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WALTERBORO, S.C. — In late March 1945, Glenn Chaney witnessed the most famous bathroom break of World War II.
After spending the previous 22 hours building a pontoon bridge across the flooded Rhine River, Chaney and his unit of combat engineers got word Gen. George Patton was on his way.
Eager to catch a glimpse of the colorful top brass leader, Chaney climbed to the top of a nearby dirt pile and saluted the Third Army chief as he drove by.
Moments later and near the bridge’s mid-point, Chaney suddenly saw Patton’s jeep slow to a crawl, then stop. The general got out, stepped to the side of the newly finished span and casually unfastened his trousers.
“There, you Nazi sons of b-----s,” Chaney said, trying to get inside Patton’s thoughts that day. The moment was captured by photographers but not widely disseminated.
Nearly 70 years later, Chaney is among the dwindling number of South Carolinians who fought in World War II. And at 87, he may be among the oldest to receive post-traumatic stress disorder benefits for it.
After decades of nightmares and sessions with doctors, Chaney last year was approved based on his World War II experiences that, according to some of the paperwork involved, included much more than spanning Europe’s rivers and streams.
“My unit was involved in the release of prisoners of war at the Buchenwald concentration camp,” he said in one account his family provided to the Department of Veterans Affairs. “The prisoners looked like walking skeletons and some died while I was there. We used big earth moving machines to dig massive graves.”
Also: “1944 — On our way into St. Lo (France), I pushed through a hedge row. Unknown to me, there was about a 6-foot ditch on the other side. As I burst through, I fell into the ditch and onto a dead German soldier. The stench was horrible. I rubbed dirt on my uniform, tried water and everything else. I only had one uniform so I had to live with the stench.”
He also was wounded by a burst of artillery shrapnel.
The PTSD ruling, which about doubled his monthly VA benefits, his family said, helped settle some of the nagging questions that had plagued Chaney’s children since they were young.
“Growing up, we were not allowed to make noise,” said daughter Peggy Craven of Columbia. “We couldn’t eat potato chips or celery,” she added. “You had to tell him before you could get ice out of the ice machine.”
Chaney grew up in Washington, Pa., not far from Pittsburgh. After the war broke out, he was drafted into the Army and steered toward becoming a medic. He gave that up, realizing that seeing wounded and bleeding G.I.s probably was not something he could handle. That set up his change of career, toward the 160th Engineers Combat Battalion.
During World War II, combat engineers had a variety of responsibilities, including clearing mines, carrying flamethrowers and blowing up enemy bunkers. But Chaney’s specialty became building bridges.
What he did was critical. By design, the countries of northern Europe depend on waterways and bridges. So when the American Army approached a water obstacle, it usually meant the engineers had to cross 100 feet or so of canal before tackling the adjacent river.
Chaney remembers the physical labor involved through dozens of crossings. Still, it is the Patton crossing at the German city of Mainz that stands out, including the symbolic puncturing of the last of the German defenses.
“I’m proud of the fact he was my general,” Chaney said of the eccentric Patton, who boasted ornate sidearms, believed in reincarnation and was one of the more colorful figures on the American side.
Historical notes say Patton wrote about his “call of nature,” which apparently was far from impromptu.
“I drove to the Rhine River and went across on the pontoon bridge,” he recorded afterward. “I stopped in the middle to take a p--- and then picked up some dirt on the far side in emulation of William the Conqueror.”
The crossing was the first and only time Chaney said he saw his top commanding officer.
Patton’s grandson, George Patton “Pat” Waters, lives in Mount Pleasant. He knows the Rhine story well, but said he wanted to focus on Chaney’s efforts in getting the Army across, “and for getting my grandfather almost home.”
Patton survived the fighting but died later that year following a car accident.
For Chaney, when the war ended he got on a boat in southern France and came home. He started a family and followed various career paths, including as a bartender and working in the glass industry.
“Drank cold beer,” he said. And hid his PTSD.
His diagnosis came after repeated trips to the VA hospital in Charleston, he said.
Today, psychology experts say it became common for some WW II vets to carry on after the war, trying to function by keeping their memories buried. Dr. Ron Acierno, director of the post-traumatic stress disorder clinic at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, said the vets might cope by immersing themselves in intense work habits or, at the far opposite extreme, relying on substance or alcohol abuse to self-medicate, which became common among some members of the Greatest Generation.
“If the symptoms are not gone in three or four months, they don’t seem to go away at all,” said Acierno, who is not Chaney’s doctor. “Just because you’ve had this for 70 years doesn’t mean you can’t treat it,” he added.
Chaney said he can speak openly about his experiences now because he wants people to know what he went through, especially seeing the Holocaust up close.
“Like I said, there are those who don’t believe it,” he said.