"Look for me, in the newsreel."
Those six words were casually included in the first letter Capt. David Brown Wilsey penned to his wife, Emily, after arriving at Dachau in Germany, on April 29, 1945.
Wilsey was one of the 28 physicians supporting the U.S. Seventh Army’s 42nd and 45th Infantry Divisions to witness the unspeakable cruelty and horror of the Nazi concentration camp upon its liberation 75 years ago.
It would take Wilsey’s daughter, Clarice, six decades to see her father in the newsreel and for the man he truly was.
Clarice Wilsey, with an assist from renowned local author Bob Welch, has written a poignant book — "Letters from Dachau: A Father’s Witness of War, a Daughter’s Dream of Peace" — about her father’s heroics in World War II and her family’s struggle living with the changed man who returned home.
The book was inspired by the 350 letters Wilsey wrote to Emily during the war, which Clarice and her siblings discovered after both of their parents died.
"When I first found the letters, I was absolutely stunned," said Clarice, the former associate director and counselor at the University of Oregon Career Center. "They were in a box, in a trunk, in the back of the attic. Nobody knew that they existed."
In the graphic April 29, 1945, letter, Wilsey described racing through the gates of Dachau Concentration Camp to find "40,000+ wrecks of humanity milled, tore, looted, screamed, cried as/like depraved beasts which the Nazi SS has made them."
When Wilsey arrived in France with the 116th Evacuation Hospital, his letters were still romantic and upbeat. Using his "scientific, calculated, numerical approach to life," he noted to Emily that there were 2,836,749 reasons why he loved her.
The tenor of the letters grew darker as Wilsey witnessed the worst of humanity during the bloody monthlong Battle of the Bulge and later during his haunting stay treating patients in Dachau.
In some letters, Wilsey’s mental all-caps button was on — HOLOCAUST !!!!!! IS JUST WEARING ME TO A NUB."
The devout Episcopalian also started cursing as the carnage continued — "SONOFABITCH! It’s just awful what this war does to bodies, educational memories, property, minds, & lives."
Wilsey anesthetized soldiers for a variety of wounds that were hard to even imagine in medical school — one had a grenade explode in his pocket, another had a booby trap lodged in his lung, another with a bullet in his chest causing a collapsed lung. He also treated German soldiers with the humanity they did not show their enemies on the battlefield or their prisoners in the concentration camps.
"I put a number of Germans under anesthesia, & had one die right under my mask. BUT so help me I didn’t do anything but my best for the guy," Wilsey wrote in a letter dated Nov. 27, 1944. "He was just too wounded; too poor a surgical-anesthetic candidate; & too major a surgery was needed/attempted.
"Anyhooo, up here there is a dictum — the more Jerries (Germans) we operate on means the better our boys are doing. It’s an absolutely infallible index of how the war is going — an index in our operating-tents."
When Wilsey arrived at Dachau, he saw train boxcars full of dead inmates and more bodies, which looked more like skeletons, piled high inside the camp.
Through the stench of death, soldiers quickly discovered the variety of ghastly experiments, tortures and executions SS officers had ruled over.
"My dad truly was a hero during World War II," Clarice said. "He could have died at any single point. To think about what he experienced, the trauma. The Battle of the Bulge was the worst battle in World War II. And when they were in Dachau they were there after victory in Europe. They were there for five weeks while everybody was celebrating the end of the war.
"They were dealing with horrific abuse, which is calm word for what they saw."
A painful, ‘providential’ relationship
Wilsey was surprised when his commanding officer, who was extremely demanding throughout the war, awarded him the Bronze Star Medal for his meritorious service.
This is where Clarice could have ended the book — on a heroic note.
Instead, "Letters from Dachau" also pulls back the curtain on the anguish of growing up in a house where Wilsey was undoubtedly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and Emily was battling depression.
Clarice credits Welch for giving her the courage to tell the rest of the story.
"As I got into the interviewing, I realized bit by bit this was more than a story about a war hero, which he clearly was, but a story about a war hero when he becomes far less than that," Welch said. "When he comes home and his family has hell to pay when he has PTSD. …
"He was just a mean, angry father, and the family took the brunt of his wrath. The deeper we got into the interview, the more intrigued I got by that side of it."
Welch, who has authored World War II-themed books about the first nurse to die after the Normandy invasion ("American Nightingale") and the jungles of Bataan ("Resolve"), noted that much has been written about Dachau.
But the stories of the toll the concentration camps took on the liberators and their families post-war are mostly untold.
During the writing process, Welch even sat down with Clarice and her therapist to make sure he wasn’t overstepping his bounds.
"Clarice became a believer that shining a light on the darkness was good for her and for readers," Welch said.
Clarice, who was born 16 months after her father was discharged, discovered photographs of Dachau at the age of 6 while digging through a box as the family moved into their home in Spokane.
Wilsey screamed at her and hid the startling images away for the rest of his life.
Clarice was once beaten by her father with a shoe. She witnessed her dad break her mother’s nose. He didn’t allow Emily to talk to her friends on the telephone. He made the family learn Russian during the Cold War. He didn’t show any empathy when Emily was hospitalized with depression.
Wilsey simply didn’t let his wife or children have any fun, even while relaxing at the lake.
One memory that affected Clarice’s self-esteem throughout her life was when, after successfully finishing an exhilarating swim, he graded her effort as average.
"Really, giving me a letter-grade for my swim across Wandermere Lake?" Clarice writes. "Dad, that C+ has followed me through life like a shark in the wake of my frantically kicking feet."
At a funeral for Wilsey’s best friend, the man’s son-in-law told Clarice of the words her father had confided in him about his Dachau experience:
"No man should have to decide who lives and who dies."
While never forgetting the emaciated prisoners he was able to help, and the others he was not able to treat, Wilsey was beloved by his patients throughout his medical career in Spokane.
But his family never saw the loving bedside manner at home.
"My hope is that people who have a PTSD parent can say, ‘You know, this is not all my fault.’ Because a child, psychologically, oftentimes blames themselves," Clarice said of sharing the darker side of her father. "I really didn’t want to talk about my dad. Then I thought, maybe for the greater good of people who are walking around with a parent who has been totally traumatized by war, I’d show that there’s hope and there’s help."
After imploring Emily in his letters to "tell thousands so millions will know" about Dachau, Wilsey would not speak of the war.
Clarice views her mom, who died in 2008 at 92, as a casualty of the war and a hero for living through the painful ripple effect Dachau had on their lives.
"One of the things she said on a number of occasions was that when she got married she promised God to stay with my father," Clarice said. "She had made a vow to God and that was her vow. So she had to stick with him, quote, unquote, for better or for worse.
"My mom was of really strong faith and really believed in God, and I think her faith is what kept her going."
Clarice said writing "Letters from Dachau" was difficult but allowed her to "totally understand" her father.
"I think it really helped a lot in terms of my forgiveness, being able to say it wasn’t about me, it was about his trauma," she said. "It made me realize even more how traumatic war can be for people."
Wilsey died in 1996 at 82. Clarice thanked and forgave him as her mom held the phone up to his ear on his deathbed.
Ten years later, while representing UO at a conference in Baltimore, she was on her way to do some sightseeing at the Smithsonian Institution when the Metrorail driver announced a stop for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
A stranger on Clarice’s fateful "impulse" excursion to the museum let her cut a long line. Suddenly, she looked up at the TV screen outside the elevator and saw her father … in the newsreel from Dachau.
Clarice said Dr. Wilsey would probably calculate the odds of that happening at 0.0000001%
Or perhaps it was a divine reconnection.
"He would surely say it was providential," she added.
Contact reporter Ryan Thorburn at email@example.com or 541-338-2330, and follow him on Twitter @By_RyanThorburn and Instagram @rg_ducksports. Want more stories like this? Subscribe to get unlimited access and support local journalism.