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From the World War I Centennial News Podcast

War in the Sky: PTSD Among the Pilots with Mark Wilkins

CN PodcastLogo Final gray lowerOn the World War I Centennial News Podcast, we're taking a look back at some of our favorite segments from 2018. On Episode 66, which aired on April 4th, historian and aeronautical expert Mark Wilkins joined the show to discuss the prevalence of PTSD in the ranks of WWI pilots and his recent work on the subject of WWI aviation. The following is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity:


Theo Mayer: April 4, episode number 66, War in The Sky, "PTSD Among the Pilots with Mark Wilkins." This week for War in the Sky, we're turning inward to look at the psychological challenges for those daring warriors in the sky during WWI. Joining us is Mark Wilkins, historian, writer, museum professional, and lecturer. Mark is the author of a recently published article in the Smithsonian Air and Space magazine called "The Dark Side of Glory: An Early Glimpse of PTSD in the Letters of World War I Aces." Welcome to the podcast, Mark. 

Mark Wilkins: Thank you. Glad to be here. 

Theo Mayer: Mark, to start with, how did you get the trove of letters you used for your research?

Mark Wilkins: Well, research as you know, is a treasure hunt. It is intuitive and sometimes information is found in the most unlikely places. That being said, there's some recent books that have collections of pilots' letters. University and national archives are another great source, as are aviation museums or war museums like the Imperial War Museum in London, local historical societies, sometimes relatives of the pilots, also online newspaper and periodical archives are another fabulous source of information.

LEFilmTeam500Mark Wilkins, furthest to the left, is an expert on WWI aviation Theo Mayer: Mark, about how many letters do you think you went through to start to do your research?

Mark Wilkins: Too many to count. Many, many, many, many, many letters, yes.

Theo Mayer: In WWI, malady was equated with physical issues, but your article deals with the psychological stresses of the pilots' experience. Last year, we were telling stories about soldiers being executed for shell shock on charges of cowardice. 

Mark Wilkins: Yup. 

Theo Mayer: How did that play out for the pilots?

Mark Wilkins: Well, the field of aviation psychology evolved symbiotically with the war. Psychiatrists were initially split about the causation of shell shock for example. Some thought it was a purely physical phenomenon, where as others thought it was psychological and this began a debate that actually didn't conclude until around, I think, 1922. The military only opted for the latter definition that it was psychological because this allowed them to either be returned to the trenches or the cockpit. This was important because with the epic casualties that were mounting, they really needed every man. I'm not aware of any pilot being shot for cowardice. Although when cowardice was observed, the attending pilot was severely reprimanded or transferred. You have to remember, they're trying to build these guys up as basically rock stars. The trench warfare was not going well and these guys who flew these sort of one-on-one jousting the skies, I mean, this was something that gave the men in the trenches hope, so they didn't want their image tarnished. Many internalized this struggle. In the British squadrons, it was understood that you kept sort of a sunny disposition in front of the men but you could privately go to pieces.

Theo Mayer: Well, you know, the stress on these aces actually makes a lot of sense. If you were an Ace, you flew a lot and the mortality rate of your buddies is off the chart. It isn't like the trench, where you've got the courage of the guy to your left and the guy to your right to bolster you, but instead flying is this kind of white knuckle, cold sweat, daily solo experience. Sounds like traumatic stress is inevitable. How common was it?

Mark Wilkins: Among those who talked about it, you have to remember that many didn't, it was very common. Elliott White Springs, who was an American who flew for the RFC, the Royal Flying Corps in the 85th and 148th squadron basically said, "It's only a question of time until we all get it. I'm all shocked to pieces. My nerves are all gone and I can't stop. Few men live to know what real fear is. It's something that grows on you day by day, that eats into your constitution, that undermines your sanity." Let me give you another example. Squadron Leader Cecil Lewis, wrote, "I realized, not then, but later, why pilots cracked up, why they lost their nerve and had to go home. Nobody could stand the strain indefinitely. Ultimately, it reduced you to a dithering state, near to imbecility. They sent you home to rest. They put it in the background of your mind, but it was not like a bodily fatigue from which you could recover. It was a sort of damage to the essential tissue of your being. And never, once you have been through it, could you be quite the same again."red baronPTSD afflicted many pilots in the Great War, including Germany's Manfred von Richthofen- better known as the Red Baron

Theo Mayer: Mark, after immersing yourself in all of this, can you give us one example of what your biggest take away is from this?

Mark Wilkins: Well, it's a complex notion. It was a bittersweet experience to find easy explanation or quantification. From Arthur Gould Lee reflecting after the war, he goes back to the Western front and he's standing by the corner of a chateau and he says, "In the sunshine, by the waving grain, with everything now at peace, I remember them and was filled with a heavy sense of loneliness. I knew that although I had not been killed, something in me had. Something had gone out of me and was buried and would always buried in a hundred cemeteries in France and in England along with the companions of my youth, who had died that our country might live."

Theo Mayer: We just had a great question come in from our live audience. Frank Krone wants to know if Richthofen, Germany’s Red Baron, appeared to suffer from PTSD?

Mark Wilkins: Yes, he did. He was a fearless pilot but he was wounded in the head. He had suffered a head wound and after that, he changed. He became a little more cautious, a little more protective of his pilots. He basically realized that mortality was something that could happen to him. The problem is, we can only deduce what happened based on the letters that many of these guys wrote and Red Baron, even though he wrote an autobiography, he doesn't really talk about much of that stuff. His mother basically is the one who commented on his condition that his temperament had changed after he was wounded.

Theo Mayer: Last December we had filmmaker, Darroch Greer, on the show to talk about his upcoming documentary on the Lafayette Escadrille. You're involved in that project, aren't you?

Mark Wilkins: That's right. I'm the producer of aerial effects and the historical consultant for the film. Basically, as a producer for aerial effects, I line up venues for shoots with the aircraft I'd mentioned. We did one at the Golden Age Air Museum filming replica Nieuport 17s and a German two-seater and simulated patrol and dog fight segments. In addition, I built a few large scale, actually radio-controlled models. These will stand in for what we can't do with full-scale aircraft. As historical consultant for the film, I'm helping out with historical big picture aspects. One of the trick with this is to locate it within the greater framework of the war, so the viewer not only sees this particular story in great detail but is also able to see where it fits within the big picture, the major battles and political trends of the war.Nieuport17The French Nieuport 17 is one of several models of WWI aircraft that Wilkins has worked with on an upcoming documentary

Theo Mayer: You've got a book coming out. Can you tell us about it and when it's coming out?

Mark Wilkins: It's basically the article in expanded format. It chronicles the rise of military aviation, nationalism and technology during the late 19th, 20th century, the rise of the ace phenomenon, aviation psychiatry and finally includes six case studies that illustrate different ways men dealt with psychological impact of combat flying. It will be out in January of 2019, being published by Pen and Sword in the United Kingdom.

Theo Mayer: Thank you for coming on the show and giving us the story and the article.

Mark Wilkins: Well, thank you for having me.

Theo Mayer: Mark Wilkins is a historian, writer, museum professional, and historical aeronautics expert.

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