Saturday, January 21, 2006

MEMOIR: My sex life in the Army

The night before I was inducted into the Army in April 1943, my father decided to tell me the facts of life. I was 18 and he had never discussed sex with me before. Seeking privacy, he ushered my mother out of our apartment living room. He then drew on his own brief military experience during World War I, an era in which many soldiers contracted syphilis. Nervously, he said: "In the last war men went blind." He never got beyond that, because my mother, curious to know what was going on, suddenly barged into the room. The sex lecture was over.

On my second day in the Army I was given a sex lecture far more clinical than my father's. In training recruits, the Army seemed to regard sex education as vital to soldiering as close-order drill, discipline and learning how to fire a rifle. The aim was to encourage the use of condoms and prophylactic kits to prevent venereal disease.

To promote the use of these protective measures, GIs periodically attended lectures and films showing hideous photos of men with advanced cases of syphilis, gonorrhea and other sexually-transmitted diseases. This dreadful portrayal of the possible adverse side-effects of sexual activity undoubtedly forced many men into abstinence--at least while in uniform.

I can still recall two legendary cartoons in the Army magazine Yank by George Baker, creator of the famous character, the Sad Sack. One showed the hero watching a sex education film. Increasingly, he becomes nauseous at the sight of advanced VD victims. When he leaves the movie hall, he is introduced to a woman who offers to shake his hand. Before shaking her hand, however, he dons a rubber glove. In the other cartoon, the Sad Sack is asleep on his bed and obviously experiencing a "wet dream." He suddenly awakens and rushes to a medical clinic to get a pro kit to cleanse himself.

In January 1944 I was shipped overseas. Sailing from Hampton Roads, Va. to Bombay, India, we were at sea for a month. Virtually all 5,000-plus troops aboard the ship enjoyed leisure activities during the voyage. My compartment on the ship, however, was arbitrarily selected to function as MPs, allowing us little free time. Our primary mission was to police troop behavior, especially to assure that no lights were shown on deck at night because German submarines were prowling the Atlantic.

I was frequently assigned to guard the quarters of the few dozen women--nurses and Red Cross ladies--on board. (Many of my bunk mates below deck refused to believe me that there were females on the ship.) The assignment was a delicate one. I was only a lowly buck private, but I was supposed to bar higher-ranked, super-charged officers from gaining access to the ladies in their secluded cabins. I never knew whether the ladies were grateful for my efforts or angered.

After two weeks at sea, the ship docked in Capetown, South Africa, for several days to refuel and replenish supplies. Almost daily the troops were allowed shore leave. Now my responsibilities as an acting MP became more formidable. The city boasted a wide assortment of brothels housed in facilities that ranged from primitive to palatial. Troops on shore leave were ordered to stay out of them.

To enforce the order, squads of acting MPs were organized to patrol the whorehouses. Each patrol consisted of two American MPs, armed only with a billy club and wearing a white handkerchief wrapped around our arms, teamed with a regular South African MP equipped with a pistol. While many of my ship mates roamed the city seeking brothels, I was raiding them. We were authorized only to drive the customers out of the brothels, not to arrest them. I still remember the brothel clients dashing or staggering out of the establishments as we entered, usually with their trousers around their ankles.

After we arrived in Bombay, my outfit spent nearly a month at an RAF base outside the city awaiting assignment. I visited the city often. Its selection of whorehouses rivaled Capetown's. One famed attraction was a long street featuring prostitutes displayed in cages so that potential customers could examine the wares. I was no longer an MP; now I was only an observer.

I was eventually assigned to an Army base about 60 miles north of Calcutta. The area boasted the highest rate of venereal disease of any overseas region in which U.S. troops were based. Before the American army's arrival, Calcutta was renowned as a sin city crammed with hundreds of brothels licensed by the British army. The incidence of VD was minimal, however, because the local prostitutes were periodically examined and treated by military doctors.

Aghast at what they regarded as official immorality, the U.S. Army chaplains pressured the British to abolish the system. With the whores now no longer under medical surveillance, the VD rate soared. For the men in my outfit, the 903rd Signal Co., the scenario was sadly familiar. Before coming to India, the company had been stationed near Alexandria, Egypt. There, too, the British Army's traditional medical control of local brothels collapsed with the arrival of the Americans. Once again, a VD epidemic broke out. A handful of my 903rd buddies landed in India with undesired "souvenirs" from their sojourn in Egypt.

In Calcutta and the surrounding area, the Army's medical corps encountered venereal diseases unknown to them. Gonorrhea and syphilis, of course, were very familiar. I remember one new malady, lymphogranulonum, which I've read is now prevalent in the U.S. Penicillin was not yet available, and the medics had only sulfa drugs to treat sexually-transmitted diseases.

As the incidence of VD exploded, the local commanding general launched a special program to combat the disease. Brothels were placed out of bounds. Soldiers caught in them were subject to punishments ranging from restriction to quarters to imprisonment, depending on the number of violations.

Because there weren't enough regular MPs available,each Army unit was required to appoint a VD-control non-commissioned officer to help enforce the new restrictions. Sergeants from each unit were to accompany the regular MPs on the brothel raids. And GIs were not allowed to leave their bases unless they carried condoms and pro kits.

The requirement angered a buddy who, like me, was one of a handful of Jewish soldiers who were allowed to drive into Calcutta to attend Friday night services at the Mogen David Synagogue, an imposing temple established by the local Iraqi Jewish community. He was offended by the condom/pro kit requirement,he claimed, because it clashed with his religious sensibilities. He failed to get an exemption from the new rule. So off we went to Sabbath eve services with condoms and pro kits in our pockets and nary a dirty thought in our minds.

As a staff sergeant, I was appointed the 903rd Signal Co.'s VD-control non-com. It was only a side line to my regular job as the company's chief clerk. I was now in charge of maintaining inventories of condoms and pro kits and of recording the outfit's VD-case statistics. For a guy deficient in arithmetic, the latter function was a major challenge.

My new job also required me to lead a formation of our personnel to the local dispensary for a weekly medical exam known as "short-arm" inspection (I reluctantly became unnecessarily familiar with the "private parts" of many of them) and to lead a periodic visit to the base hospital's genital-urinary ward to observe what patients with advanced VD looked like. The hospital visit was supposed to act as a deterrent to unwise sexual behavior.

I was also now in charge of the duty roster for sergeants to accompany the MPs on brothel patrol. I frequently assigned myself to the patrols. I felt that my Capetown experience provided me with unique credentials. The more substantial Calcutta brothels were out of our territory. Our base was located in an essentially rural area. The local brothels were primitive--usually mud huts smeared with dried cow dung on the outer walls. The girls were not exactly alluring. A guy had to be drunk to become a patron. I don't recall ever catching a sober GI in the local whorehouses.

In retrospect, I was fortunate that my wartime military career was relatively serene. I never saw combat or fired a gun in anger. But, in addition to my conventional military duties, I unexpectedly became a warrior against VD.

Please note that I have written this account of "my sex life in the Army" in my role as a spectator. Any reference to personal participation will remain confidential.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The news behind the news -- war is h...ard!

Saturday, January 21, 2006 12:36:00 AM  
Blogger Observer said...

Ah, what an interesting way to describe a young soldier's miserable torture of enforced abstinence. There is no excuse for such cruelty. I speak from experience. More in a direct e-mail.


Sunday, January 22, 2006 7:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

America and abstinence -- they never tire of each other.

Friday, January 27, 2006 3:49:00 PM  
Blogger kenju said...

I enjoyed reading this, and I will pass it on to my husband, who will also say of his service days that his personal experience is also confidential!

Sunday, January 29, 2006 5:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who says you have to have a war. Sailors have fun at sea. A grirlfriend from port to port. The navy has their own department called mocrobiology department. They can see all the veneral diseases that are spreading. With condoms there are less cases. Perhaps there is a doctor on board.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010 7:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! What an awesome account! This is history! I loved it!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011 1:38:00 PM  

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