World War II ended more than 70 years ago, but according to a 2010 study, it may have hastened the deaths of some of its veterans decades later.
In as study published in Residential Aging, researchers analyzed data on the mortality risks of 300 WWII veterans who had passed on. They wanted to see if their length of life had anything to do with 1) their participation in combat, 2) whether or not they served overseas and, if they did serve overseas, 3) the area where they were stationed. Here are some of their surprising findings:
1) Those who had participated in combat were nearly 30 percent more likely to have died by 2000 than those who hadn’t seen combat.
2) Those who had served overseas were over 50 percent more likely to have died by the year 2000 than those who served on the home front.
3) Those who had served in the Pacific theater were 50 percent more likely to have died by 2000 than those who had served overseas in other theaters.
It’s interesting to note that serving on active duty didn’t increase or decrease the mortality risk of WWII veterans compared to civilians, so it wasn’t just being in the military that shortened their lifespans.
Why did veterans who had seen combat, served overseas, and/or served in the Pacific theater have shorter lifespans than their counterparts?
Most likely it had to do with intense stress they suffered. Combat, of course, is incredibly stressful. As so is being overseas, far from family and familiar situations, with no way to get home even for a short leave. As for serving in the Pacific theater, some of the bloodiest and most brutal fighting of WWII occurred there in extremely rugged environments. Making matters worse, since the majority of the war effort was directed toward Europe, less support was given to those sweltering in the jungles of the South Pacific.
The study found two other factors that appeared to play a role in the veterans’ length of life: heavy drinking, a factor known to decrease the lifespan, and higher education levels, which apparently increases it.
My own father, Jay Taylor, a WWII Army officer, is an archetypal example of a WWII serviceman with a shortened lifespan. He served overseas in the Pacific theater (New Guinea and the Philippines) and participated in combat multiple times. His education was modest (high school only) and he became a heavy drinker not long after he came home, a habit he never gave up. He died of lung cancer at age 70 in 1988, some twelve years earlier than the benchmark year of 2000 used in this study.
This, of course, begs the question: Did my father’s life end sooner than it should have because of what he did in the war? That’s something we’ll never know for sure.
If you enjoyed this article, you’ll also enjoy my book If My Heart Had Wings: A World War II Love Story — the true story of the life and death of a WWII pilot and the tumultuous life of the young widow he left behind. Available on Amazon!