They Survived the Worst Battles of World War II. And Died of the Virus.

by Ellen Barry | The New York Times

(This article first appeared on May 25, 2020)

In an undated handout photo, James Leach Miller. (Handout via The New York Times)

HOLYOKE, Mass. — In 1945, James Leach Miller returned from the war and said nothing.

He said nothing about it to his wife, not for 64 years of marriage. He folded up his Army uniform, with the medals still pinned to it, and put it in the basement, where his older boy would sometimes take it out to play soldiers.

He joined the fire department. He went to church on Sundays. He never complained.

“That generation, they didn’t air their problems,” said his younger son, Michael Miller. “He would say, ‘It was not a good time. I’ve had better times.’ He would not embellish.”

James Miller was already in his 70s when he began to tell Michael Miller, an Air Force flight engineer, little bits about landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day.

“Fragments would come out,” his son said.

The deafening roar as they waited for the beach to clear, crowded into a landing ship with other 21-year-olds. A blur that lasted 24 hours. The buzz-drone of Messerschmitts. Dust clouds. Mud.

Michael Miller once offered to take him back to Normandy — World War II veterans were making the journey — but his father shook his head and said, “I’ve been there once.”

This story comes up for a reason. Miller, 96, who survived what was for Americans the bloodiest battle of World War II, died of complications from the coronavirus March 30 inside the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. The virus has spread in more than 40 veterans’ homes in more than 20 states, leading to the deaths of at least 300 people.

The conditions inside the 247-bed state-run home, where Miller had lived for five years, were so chaotic that his children cannot recount them without breaking down.

When Miller lay weak and gasping that weekend, his two daughters, in a car in the parking lot, pleaded with a nurse on duty over an iPhone to give him morphine or atropine to relieve his suffering.

“She said, ‘We can’t do it,’ and she started to cry,” said his daughter Linda McKee. “There was no one there giving orders.”

Michael Miller, at his father’s bedside, did the only thing he could do: moistened his lips with a sponge on a wooden stick.

“At that point, he was choking,” McKee said. “He died with no care whatsoever.”

The question of what went wrong at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home will be with Massachusetts for a long time.

With scarce protective gear and a shortage of staff, the facility’s administrators combined wards of infected and uninfected men, and the virus spread quickly through a fragile population.

Of the 210 veterans who were living in the facility in late March, 89 are now dead, 74 having tested positive for the virus. Almost three-quarters of the veterans inside were infected. It is one of the highest death tolls of any end-of-life facility in the country.

Multiple investigations have been opened, several of which seek to determine whether state officials should be charged with negligence under civil or criminal law. The facility’s superintendent, Bennett Walsh, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel with no nursing home experience, was placed on administrative leave March 30.

But many in the state are revisiting decisions made since 2015, when a moderate, technocratic Republican governor, Charlie Baker, was elected on a promise to rein in spending.

The facility’s budget increased by 14% over the past five years, according to a spokesman for the state’s health department. Even so, there were persistent shortfalls in staffing, and the local unions complained that workers were frequently pressured to stay for unplanned double shifts. The facility’s previous superintendent stepped down in 2015, declaring that the home could not safely care for the population on the existing budget.

All this was well-known before the coronavirus arrived in the state this spring, said Erin O’Brien, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

“All these regular Massachusetts folks that are now outraged — I don’t disagree, but veterans programs require funding,” she said. “When you vote to shrink government, it has ramifications.”

They Each Had Stories

In 1952, young men were returning to the industrial towns of western Massachusetts after serving in World War II. They were kids from poor families. And they were damaged: shellshocked, learning to live without limbs, unable to communicate what they had seen.

It was to these men that Gov. Paul Dever, who had fought in the war himself, dedicated the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, promising to protect injured veterans from what he called “the scissors of false economy.”

Fifteen thousand people lined the streets for that day’s parade, and the facility — built on a hill and illuminated with floodlights — became a source of great pride in this part of the state.

The men in its wards had some stories.

There was Emilio DiPalma, a retired crane operator, who died of the coronavirus April 8.

At 19, an Army staff sergeant, DiPalma had guarded Hermann Goering, the driving force behind the Nazi concentration camps, during the Nuremberg trials. DiPalma called him “Hermann the German.” They didn’t get along.

In his memoir, “Just a Kid, A Guard at the Nuremberg Trials,” DiPalma recalled Goering as arrogant and uncooperative, often berating him in rapid-fire German. Goering used to ask his young guard to bring him cups of water, which DiPalma poured out of a chlorinated pouch.

Goering hated the taste of it and would grimace and hand it back, remarking, “Bah, Amerikanisch.” After a few rounds of this, “I had had it with Hermann’s antics,” DiPalma said.

So the next time, DiPalma brought him a cup of water from the toilet. Goering drank it down and said, “Ah, gute wasser!”

“He smiled, and so did I,” DiPalma wrote. “I guess I felt it was my little contribution to the war effort.”

There was Sam Lococo, a retired postal worker, who contracted the coronavirus and died April 16.

At 20, Lococo had joined the Navy and shipped out to the South Pacific. He lived in fear of attacks by Japanese kamikaze pilots. And at the same time, he was part of a team that sent out whaleboats to rescue these pilots after they had crashed into the Pacific.

In an interview with a local historian, he recalled looking into the face of one of those battered and half-drowned men and seeing terror.

“The Japanese had been taught that the Americans were savages, so probably he was afraid of us,” he said. “He kept saying in English, ‘You are going to kill me. You are going to kill me.’” They pulled him from the sea, dressed his wounds in the sick bay and transferred him to the USS Lexington.

And this was the point of the story: “We treated that pilot like a king,” Lococo said.

Then there were those like Miller, who didn’t talk about the war.

“As far as his service, what he encountered in Europe, I really am at a loss, ma’am,” said his oldest son, James P. Miller. “Dad probably just didn’t want to talk about it. It was past.”

But from time to time, he startled the people around him with his swift, instinctive response to crisis, the younger James Miller said.

There was a time when a lawn mower blade flew off an engine in the shop where he worked and sliced into a man’s leg so deeply that the other workers started screaming and ran out, but his father went to the hurt man and bound him up, in his quiet way.

Michael Miller recalls sitting with his father and a VA psychologist screening him for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. “She said, ‘So, what do you do if you’re reading the newspaper and you see something that upsets you?’ He said, ‘I turn the page and I read the funny papers.’”

Only once, in fact, did he see his father overcome with emotion about the war.

It was in the 1990s, and his father learned for the first time that there were people who denied that the Holocaust had occurred. And he — a man who never got upset about anything — was as angry as his son had ever seen him.

“It’s like he had a hot-point button,” Michael Miller said.

His father dug out a box of old photos and drove them to a small Holocaust museum in Springfield, which eventually sent them to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

They showed corpses lined up in front of the Nordhausen concentration camp. It showed other things. Boxcars. Ovens. Bones.

“He wanted people to remember,” Michael Miller said. “I think, having lived through all the physical issues, the psychological issues, if someone says it never really happened, he was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you folks, you have no idea.’”

‘They Were Trying to Do Their Jobs’

Miller’s children had worried about the Soldiers’ Home enough to request repeated private meetings with its superintendent, Walsh. The trouble, they said, was staffing.

“When you live through those cuts and have someone physically there, you feel it every day,” McKee said.

“They were trying to do their jobs,” she said of the staff. “They just didn’t have the means.”

The home had passed three successive yearly inspections, meeting or provisionally meeting the standards set by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. But the union representing most of the staff, Chapter 888 of the Service Employees International Union, warned persistently that the facility was operating at 80% staffing levels..

By March 14, the home was closed to most visitors, like most nursing facilities in the state. A man in a dementia unit began showing symptoms, declining so fast that it alarmed Joseph Ramirez, vice chair of the union chapter.

“We’re used to seeing death — we know what it looks like when it comes — but I was in shock. I was just like, ‘Oh my god,’” he said.

The man was not fully isolated, and staff who treated him were rotated to other units.

“What they had us doing, we were spreading it around,” he said.

By the third week of March, one-quarter of the staff was not reporting to work, Walsh has said through his lawyer. To accommodate the low staffing, medical staff decided to consolidate two units, crowding together infected and uninfected veterans.

Walsh has said his superiors approved that decision and were routinely updated on the distress the facility was in. He said he had called for help from the National Guard but had been refused.

“No one was kept in the dark,” he said in a statement.

Baker has said little about these assertions, citing an ongoing investigation.

Brooke Karanovich, a spokeswoman for the state Executive Office of Health and Human services, called the deaths at the Soldiers’ Home “a reminder of the insidious nature of COVID-19.”

She added, “We are deeply saddened by the extent of the outbreak and the loss of life.”

As for Miller’s children, they have trouble describing that last weekend without crying.

“We’re very bitter because of the way he died,” McKee said.

She and her sister, Susan, sat in the parking lot, peering into their father’s room through their brother’s iPhone. They heard spasms of coughing from their father’s roommates; two of the three would die that weekend. They saw a large refrigerated truck pull up to a loading dock in the back of the facility, for the bodies.

“It was complete panic,” McKee said. “It was pandemonium. Nobody knew where to turn.”

Inside, Michael Miller sat with his father, holding his hand and praying, reassuring him that he wasn’t alone, watching him breathe, stop breathing and start breathing again.

“I wouldn’t wish that upon anybody,” he said. “It’s something I will remember for the rest of my life.”

Miller died March 30, on the day when a cascade of scrutiny began to fall on the facility. From his father’s bedside, Michael Miller could see a group of public health officials making their way through the units.

But his attention was with his father, who was breathing but no longer responding, and the strangeness of surviving Omaha Beach to die that way.

“That’s the irony: He landed on Normandy beach, and your chances of survival weren’t great,” he said. “And he made it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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