The injured mind of an American hero: Vet one of thousands lobotomized by government after WWII
By Allison Geyer | La Crosse Tribune, Wis. | Published: February 8, 2014
LA CROSSE, Wis. — Roman Tritz dreamed of flying.
Gripping the yoke of a four-engine B-17 Flying Fortress was excitement and adventure for the boy who was born in Portage, Wis., in 1923 and left school after eighth grade to help his father with the dairy cows.
"What did I like about flying?" A distant smile brightens his watery blue eyes. "Everything ...."
It was duty to his country that brought him to enlist in what was then known as the U.S. Army Air Force after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The oldest of 10 children on the farm, Tritz "figured he should be the one to go" and shipped off to England in fall 1944 to join the 728th Squadron of the 452nd Bombardment Group.
"That was the way it was," he said.
He flew 34 combat missions, including one that took him deep into enemy skies so thick with German anti-aircraft fire that he and his crew had to sign an affidavit swearing that they weren't forced to go. Halfway there, some wanted to turn back. Tritz told them to be brave.
"I told them, 'You're never going to defeat your enemies if you keep running away,'" he said. "'Have your parachutes ready.'"
It was duty to his family that brought him -- eight years after military doctors discharged him with a clean bill of health -- to an operating table at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Tomah.
Orderlies pinned him down, and doctors drilled holes in either side of his forehead. They cut into his brain, severing the nerve fibers between the prefrontal cortex -- the part of the brain involved in personality expression, decision making and social behavior -- and the thalamus -- a region that receives and relays sensory perception.
They hoped the surgery would quiet the rabble of voices that had shouted inside Tritz's mind since he returned home from combat in 1945. He had delusions, paranoia, disturbing thoughts. His sisters were afraid of him. His parents, after great deliberation and at the VA doctors' recommendations, turned to psychosurgery.
"I never did want that lobotomy," Tritz said. "But it was my duty to take it."
'The Lobotomy Files'
Tritz was one of roughly 2,000 World War II veterans lobotomized during and after the war, a recent Wall Street Journal investigation discovered. The procedure, once lauded as a "miracle cure" for nearly all types of mental illness, has since fallen so far out of favor in the medical community that it's rarely even discussed, said Mario DeSanctis, medical director at the Tomah VA.
"I was shocked. I had a queasy feeling in my stomach," DeSanctis said of his reaction to the Journal's investigation. "Reading about what had happened to Roman, all I could think was 'thank God we've progressed.'"
The first human lobotomy was done in 1935 by Portuguese neurologist Antonio Egas Moniz, but it was U.S. neuropsychiatrist Walter Freeman and his colleague James Watts, a neurosurgeon, who imported and popularized the procedure.
"Some people tend to look back on it as the dark age of psychiatry," said Jenell Johnson, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin and author of the book "American Lobotomy." "But at the time, lobotomy was not this barbaric procedure that was practiced by quacks."
Moniz won the Nobel Prize for his work developing the lobotomy in 1949. Freeman also became famous, writing a regular column in the highly respected American Journal of Psychiatry and performing lobotomies in front of audiences.
"Freeman was kind of a showman," Johnson said. "He delighted in the gruesomeness sometimes."
Traveling the country, Freeman's sales pitch for the procedure was twofold -- first, it made psychiatric patients easier to handle by dampening their emotions and violent tendencies; and, second, it saved hospitals money by clearing out psychiatric hospitals, which were notoriously overcrowded during that time, Johnson said.
In an effort to make his surgeries cheaper and easier to perform, Freeman developed the controversial transorbital lobotomy -- essentially an ice pick driven through the eye socket and moved back and forth to sever the neural connections. The technique was so simple that it could be done in mental asylums by psychiatrists as opposed to being done in operating rooms by trained neurosurgeons.
"It was very, very gruesome," Johnson said. "(Freeman) would write about how people in the audience would pass out."
By the mid-1950s, the antipsychotic drug Thorazine came on the market and provided a chemical alternative to a surgical lobotomy. Freeman continued to perform lobotomies until 1967, but his fame turned to infamy as popular opinion shifted to view his surgeries as barbaric and damaging.
"If there is a tragedy to Mr. Tritz's story, that's it," Johnson said. "If it was a bit later, he wouldn't have received the procedure."
An injured mind
Roman Tritz remembers waking up after his lobotomy with a "awful, awful headache."
The hospital orderlies asked: "Are you Roman Tritz?"
He said yes.
"Good," they said. "You still know who you are."
His recovery was slow, said his sister, Regina Davis, who lives in Chilton with her husband and is Tritz's closest relative.
"He was quiet, except when he would get riled up -- then he was loud and boisterous," she said of her brother's post-lobotomy personality. "But he was always a very good person -- always."
Tritz came back home to the family farm for a few years and spent time in boardinghouses before moving to La Crosse in 1963 to attend vocational school. He had seizures, making it difficult to find work, though he held jobs in manufacturing and mechanics.
He has lived alone in a one-room downtown apartment since 1985. Fearing conspiracy, he refuses to use a telephone and won't correspond with his family in writing, Davis said. She and her husband visit when they can, but now that they're in their 80s, it's becoming more difficult.
"I worry about him; he is so alone," she said. "I often think to myself -- what if something would happen to him? Would anybody know?"
A forgotten soldier
Roman Tritz still dreams of flying.
At night, Roman Tritz dreams he's back in a B-17, back in Germany fighting in the war. He dreams he's in Santa Ana, Calif., where he trained for the Air Corps, having a beer with his Army friends.
In his waking life, he dreams of the girls he never married. He speaks of government conspiracies, FBI monitoring and of something he calls his "magnetic brain." He believes he was born in England and was kidnapped and taken to the U.S. He says he was friends with Osama Bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi.
He knows he's confused.
"It's all tangled up, and now I got this gol-darned incontinence," Tritz said. "The reality ... it's mixed with fiction and dreams."
For more than 30 years, Roman Tritz has eaten alone twice a day at the King Street Kitchen.
He arrives each morning at 10:30 a.m. exactly. He orders his usual breakfast -- eggs, bacon cooked medium, hash browns and white toast with jam -- and sits at his usual booth near the window. He keeps to himself.
King Street Kitchen owner Darren Zumach is supposed to call a number for a relative if Tritz doesn't show up for a few days.
It was the same routine every day until Tritz became the centerpiece of the Wall Street Journal "Lobotomy Files" investigation. When the story ran in December, calls flooded into the restaurant. People wanted to know how he was doing, wanted to know if they could send a donation to pay his restaurant tab. Someone sent him a new winter coat.
"It's awesome, but it's crazy," said Zumach, whose protective instinct led him to initially warn Tritz against doing the Journal interview. "The emotional response has surprised me the most."
Most of those calling are from outside the La Crosse area, but one morning, a week after the article ran, a college-age girl came in and handed Tritz $50. She told him her husband is in the military and thanked Tritz for his service, Zumach said.
Tritz says he doesn't quite know what to make of all the attention, but Zumach said he's seen a change for the better in the man he's known for years. He's opened up. He's smiling more. He's happy to have his breakfast paid for, but he makes sure to still leave a tip.
But he's still not fond of the government.
"What gets me is the gol-darned United States of America," he said. "They say the WWII generation is the 'Greatest Generation,' but they failed us. I might sound like a crazy person, but it's true."
"I was shocked. I had a queasy feeling in my stomach. Reading about what had happened to Roman, all I could think was,
'Thank God we've progressed.'" Mario DeSanctis, Tomah VA medical director