Finding Staff Sgt. William Doucette Sr.: Family, friends honor decorated, heroic Army veteran, troubled civilian with military service
A mechanically-inclined young man, William R. Doucette Sr. was barely four months past his 18th birthday when he enlisted in the U.S. Army. World War II was raging. Like his male contemporaries, Doucette was eager to do his part for his country in the global conflict.
Trained as an armorer-gunner, the young recruit from Wilmington, Mass. served aboard bombers, the predecessors of the famed B-29 bombers, at once surveying target areas for enemy aircraft, engaging them in gunfire when necessary, repair, on-the-fly, any malfunctioning guns and administering first aid to crew members.
Once in a great while, crew members would be switched out for one reason or another, according to Col. Ronald G. Corsetti, the officer in charge of the Army’s 75th Innovation Command.
It was Corsetti’s dogged research into Doucette’s military career that, along with Vietnam veteran and Nashua resident Kurt Cameron’s success in locating Doucette’s birth, death and military records, made possible last week’s emotional, long-overdue military graveside service in Doucette’s honor.
It all began when Sue Reynolds, one of Doucette’s daughters and the owner of the family-operated Chuch’s barbershop in downtown Nashua, mentioned to one of her customers her family’s ongoing efforts to find out what happened to her father since they lost touch with him decades ago.
That customer happened to be Cameron, who, with his characteristic eagerness to help out others – especially military folks – went into detective mode.
Corsetti and Cameron “did what we couldn’t – they found him,” Cherie McGuire, Doucette’s eldest daughter, said at last week’s service.
Speaking above the steady whine of a chilly fall wind wafting through the trees, McGuire told about two dozen friends and family members gathered at Westlawn Cemetery in Lowell how her father’s presence in their lives grew increasingly sparse over the years.
“We lost more and more of him as time went by … he would pop into our lives now and then, until we lost track of him,” she said.
“We didn’t even know if he was still alive.”
The family now knows Doucette was in fact alive for quite a bit longer than they imagined. He died two days before Christmas 2000 at age 75.
According to his death certificate, Doucette died of arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease. But Corsetti’s research suggests another aliment likely at least contributed to Doucette’s demise – and was almost certainly the reason most of his adult life would be a struggle.
Today we know that aliment as PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder – a very real, scientifically proven condition that, in Doucette’s era, was passed off as a case of “shell shock,” or “battle fatigue,” a temporary, almost fleeting wave of emotion that most likely would subside once the soldier pulled up his boots and prepared to engage the enemy in the next battle.
In the narrative Corsetti wrote based on his research, a paragraph toward the end begins with, “It was not Staff Sgt. Doucette’s day to die.”
He referred to a March 11, 1945 mission that was part of an allied drive into Germany, which ultimately succeeded in defeating the last big push by the Germans to extend the war.
On that fateful day, Doucette’s crew of eight, including the pilot and co-pilot, took off from an airfield at Perrone, France, their B-26 the lead plane in a mission to take out a bridge in Germany.
But shortly after takeoff, after reaching 4,500 feet, the fated B-26 broke from formation and crashed in a field in a place called Busgny, France.
There were no survivors.
“Fate is fickle,” Corsetti wrote. “For reasons not fully known, (Doucette) was spared the fate of his crew. As was sometimes the case, aircrew members were switched out” on certain missions.
This was one of those missions. A staff sergeant named Daren Holt Hurst of Oklahoma climbed aboard in place of Doucette; it didn’t take long for the tragic news to reach the young airman.
It would be natural to see Doucette as a very lucky man. After all, his life was spared. He was “one of the lucky ones” who would soon return home to marry, raise a family and embark on a career.
But while Doucette survived, a piece of the young man likely died that fateful day. What lived on, unfortunately, was a case of what Cosetti called “survivor guilt,” which, together with “the many other horrors he witnessed in the war, likely haunted him” for the rest of his life.
Doucette’s estended family would also learn their loved one’s behavior grew increasingly concerning over the years, and he was eventually admitted to a psychiatric hospital – explaining why, as McGuire said, “we lost track of him.”
“I don’t remember much about my grandfather,” retired U.S. Army Sgt. William R. Doucette III said at the graveside service.
When he learned his grandfather exhibited symptoms of PTSD, the younger Doucette called the affliction “very real … back then, it wasn’t realized. It wasn’t accepted,” he said.
“Now, we’re getting the help we need,” he added, referring to PTSD treatment.
“Unfortunately, grandpa didn’t get it.”
Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Sundays in The Telegraph. He may be reached at 594-1256 or firstname.lastname@example.org