Love, Sex and War
From Chapter 15: Oversexed, Overpaid, and Over Here!
The local Belfast girls were waiting for the new arrivals with open arms. The welcome was to be repeated over the next two years as a tidal wave of GIs landed to discover that while the climate might be damp and the sanitation primitive – ‘honey buckets,’ as the GIs dubbed them, were still in use in some British Army camps – the native female population was not only friendly, but willing. (p. 311)
The reputation of the ‘Yanks’ was encouraged by wild press reports and letters from reactionary matrons like the one who expressed outrage that ‘girls of thirteen and fourteen have attached themselves to coloured soldiers and others and been able to see films that only have the effect of arousing in them instincts that ought to be unknown to them for many years.’
It was not just the physical exuberance of the smartly turned-out American servicemen that provoked suspicion and hostility in the native male population. It was also a question of hard cash. British soldiers found themselves at a huge financial disadvantage when it came to competing to entertain their own womenfolk. Even a lowly American private with his $3000 (£750) average annual pay-cheque was a big spender by comparison with less than £100 pounds a year received by his British counterpart. (p. 312)
American servicemen deserved their reputation of being ‘wolves in wolves’ clothing’ and were not always successful when it came to making passes. One ATS corporal recalled the evening she and two companions were trudging in pouring rain back to their barracks along a lonely road:
Along came a jeep with four Yanks in it. They stopped and offered us a ride. Although there were three of us, we just didn’t trust them and turned the offer down. When I tell you that we had to walk the whole five miles back to camp, and preferred this to the lift, you will appreciate just how strongly we felt. I knew quite a few city girls who were loved and left – literally holding the baby.
The refusal of many predatory American soldiers to take ‘No!’ for an answer from a pretty girl led to frequent complaints of sexual molestation. According to Mrs Anne F., the mothers on a Birmingham housing estate near a US Army base protested that they had to use physical force to fend off the GIs. She soon developed her own technique of repulsing unwanted advances:
Almost every evening I, among others, would hear a knock on the front door and on opening it would find a GI who stated that a Greg So-and-So had sent him. When one flatly denied knowing his friend, he would calmly say, ‘Come on, baby. I know your husband is away in the forces.’ One would have to slam the door in their faces to keep them out. I remember one afternoon and evening the local camp was invaded by teenage girls and women from miles around. There were hundreds of them looking for Yanks. Next day the woods behind our estate were put ‘out of bounds’ to the GIs. But the things we found in our front gardens were unbelievable! Some of the women had a ‘good time’ with Americans, others just did their washing for them, while others completely ignored them. The pubs made a packet out of them and the kids went a bundle on them as they were very generous with chocolate and sweets.
For all their generosity, the GIs soon acquired a reputation for resorting to a frontal assault when it came to getting the ‘cute piece of ass’ they were always chasing. It was not unusual for ‘Snowdrops,’ as the US military police were known from their distinctive white helmets, to be summoned to lift a siege at rural hostels which housed Land Girls. In London the first assault was more likely to be made by the freelance prostitutes known as ‘Piccadilly Warriors.’ These most brazen of wartime British ‘tarts’ swarmed around the entrance to the Rainbow Club that was opened for Americans in 1942 in the old Del Monico’s on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue. The sign over the reception desk indicated ‘New York – 3271 miles,’ but the club promised a taste of home with its lanterns, juke boxes, and pool-tables. ‘Rainbow Corner’ became a magnet not only for homesick GIs in the London blackout, but also for the regiments of streetwalkers whose opening gambit, ‘Hello Yank, looking for a good time?’ became a much parodied wartime joke.
Piccadilly was wartime London for American servicemen. Former Staff Sergeant Robert Arib recalled the standing joke in the Rainbow Club that it was ‘suicide’ for a GI to go out into the blacked-out streets without his buddy:
The girls were there – everywhere. They walked along Shaftesbury Avenue and past Rainbow Corner, pausing only when there was no policeman watching. Down at the Lyons Corner House on Coventry Street they came up to soldiers waiting in doorways and whispered the age-old questions. At the underground entrance they were thickest, and as the evening grew dark, they shone torches on their ankles as they walked and bumped into the soldiers murmuring, ‘Hello Yank,’ ‘Hello Soldier,’ ‘Hello Dearie!’ Around the dark estuaries of the Circus the more elegantly clad of them would stand quietly and wait – expensive and aloof. No privates or corporals for these haughty demoiselles. They had furs and silks to pay for. (pp. 314-315)
The American servicemen also discovered from the streetwalkers that ‘The English had a curious custom of fucking on foot, fully clothed.’ It became a trademark of the Piccadilly Warriors to call ‘Hey Yank, quick Marble Arch style!’ But there were also many girls who were not prostitutes who believed that you couldn’t get pregnant standing up, and ‘wall jobs’ soon became part of every GI’s wartime vocabulary. One Jewish chaplain, puzzled to see so many of his men wearing their greatcoats in Birmingham on a June evening, was shocked to discover that they were wrapped around girls during alfresco couplings in parks and dark side-streets. ‘There is absolutely no end to the vulgar business of soldiers making love – or should I say lust – in public places; many cases are reported of the immoral act of intercourse going on in view of the public,’ complained Chaplain Frith in 1944 to his superiors in Washington. ‘During morality lectures, the soldiers confessed to me, in a general way, that the reason they had thrown away all propriety was that they were away from home, where no-one knew them, and no-one seemed to interfere to prohibit their freedom of action.’ The blackout, it appears, made the British policeman even more of a ‘friendly bobby’ who could be relied on to turn a blind eye to couples making-out in the dark sanctuary of a convenient telephone box or doorway – and US military police were more concerned with rowdy drunken GIs than with breaking up the trysting couples.
American soldiers were often surprised at the apparent lack of jealousy displayed by English males even when they flirted openly with their womenfolk. Mrs Marguerite G., who confessed that she was a ‘grass widow and a pretty young miss,’ enjoyed ‘parties galore’ at the American bases. ‘My husband came home occasionally, and he was always welcomed, I’m sure he regarded himself more or less as “just one of the boys.”’ According to some women other husbands serving overseas openly encouraged their wives not to be lonely. Margaret G. cited the example of her friend: ‘One day I caught her crying and she let me read the letter from her husband. In it he said he was having a good time with the opposite sex and she should do likewise.’
But not all husbands were as tolerant of their spouses’ infidelities with their American allies. A GI who was stationed in Norfolk remembers how they lost one of his company, not to the enemy but to a British soldier who returned unexpectedly to the family home and ‘found one of our men in bed with his wife, threw the GI out of a second storey window and killed him. He was sent to prison.’ There were other incidents of homicides motivated by sexual passion. One US Army sergeant was acquitted in November 1943 of the murder of an ATS private whose partly undressed and beaten body was discovered after a drunken dance.
It was the Canadian troops stationed in the south of England who acquired the worst wartime record as violent lovers, and who extracted the most savage vengeance on those girls who jilted them. On the night of 16 February 1943, a handsome dispatch rider, Victor Eric Gill, stormed into a Brighton pub to launch into a fierce argument with a pretty brunette at the bar. The row continued outside until a piercing scream was heard, followed by a series of shots. Ivy Ellen Eade, an eighteen-year-old hairdresser, lay sprawled in a spreading pool of blood in the car park. It turned out that she was pregnant with Gill’s child and their argument began because she had dated another Canadian sergeant. Gill, who admitted he was already married, said at his trial he had never intended to kill Ivy, whom he claimed to love deeply, but had been ‘overwhelmed with apprehension and jealousy.’ His passionate pleas apparently convinced the jury, who found him guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter.
A month later, a fellow Canadian, a young regimental policeman named Charles Eugene Gautier, was less fortunate. He had taken up with a Brighton housewife whose husband was a prisoner in Germany. When he discovered that Mrs Annette Pepper had taken another Canadian into her house, he blasted his way in with a Bren gun, wounded his rival and then sprayed his mistress’s body full of bullets as she pleaded with him at the top of the staircase. Gautier was found guilty of murder and hanged at Wandsworth prison on 24 September 1943 after his appeal had been refused. The publicity given to the case had served to inflame the concern many British servicemen overseas had begun to feel about their wives back home. Reports were being received from field commanders that the morale of men at the fighting front was being badly undermined by stories of rape, violence, and illegitimate births.
The main sexually motivated wartime violence in Britain, however, arose not from jilted Canadians or even clashes of GIs and resentful British husbands, but between white American soldiers and their black comrades over Englishwomen who refused to subscribe to the colour bar that was enforced in the US Army. The first serious clash occurred in September 1943, when black and white GIs fought each other in the sleepy Cornish town of Launceston. It resulted in two military policemen being wounded when they tried to restore order. In Manchester the next year, the sight of a black sailor kissing a white English girl in a railway station sparked a series of race riots that brought a call for the city councillors to ban all GIs from places of entertainment for a fortnight. The censored wartime British press played down such incidents, including the fight that broke out in a pub near Kingsclere, Newbury in December 1944. After blacks were driven out of a bar by white GIs they returned with rifles to shoot their way in, killing the publican’s wife in the process.
Complaints about the bigotry and feuding between the black and white American soldiers resulted in the Prime Minister being asked in the Commons to ‘make friendly representations to the American military authorities asking them to instruct their men that the colour bar is not the custom in this country.’ A Home Office letter of September 1942 made this official policy clear in a circular sent to all chief constables. But the Secretary of War found himself on a ‘razor’s edge’ over the issue after a US general in Southern Command issued orders that, ‘White women should not associate with coloured men. They should not walk out, dance, or drink with them.’ Many British women objected strongly to the discrimination. A NAAFI counter lady explained, ‘We find the coloured troops are much nicer to deal with in canteen life and such, we like serving them, they’re always so courteous and have a very natural charm that most of the whites miss. Candidly, I’d rather serve a regiment of the dusky lads than a couple of whites.’
Most English people, who were not accustomed to making a distinction between people of different colour, did not appreciate that the politeness of most black troops was the result of generations of subservience to the white population of the United States. ‘Some British women appear to find a peculiar fascination in associating with men of colour,’ noted a Home Office circular in 1943, giving voice to deeply rooted racial fears. ‘The morale of British troops is likely to be upset by rumours that their wives and daughters are being debauched by coloured American troops.’
A sexual element deriving from the fascination of the exotic affected those women who had never before encountered a black man. Some gullible country girls were eager to believe a popular rumour put about by some of the Negro troops that they were GIs whose skins had been specially darkened for night operations – and that on return to the United States they would be given an injection to turn them white again. Barbara Cartland wrote from her experience as a WAAF moral welfare adviser:
It was the white women who ran after the black troops, not vice versa. Approximately one thousand five hundred coloured babies were born in Britain during the war, but I am prepared to bet that if the truth were known it would prove in nearly every case the woman’s fault. Women would queue outside the camps, they would not be turned away, they would come down from London by train, and they defeated the Military Police by sheer numbers. There were, of course, some hard cases. One girl I knew of personally married a very nice American flier. They were extremely happy, and she was delighted when she knew she was going to have a baby. She gave birth to twins; after twenty-four hours they slowly turned black. It was a third generation throwback and the young flier swore, with tears in his eyes, he had no idea that his blood was mixed. (pp. 316-319)
The ubiquitous US Army jeep gave the American serviceman an advantage in the off-duty pursuit of local women that was officially dignified as ‘rest and relaxation.’ It helped to make a military alliance into a romantic union when the American troops launched their ‘friendly’ invasion of Australia in the spring of 1942.
The American military presence was to remain an ill-kept official war secret until March 1942 when General Douglas MacArthur made his dramatic escape from his besieged Manila Bay fortress of Corregidor. The first GIs had actually arrived in Brisbane on 22 December 1941. The contingent of 2385 enlisted men who disembarked from the steamer Republic were part of a convoy originally destined to reinforce the Philippines which had been diverted to the northern Queensland port after the Japanese invasion of Luzon.
These GIs were the first of more than a million American servicemen who arrived over the next four years. It was an invasion whose impact on the customs and social attitudes of seven million Australians was proportionally greater than the same number of ‘Yanks’ had on a British population seven times larger. During the spring of 1942, the southward Japanese advance led the Australian government to make desperate plans for holding the so-called ‘Brisbane Line.’ The threat of a Japanese attack ensured that the increasing flood of American servicemen was welcomed as saviours. This, in addition to the glamour with which a nation of avid moviegoers endowed the GIs, guaranteed that the American male received an especially warm welcome from Australian womanhood.
‘It was rather fun finding ourselves comrades in arms with some of the flower of Australian womanhood,’ one GI recorded of his first encounter with the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force, the WAAAF. ‘For downright friendliness, Mom, the Aussies are the tops,’ another wrote home with gusto. Lieutenant Ralf Glover, another of the early arrivals, never forgot the ‘rousing welcome’ he was given in Melbourne by the local female population who were ‘very co-operative about getting acquainted.’
Milk bars and clubs providing raunchy entertainment quickly sprouted up along Melbourne’s Collins Street. One divisional history recorded: ‘To the men of the 41st Division, in those first two months, Australia was Melbourne, Melbourne was heaven, and heaven was theirs for the taking.’ (pp. 322-323)
‘The whores were so damn busy that the situation was, metaphorically speaking, red hot,’ recalled a civil servant. He was one of those involved in the appeal made to the Sydney gambling establishment owners in September 1942: ‘Could anyone fill a train with warm, attractive females eager to assist in the national war effort by relieving the pressures building up in Brisbane?’
Rumour had it that thanks to the intervention of a member of the government, a special train was given high priority clearance as it sped northwards to Brisbane, its carriages packed with hastily recruited prostitutes who, in addition to their fares and guaranteed wages, were promised that they could keep any additional income they made over and above the rostered call of duty!
One girl reportedly managed to save nearly four thousand pounds in the course of a year’s ‘contract’ in Brisbane’s red-light district and prostitutes were soon flocking to Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Townsville from every part of the country. Unlike Britain, where brothels were illegal, Australian authorities permitted their operation and business boomed as expanding ‘staff’ met the needs of the long lines of enlisted men. Officer’s ‘girls’ affronted suburban sensibilities by carrying on their profession from bungalows in residential districts near American bases.
The increase in prostitution and consequent increase in the number of cases of venereal disease was one of the factors that ended Australia’s ‘honeymoon’ with the American servicemen. By the end of 1942 the Japanese menace had been defeated in New Guinea and much of the initial glamour had been stripped from the ‘friendly invasion.’ A Brisbane poet expressed the changing national mood:
They saved us from the Japs
But at the moment the place is too Yankful
For us to be sufficiently thankful.
The over-warm rapture with which Australian women had welcomed the Yanks was resented by their menfolk and in Perth as early as March 1942 a reporter from The Times noted that when an ‘American goes for a stroll down the streets in the evening with a girl on each arm, his success is somewhat resented by the Australian soldiers returning from Malaya and the Middle East...’
The ardour of Australian girls had also been cooled somewhat by the brutal murders of four women, casually picked up on Melbourne streets, by Private Edward J. Leonski of the 52nd Signal company stationed at Camp Pell outside the town. Leonski, a deranged former New York city foodstore worker, strangled his victims, and was executed, as was an American paratrooper convicted of a Brisbane rape in 1944. By the summer of 1942, most Australian men had forgotten that only a few months earlier a popular song had celebrated the idea that they and the Americans would soon be ‘Marching Side By Side from Berlin to Tokyo.’ Now the alliance was more likely to be marked by brawls which, according to one American seaman, ‘made John Wayne fights look like high-school picnics.’ That summer the jealousy of many husbands and boyfriends was aroused as the men of the First Australian Division returned to find their wives and sweethearts infatuated with American servicemen.
The GIs had the money, taxicabs, cigarettes – and the girls. A spot-survey conducted at a busy Brisbane intersection at six o’clock on a September evening revealed ‘ninety three American servicemen were in the company of 126 girls; fifty two Australian servicemen in the company of 27 girls...’ In such circumstances it was inevitable that many fights broke out in bars and dance-halls where newly returned Australian soldiers were quick to turn on the GIs some of the combat skills they had employed in the Western desert against Rommel’s troops. (pp. 324-326)
‘When we saw our first Yanks, we were interested, not antagonistic,’ recalled Alice Riddell. ‘Later, we didn’t like their public love-making, or the way they took out young girls, schoolgirls really.’ Clergymen and politicians were quick to take up the issues of public morality, rising prostitution and VD rates. The most outspoken was the Most Reverend James Duhig, Catholic Archbishop of Brisbane who condemned ‘the present decay of morals and the menace of social disease’ in his 1943 Lenten letter. ‘For several months now, many girls associating with Allied soldiers have shown a spirit of greed and selfishness that does little credit to Australian womanhood.’ Six months later the morals issue was still very much alive when the Sydney Morning Herald reported ‘Young girls sat on the kerbs of the city’s principal streets, with their stockingless legs poised so that their knees would support their drink-sodden heads. Some sang; other argued; all shouted to every passing car.’ (p. 326)
The alarming consequences of the prodigious sexual activity of GIs in Britain was revealed by the VD statistics, which rose from twenty cases per thousand to almost sixty per thousand amongst American forces stationed there, by the first months of 1943. This was nearly three times the rate of troops in the United States and six times higher than the average level reported by the British Army for soldiers on home duty. (p. 328)
It was months before the Ministry of Health could persuade a reluctant government to reinstate the World War I anti-VD measures embodied in section 33B of the 1939 Defence of the Realm Act. The new regulations did go part of the way to meeting the American proposals for establishing a system of contact-tracing to check on civilian women who were suspected of harbouring venereal infections. Contacts, however, could only be followed up after being named by two separate individuals – and after the case was given the go-ahead by the Ministry of Health. Investigations were to be hampered by the desperate shortage of trained civilian medical staff, though more were recruited when it was found that fewer than fifteen per cent of the women who were suspected carriers had actually applied for treatment. (p. 329)
The wartime VD campaign unleashed an enormous public response. Eighty thousand letters were received by the Ministry of Health, mostly from women, revealing that VD was most prevalent in the nineteen to twenty-three year olds and that ‘infection often results from a romantic love affair or a single act of promiscuity with an apparently “respectable” man.’ The wartime health education campaign was responsible for the erosion of the Victorian taboos against explicit public discussion of the other aspects of sex besides health.
In the military context, the decline of VD cases in both the civilian population and in American troops pouring into England for the crucial cross-channel assault was dramatic. US Army statistics reveal that in the months leading up to May 1944, the rate of infection fell by nearly two thirds – although ‘final-fling’ pre-battle promiscuity must have increased sexual activity. The statistical data, moreover, indicates that the health campaign prevented around fifteen thousand GIs – or enough men to man a front-line infantry division – from falling victim to syphilis or gonorrhoea during the months before and after the invasion of France. The Allied ground forces proved to be only just sufficient to tip the military balance during the June battle for Normandy. It is therefore not difficult to appreciate the concern of its planners that the greatest amphibious assault of the war should not be put at risk by a pre-invasion VD-Day. (pp. 330-331)
John Costello, Love Sex and War: Changing Values, 1939-45. William Collins, London, 1985.