DURHAM - One night in mid-December 1944, Virginia Olive got out of bed and began to pace, wringing her hands with worry for her son, a soldier in Europe.
"Billy needs me," she cried. "Billy needs me. Oh, I know Billy needs me."
Two weeks later, the family received a telegram saying Pfc. Billy B. Olive had been wounded in action with the 95th Infantry Division near the Saar River in Germany.
"Later, as best we could piece together the times, the hours that she was so distressed were the hours that Billy was lying on the battlefield, wounded and in freezing weather," said Betsy Ann Olive, Billy's sister.
Betsy Ann, who is 80 and lives in Wilmington, was with her mother at the time at their home in Durham. She talked about the incident in a telephone interview this month.
Upon his return to the United States, Billy told his mother that the nurse who cared for him in the field hospital said he kept saying, "mother ... mother … mother."
His experiences have sparked the interest of parapsychology researchers who study reports of possible psychic phenomena in incidents involving military personnel and their families.
With inspiration from the Olives' story, Dr. Sally Rhine Feather, director of development for the Rhine Research Center in Durham, is seeking accounts of possible extrasensory perception related to military service.
Feather is a daughter of Joseph B. and Louisa E. Rhine, who gained an international reputation for their studies of parapsychology - mental phenomena that occur outside the normal senses of touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing. Those experiences can involve things that will happen in the future.
Even advocates of parapsychology admit that the subject is controversial. Skeptics are quick to dismiss reported psychic experiences, often harshly, as coincidence, the product of subconscious clues or outright fraud. Critics say the evidence is "anecdotal" and question the validity of experiments.
Some people see divine sources behind such reports.
Former N.C. Rep. Charlie Rose, who discussed psychic spying with officials when he was a member of Congress said, "I think God gives everybody powers beyond what we expect, especially mothers and loved ones in times of emergency. That's what God does if we let him."
Some people see diabolical sources. Joseph W. McMoneagle was a "psychic spy" in the once-secret Stargate Project for the CIA and the U.S. military. He said that during hearings some congressmen stood up, knocking over their chairs, pointing fingers and saying, "You are doing the work of the devil."
But advocates say parapsychology is real.
"Today's psi research has progressed from efforts to prove that psychic abilities exist to coordinated programs aimed at understanding the fundamental processes that underlie these abilities and how they are integrated into human consciousness," according to the Rhine Research Center.
The Oxford English Dictionary credits J.B. Rhine with coining the term extrasensory perception to describe the phenomenon. The Rhine Center is the "heir" to the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University, but the center is no longer part of Duke.
Staff photo by Stephanie Bruce
Billy B. Olive tears up as he recounts his service during World War II.
Olive, who is 82 and still works as a lawyer in Durham, suggested to Feather, his longtime friend, that she look at possible psychic experiences involving the military.
"I had just not thought about it that way before, so I was real excited at this idea," Feather said.
The reported military experiences range from family members who perceived a loved one's injury thousands of miles away to soldiers whose "sixth sense" warned them of a nearby threat.
"ESP stories seem to be more around tragedies than they do around happy events," Feather said. "That's probably part of the nature of this ability: To help warn people of trouble. Where is there more trouble than in wartime? We all know that."
Feather is interested in stories from the area around Fayetteville, Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base.
"I expect that in Iraq and Afghanistan and these places even right at this minute there are some very, very interesting psychic experiences," Olive said. "This is something, I believe, that is a very real part of life and has never been adequately covered."
McMoneagle, the former psychic spy, said some of the highest concentrations of people with psychic ability are found among soldiers, policemen, firefighters and people with high survival rates in hazardous jobs.
"They employ it," he said. "They don't know they
are employing it, but they do. That's the reason they do survive."
McMoneagle, who retired from the Army as a chief warrant officer two, discussed his experiences in a lecture at the Rhine Center on Dec. 5.
"I was in the military," he said. "Just being psychic, I didn't worry about how information came to me. I might be walking in a jungle or something and something would tell me - butterflies in the stomach, hair coming up on the back of my neck - Don't walk through that open clearing - and so I didn't. That's how I got my information. I didn't care where it came from. Usually it was correct, more times than not. That's why I'm standing here talking to you right now."
H. John Poole, who was a Marine Corps officer in the Vietnam War, discusses the use of senses and the sixth sense in his book "Eye of the Tiger: The U.S. Private's Best Chance for Survival."
"Any number of sources have been attributed to the mysterious sixth sense," Poole wrote. "Some claim that it is extrasensory perception. A man who has tracked African guerrillas for the better part of three decades claims it to be the product of his subconscious mind. He says it springs from one's instinctive comparison of subtle sensory input from deeply buried memories. In other words, the inexperienced woodsman shouldn't count on having much."
Rhine said the military people might be able to offer information about how to use possible psychic abilities in real-life situations.
"I think that people who have had experience in the military may have had the opportunity to use their ESP ability in an everyday, practical way," she said. "A firefighter might be the same way. He might know (not to) go in that room. The roof is going to collapse. It might mean his survival if he is aware of how to use his ability."
Although apparently no study has focused specifically on military psychic experiences, World War II was a rich source of stories in general. In her research, Louisa Rhine collected 12,000 cases, including many military experiences.
Among the military cases in her 1961 book, "Hidden Channels of the Mind":
Feather said that skeptics might question a story such as the Olive family's by suggesting the mother might frequently have voiced concern about her soldier son's well-being.
"No, no, no," Billy Olive said. "This was a very unusual statement on her part. I'm sure of that. It was one impressed in the memory of my sister, Betsy. It was unusual, something that made them all a little more tense than they were otherwise."
In another incident, Virginia Olive convinced her husband to travel to Georgia in 1918 because she had a sense that her brother in the Army had a medical problem. They found him severely ill in a tent with a blanket over him. He was lying on a cot on a dirt floor.
They were able to bring him home and save his life.
Olive's mother died in 1958; his father in 1973.
Betsy Ann Olive said her mother was reluctant to talk about her abilities and could not call on them at will.
"Her psychic powers seemed always to be related to illness
or death of people she loved," she said. "She did not
consider it a blessing, rather the opposite."