Felled by mysterious seizures on Bora Bora

Third of four parts

Sam Venditta

The Japanese Imperial Navy posed a threat to the U.S. presence on Bora Bora for several months in 1942. That ended in June with the American victory at Midway. Coastal defense and antiaircraft guns on the Polynesian island would remain silent. For my Uncle Sam and the rest of the Bobcat Force, life settled into a stifling routine.

Sam was a tech corporal, or technician fifth grade, in Battery F of the 198th Coast Artillery. He worked with a demolition squad, blasting coral sixteen to eighteen hours a day in the tropical heat. As the job dragged on, with explosions coming one after another, he felt more and more tense.

At the worksite on August 12, something in him snapped. Sam passed out, foamed at the mouth, shouted and convulsed with seizures. Hurried to Bora Bora’s Army hospital, he remained unconscious until the next morning.

What felled him wasn’t clear. After ten days in the 8th Station Hospital with no further trouble, Sam went back to work. His schedule was lightened somewhat, and he felt fairly well – until another attack less than two months later. This time he passed out after taking a shower and lying down. Fellow soldiers saw him wracked with seizures. When he woke up in the hospital, he was drowsy and had a searing headache.

Hospital staff did a complete workup – history, lab work, a physical – and concluded Sam might have epilepsy and should be considered for transfer back to the States. The symptoms weren’t definite, though, and after two weeks he returned to duty again.

A third attack came a few days into 1943. Sam blacked out and shook violently all over. Again, he woke up in the hospital with pain in his head.

Was it epilepsy? Not so fast, doctors said. No medical personnel had seen him suffer a true epileptic seizure. Instead, they thought Sam had a mental disorder, psychoneurosis. He complained of tiring easily, a poor appetite, and trouble falling asleep. “He was preoccupied with these complaints,” a doctor wrote, “and manifested the fact that he was very nervous and could not control the trembling of his arms and legs.”

A three-member Board of Medical Officers recommended Sam be transferred to a general hospital stateside for “special study and differentiation.”

In February, after a year on Bora Bora, the artillerymen of the 198th moved to a support base in the New Hebrides islands, more than 2,300 miles away. Sam wasn’t with them, but on a ship headed for home. He must have felt relief at the prospect, and yet it could not have lasted long. On the journey, seizures gripped him again.

Disembarking at San Francisco, Sam spent a few days at Letterman General Hospital. Then he was off to Kentucky for further observation and study “with regard to his neurotic trends.” At Nichols General Hospital in Louisville, he told his Army doctors there was no family history of mental disease, alcoholism or epilepsy.

A Medical Corps doctor wrote to Sam’s mother in Malvern, Pennsylvania, asking about him. Mary Venditta responded that Sam was never ill before, has no unusual traits, doesn’t drink, has friends, and is engaged to a woman he’s been seeing for years. He is, she added, “more or less of the quiet-type person.”

Nichols General made this final diagnosis: “Psychoneurosis, anxiety state, chronic, severe, cause undetermined, manifested by feelings of inadequacy, anxiety over physical condition, anorexia, insomnia, with marked trembling of upper and lower extremities without organic basis.”

With that, the Army gave up on Sam. He got a disability discharge on May 29.

“Soldier is unfit for military service because severe neurotic traits … render him totally unable to adjust to Army routine. The disability is permanent. Maximum benefit from hospitalization has been attained.”

Gathered after Sam and Ruth’s wedding June 5, 1943, in Malvern, Pennsylvania, are (standing from left) Sam’s sister Josie; Benny Dragone, husband of Sam’s sister Mary; Sam; Ruth; and Ruth’s sister, Helen Russell. In front are Sam’s brothers (from left) Carmine, my dad; Tony; and Louie.

At home just days later in that spring of 1943, undeterred by his perplexing condition and hoping to get on with his life, Sam married his longtime sweetheart. She was Ruth Vivian Montgomery, who worked in a floral shop. When they first met as teenagers, Sam sang “O sole mio” to her (“My Sunshine”), and it became their song.

The wedding took place June 5 at the manse of the Presbyterian Church. Though no longer a soldier, Sam wore his uniform anyway and looked sharp. His best man was his brother Louie, an Army Air Forces private first class stationed at Green Field, Rhode Island. Sam’s other brother in the service, Frank, couldn’t attend. He was an Army medic in Panama. My dad, Carmine, would be the fourth brother to serve in the war. At the time of the wedding, he was a student at Tredyffrin-Easttown High School. He joined the Coast Guard after graduating in 1944.

The newlyweds lived with Ruth’s sister, brother-in-law and parents. Sam tried to work but couldn’t do anything other than light farming. He felt weak, his hands and legs trembled, he worried continually, noise bothered him, and headaches dogged him. He had insomnia, and when he could sleep, he had terrifying nightmares. A few weeks after the wedding, an attack happened in the middle of the night as he slept. He cried out, fought off his family, tore up everything around him and was unconscious for five hours.

His future looked bleak, but the Veterans Administration gave him a lift. A test at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Philadelphia found abnormal electrical activity in his brain. The evidence came from an electroencephalogram and led to a new diagnosis: epilepsy (encephalitis from heat stroke). Noting the blackout Sam had in 1940, the VA concluded he had epilepsy before joining the Army and it was “aggravated by World War II service.” 

A letter Sam wrote to the VA

One VA doctor wasn’t sold on the diagnosis but let it stand. He described Sam as tense, anxious, worried over his nervous state and afraid he will never get well. “This patient is suffering from a severe tension state. I feel diagnosis is psychoneurosis, anxiety severe. However, diagnosis epilepsy is retained for record purposes.” As a result, Sam was rated fifty percent disabled and would get compensation from the government.

Unable to work for months, he was on relief that provided $10 a week for groceries and a quart of milk a day, received through the local Red Cross. He took a job early in 1945 as a laborer for the Valley Forge Stone and Lime Company, making 90 cents an hour. Then, borrowing money from a friend, he bought a two-ton truck to haul pulverized limestone from the company’s quarry in East Whiteland. He spread the lime on farm fields to condition the soil.

Sam’s ad in the Pottstown Mercury

Sam’s blackouts made his driving utterly unsafe. That year, he passed out behind the wheel of a car and wrecked it.

Sometimes he’d be senseless for two days. Doctors treated him with the muscle relaxant atropine and the anti-convulsants phenobarbital and Dilantin. They didn’t seem to help. In 1946, Sam complained to the VA that his $57.50 monthly compensation wasn’t enough. “It costs $5 every time I have a doctor,” he said. “I use up all my pension and then some just for doctors.”

More disappointment came the next year, when the VA cut his disability rating from fifty to thirty percent, reducing his monthly compensation by $16. At least he was working. He drove his heavy truck and, in newspaper ads, offered farmers “fine dry pulverized limestone.”

But there was always the threat that his brain would short-circuit. Even a child could tell when something wasn’t right with him.

Sam with his nephew Nicky, about 1950 in Malvern

He and Ruth had a daughter now, Nancy, who was born in the fall of 1945. Once, Sam took the toddler to a farm where he spread lime, so she could see a cow named Elsie. Standing in the field, she saw her dad’s face go eerily blank. It frightened her. When they got home, Nancy told her mom: “Something’s wrong with Dad.” After that, Ruth wouldn’t let her go anywhere with him unless someone else was with them.

There is a family photo of Sam behind a little boy on a tricycle. The tot is his nephew Nicky, son of his brother Louie. Sam is smiling broadly, and Nicky appears ready to pedal away. Down the road, tragedy lay in wait for both of them. Nicky would go to Vietnam as a twenty-year-old Army helicopter pilot and come home in a body bag. For Sam, the end would come much sooner.

COMING NEXT: After a ballgame, one last seizure

4 responses to “Felled by mysterious seizures on Bora Bora

  1. Rick Molchany

    So interesting. Enjoy your writing, especially the family stories.

    Like

  2. My father is really enjoy your history on your Uncle Sam and the family. Thank you! Joyce

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

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