in Santa Ana.

This Air Force history describes many experiments aimed at understanding the “human factor” in aviation. One, conducted at the Texas aviation school, studied aerosinusitis by packing gauze around a dog’s sinus and taking the animal to an altitude of 28,000 feet, leading to lesions similar to those caused in humans. It also referred to a “drastic” surgical measure reported in the 1945 medical journal article co-authored by Wright. This Caldwell-Luc procedure involved an incision to drain the maxillary sinus – a procedure Wright performed on my father weeks after the turbinectomy.

It all lined up and yet, as far as I could determine, Jack’s surgery was not part of a biomedical experiment – at least not one sanctioned by the Army Air Forces or Medical Corps.

But was Wright performing his own private experiment? And why, in the eyes of other physicians, had he botched the surgery? Were his cuts intentional or the mistakes of an overworked Army surgeon?

I requested Wright’s military personnel file from the St. Louis archives to see if he had ever been reprimanded for his medical work. Unfortunately, unlike my father’s files, Wright’s were destroyed in the 1973 fire. After his return to Palo Alto, I found no evidence of malpractice. Back home, outside of his successful ENT work, Wright piloted a plane shared with friends, painted landscapes and portraits, and became a symphony patron. He lived to the age of 99.

While I couldn’t pin down Wright’s motive for operating on my dad, the results of the surgery are indisputable. I asked Dr. Robert M. Meyers, professor of otolaryngology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, to review the details of Jack’s surgery and its aftermath. Meyers said that surgical procedures in the 1940s were “done rather crudely compared to today.” Today, he said, Jack’s condition would be called “empty nose syndrome.”

Empty nose syndrome. What an apt description, I thought.

***

Jack returned from the war broken physically but with his spirit intact. He saw himself as a veteran who had paid a steep price for his service, my mother said, but not the ultimate one. She compared him to the critically wounded soldiers who had stormed the beaches at Normandy. I wanted to put Jack’s experience into context and found that more than 52,000 Army Air Forces aviators were killed in WWII combat. And nearly 15,000 died in stateside training accidents – a startling figure from Laura Hillenbrand’s book, “Unbroken.

From Jack’s post-war correspondence, it’s clear he harbored no resentment, including toward Wright. He wrote that he was “not bitter and realizes this Doctor was performing his duties to the best of his abilities and that at that time aerial surgery insofar as it concerned fliers or future fliers was in its infancy.” Jack added, in this description written prior to a VA appeals hearing, that he had never considered “personal retaliation through official channels for any possible malpractice.”

When I read that statement the first time, I was annoyed at my father for not wanting Wright held accountable. Of course, in the 1940s, unlike today, medical malpractice lawsuits were uncommon. But Jack’s words also reflected his overall philosophy about life. “Just do your best,” win or lose, was how he put it to me before my ballgames. He forgave Wright, I finally realized.

Even in his absence my father taught me something about forgiveness.

If Jack expressed bitterness about anything after the war, it was over the treatment he received from the VA, which was legally responsible for compensating him for his war-related disability. But most of his dual battle – against the VA on one hand and pain and illness on the other – was invisible to me until I delved into his personal files and VA records.

Jack Ackland, pictured here after his 1943 discharge, never contested his service injury. He rejoined his wife in Washington and took a job at the U.S. Post Office.
Credit: Courtesy of Len Ackland Credit: Courtesy of Len Ackland

After rejoining Eleanor in Washington, Jack began his Post Office job and she continued to work for the censorship bureau, which closed after the war. By the time I arrived in 1944, Mom was a full-time homemaker.

Jack depended medically and financially on the VA, which the year before I was born had gauged his disability at 50 percent. That was the highest available for sinusitis under agency rules. It entitled him to a monthly $50 (about $750) disability payment.

Jack’s sinusitis led to other infections in his throat and chest, the records show. During the first two and a half years after his discharge, he had contracted pneumonia seven times – a number that would more than triple over the next 16 years.

In November 1946, he was hospitalized at the Mount Alto Veterans Hospital in Washington with sinusitis and strep throat. I hurt inside when I read his account:

The strep throat caused a specific arthritis infection and rheumatic fever with almost septic temperatures and great swelling in every joint in my body, so much so that my own wife did not recognize me when I was taken from a four bed ward and confined to a private room.

It was only by the extreme efforts of Doctor Brennan and his associates at Mt. Alto that I finally passed the crisis and on Thanksgiving day of 1946 my wife was informed that it was thought I would live. During this time and in addition to other treatment I was treated for sinusitis. Perhaps with the knowledge of the service done me at Mt. Alto as well as the fine treatment I received at your hospital you can understand my kindly feeling for the medical service of the Veterans Administration. I would be an ingrate to say the least to feel otherwise.

Jack always wrote kind words about VA doctors and medical staffers. His issues were with administrators.

After the close call in 1946, he filed a claim with the VA for an increased disability rating, with more benefits. He and his civilian doctors argued that the chronic bronchitis caused by his sinus damage should be considered along with the disability for sinusitis alone.

The following September, the VA denied his request. It wrote that his claim “for an increased rating due to wrist condition was not acted upon favorably by this office.”

I found myself cheering for my dad as I read this correspondence. He appealed again, noting that he had no “wrist condition” and that:

I fail to understand the reason my chest condition and other ailments directly resulting from my nose condition have apparently not been taken into consideration in evaluating my claim and I do not feel that I have been accorded as thorough an investigation as I should have been particularly when the files of the Veterans Administration Hospital at Mount Alto, Washington, D.C. will substantiate my claim.

His unsuccessful appeal to the VA included a supporting letter from Dr. E.R. Fenton of Washington:

Mr. Ackland came to see me on December 31, 1943 and I have seen him regularly since that time. He has a constant drainage from his posterior sinuses and a constant bronchial cough with purulent expectoration associate with episodes of acute bronchitis, bronchial pneumonia, and pleurisy. He has been thoroughly examined … and there is little or nothing that we have been able to do to clear up this situation. As a result of these infections the patient has sieges of infectious arthritis.

The disability, in my opinion, is permanent and total. I have recommended his retirement from his official duties and that he seek a warm dry climate in which to live.

Jack Ackland, pictured here in 1952, moved his family to Roswell, New Mexico, after a doctor recommended he “seek a warm dry climate in which to live.”
Credit: Courtesy of Len Ackland Credit: Courtesy of Len Ackland

My father was in no position to retire, but that’s why my family moved to Roswell in 1948. The only available Post Office job there was as a clerk, a downgrade, but he took it and worked his way back up. We lived in a modest three-bedroom frame house with a yard and had a cocker spaniel and a cat. Dad loved to drive and the family occasionally went on Sunday road trips. My favorite was to the little town of Ruidoso near El Capitan Mountain, a respite from Roswell’s desert heat.

I idolized dad, whom I saw as strong and tough. He had been an amateur boxer in Washington, his 120 pounds putting him in the bantamweight category. His biceps curled into impressive balls when he flexed his short arms. He took me to Golden Gloves boxing matches at the nearby New Mexico Military Institute and later we watched the “Friday Night Fights” together on TV.

While I knew he was sometimes sick, I was shocked to read the letter he wrote after the VA concluded in December 1951 that his condition had improved and reduced his disability from 50 to 30 percent. That cut his monthly payment in half to $45 ($427 in 2018 dollars). A frustrated Jack wrote to an official from the American Legion, which had been representing him before the VA for several years:

 It is frequently necessary for me to go straight to bed after work in order that I might be able to report for the next day. I do not make a fetish of this and do not quit unless I cannot stay on my feet. However, violent headaches, numerous sore throats, attacks of arthritis, loss of weight, general debilitation, and susceptibility to pneumonia and similar respiratory diseases are all the result of my disability.

I am only human and it would be folly to think that this continuing battle to stay in condition to provide for my family has not had its effect on my nerves. I seldom let down to the extent that I have in this letter for I can not afford to, but my resentment in this matter has, I suppose, led me to indulge in some measure of not admirable self pity for which I apologize.

After two hearings before the VA board of appeals in Washington a final April 1953 ruling upheld the 30 percent disability for sinusitis. But for the first time, the board conceded that Jack’s chronic bronchitis chest condition resulted from his nose and sinus surgery, with the amount of disability for that to be determined.

A month later the VA claims office informed Jack that he would receive 0 percent compensation – as in nothing – for the chronic bronchitis. It also told him that the VA wouldn’t pay the bill for an emergency hospitalization the previous January. Jack gently expressed his dismay in a letter to a New Mexico congressman’s aide who had been helping him: “If general reductions, etc. were necessary for the good of our Country I could understand and accept but this action on the part of the V.A. is a hard pill to take.”

I’ve now read that sentence in the carbon copy of the letter numerous times, and it never ceases to amaze me. After everything my father had endured – and was continuing to go through – he still wanted to do his share for the US of A.

In the end, the VA rated his chronic bronchitis as 30 percent disabling. Added to the 30 percent sinusitis disability, that totaled 60 percent. But in the VA’s math, that became 50 percent – back where Jack had been two years earlier, before all the wrangling. The agency argued that the combined number couldn’t exceed the maximum allowed for the primary disability, sinusitis.

After Jack’s monthly payment was raised again, it amounted to about a quarter of his total annual income of just over $5,000 ($46,200 in 2018 dollars), his correspondence shows.

In 1955, the Post Office promoted Jack to a regional personnel position and our family moved to the Denver suburb of Aurora. Three years later, the VA hit him with another compensation reduction, then reversed its decision the following year after he was again hospitalized for acute sinusitis and bronchitis. Jack’s physical condition continued to go downhill.

“Even though Mr. Ackland did not complain, his co-workers were aware of the pain he suffered from acute sinusitis and a chest condition,” Emma Andreen, one of Jack’s Denver colleagues, recalled in a letter to the VA to support Mom’s claims after his death. “He often appeared to be on the verge of collapse when he left the office to go home or to the Veterans Administration Hospital for treatment. When someone would ask if he was able to drive he would laughingly reply that his car had built-in radar. There were times, however, when pain caused him to black out and Mrs. Ackland had to come down and drive him home.”

In September 1960, Jack took disability retirement. He was 42.

Len Ackland, pictured here in his 1962 high school graduation photo, found his father’s body after his suicide. At age 17, suddenly Len was the “man of the house.”
Credit: Courtesy of Len Ackland Credit: Courtesy of Len Ackland

By then I was in high school, and driving. One day, as I drove him to an appointment at the VA he confided how much he hated being on morphine. He missed some of my high school football games that fall; I missed my biggest fan.

He was again hospitalized in March 1961. This time, he was put into the contagious ward.

“This was enough to break his heart for he adopted the idea that he was contagious to his family and friends. The mental effect of this was beyond belief,” Eleanor wrote in a detailed letter to the VA after Dad died. Jack had told her and a couple of close friends that he felt like “a burden on the family.”

On Father’s Day, which happened to be my brother’s sixth birthday, Dad was too sick to accompany the rest of the family to Elitch Gardens amusement park.

At dawn the next day, Mom shook me awake. “Len, Len, your father left last night and didn’t come home,” she said. “And he has the gun.”

That gun was a .22-caliber handgun that he had purchased a year earlier. He and I had used it and the rifle he had bought me years before to plink cans against a small hillside north of Aurora.

I jumped out of bed, dressed quickly and took Mom’s little Pontiac Tempest to look for him. He had taken our second car, a metallic green 1954 Buick that he and I had been sharing and that we had arranged to trade in for a much cooler ’55 Ford later that week.

I drove north a few miles to our regular shooting spot. Nothing. Then, on the way back, I spotted the Buick in the line of cars parked along Peoria Street, a place where he undoubtedly expected a stranger to find him.

Instead, it was me.

Postscript

The VA initially ruled that Dad’s suicide was not connected to his disability. Mom, supported by letters from dad’s co-workers and friends, protested. She described the physical anguish he had endured for 18 years.

“By appealing the decision I am not trying to defraud the government or get something for myself, but I want my children to have a college education and this I cannot afford on $4040, my salary,” she wrote the VA in January 1962. That’s about $34,000 a year in 2018 dollars.

Eleven months after Dad’s death, the VA reversed itself. Based on the case evidence, the agency wrote in clinical terms that Jack’s pain had taken a mental toll. It “determined that there was a definite change of personality with disturbance of behavior and psychiatric manifestations symptomatic of an acquired mental disorder which caused mental unsoundness. This mental disorder existed at the time of the suicide. Service connection for this mental condition is granted as directly due to and proximately the result of the service connected sinusitis and bronchitis.”

The VA awarded Mom a monthly $122 (about $1,000 in 2018 dollars) payment for “Dependency and Indemnity Compensation.”

While today’s VA is different than it was in the 1960s, similarities remain. Some 470,000 vets are appealing VA decisions denying them disability benefits, The New York Times reported last November.

Mom had insured that my siblings and I would later receive a little financial support to help further our education. I studied history at the University of Colorado Boulder, spent my junior year at a German university, and entered graduate school at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in 1966. With the Vietnam War raging amid contradictory information, I had to go see for myself. At age 22, I put school on pause, joined the humanitarian organization International Voluntary Services, and taught English in Hue in 1967. The following year, I took a job with the RAND Corp. in Saigon, witnessed the Tet Offensive, and six months later became a freelance journalist.

The war in Vietnam showed me a darker side of the U.S. government than my upbringing ever exposed. An Eagle Scout, I went to Vietnam a John F. Kennedy liberal, believing in his inaugural statement, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” But the more I saw and learned, the more convinced I became that our country never should have fought its Vietnam War.

While still reporting from Saigon, I was classified 1-A by my draft board, meaning I was considered available for service. After coming home, though, I failed the physical exam because I was a carrier of amoebic dysentery, which I had caught in Vietnam. Back in graduate school I became active in the anti-war movement, worked as a researcher on the defense team in the Pentagon Papers case against Tony Russo and Dan Ellsberg, and, soon, took up journalism again.

My view of the war and federal government clashed with Mom’s and exposed the chasm between our generations at that time. We made an unspoken agreement not to discuss Vietnam. She was still working as a secretary for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, a job she had taken after Dad retired.

Mom never remarried. She raised my sister and brother by herself and impressed upon them that Dad had sacrificed his life for his country. Like Dad, she almost never complained about anything; they each met life’s downturns with dignity. She died after a stroke in 1996, at age 76 – a widow 13 years longer than a wife. She is buried with my father at Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver.

Len Ackland

Len Ackland is a former newspaper reporter and editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists magazine. He wrote a book about the Rocky Flats nuclear bomb factory near Denver. This current assignment's most haunting memory was his visit to the desert Trinity site in New Mexico where the nuclear weapons age burst upon us 70 years ago.