Where Are Those Old Study Reports?
By Jug Varner
A recent Air Force article about Brooks AFB research scientists working to create countermeasures against aviator battle fatigue (that can cause severe risk resulting from the airmen's decreased alertness) brought back memories of my personal participation in a similar study during WWII.
The problem, as I understood it at the time, was not just for aviators alone, but one that affected other Navy personnel as well. Try to imagine if you can, being on board one of those battleships or cruisers firing endless rounds from heavy guns day and night, or being on any ship that might be subject to Japanese Kamikaze attacks from just over the horizon. The combination of sleep deprivation, horrendous noise, unstable footing on deck - as well as the subliminal fear of the ship going down, and having to brave shark-infested waters while awaiting either death or survival - weighed heavily on both the mental and physical reflexes. Those Marines and soldiers in foxholes at battle zones elsewhere were no less immune to that syndrome they called battle fatigue than were the aviators or deck hands.,
We were assigned to preflight training at a former plush resort hotel at Del Monte, CA in the summer of 1943… several hundred young bucks going through physical training hell while studying the basics of flight before we could transfer to an air station and finally see the inside of a real aircraft cockpit. The Navy, by the way, stripped the interiors of anything resembling “plush” and by the time the war was over some two years later, the powers that be converted it to a Naval Post Graduate School, in operation for more than an additional 50 years. But, I digress.
At the time, while we understood the problem to be a serious one, some of the things we were expected to do seemed rather silly to most of us… but, then, we didn’t know much about psychologists and psychiatrists, nor their modus operandi. I can’t recall all of the strange (to us) things we did, but the instructors placed much emphasis on learning a technique of falling asleep quickly and easily to obtain a short rest from the stressful situations, yet being able to awake. on a moment’s notice to the reality of danger. (Don’t ask me to explain any of this). They also hypnotized a few of us, although not all were susceptible (including me).
Our final test was to be able to go to sleep while the loudspeaker blared sounds from a “Battle of Britain” film track played backwards. That was a god-awful noise, but most of us passed the test with flying colors. I think the real secret to our success in the sleep test was that the Navy constantly ran us so ragged from reveille to taps that everyone welcomed the slightest opportunity to get some rest. The fact that this class was held everyday following the noon meal may also have been a snooze benefit the instructors didn’t take into consideration. I have often wondered if anyone in our group ever was exposed to real battle fatigue and whether this course may have helped them overcome it,
This program probably wasn’t nearly as fancy as what the Brooks AFB crew might conduct today, but the problem was similar. I don’t know if the Navy limited this exercise to our group exclusively, or if it was widespread.
The results of those long ago studies may be buried in some underground salt dome in the middle of Kansas - if they even exist today - but it would be interesting to compare the two approaches to the same problem. We never heard the outcome of the studies for which we served briefly as guinea pigs, but the “shrinks” who conducted it must have filed many reams of paper reports somewhere.
Too bad these latter day research scientists can’t see those old reports. It might save the government a lot of money. Or, maybe not.