Category Archives: american history

Sausages at the Shrine of Remembrance

Last week I went to the book launch of Yorick Smaal, Sex, Soldiers and the South Pacific, 1939-45, a fascinating study of same sex relations between men during the Second World War, in Australia and the Pacific.

Much of the book is based in Brisbane, which for a brief time between 1942 and 1945, played a central role in the Pacific war effort. A million American servicemen passed through my hometown during these years. They were, according to the catchphrase, ‘Over paid, oversexed, and over here’ – and for some of them, as well as for the Australian servicemen and civilians they met, the turbulence of war brought with it new opportunities for sexual expression – and opportunities for new forms of sexual expression.

cover of Yorick Small Sex, Soldiers and the South Pacific

Some of the people Smaal writes about were openly homosexual – or as open as it was possible to be at a time when such activity was illegal. Others were experimenting surreptitiously with homosex (Smaal’s preferred term) as a passing phase that they barely acknowledged to themselves.

Smaal is particularly interested in the geography of sexual encounters, so I found it fascinating to see my city laid out in a new way. My first memories of Brisbane date from the 1950s but my family’s stories go back to wartime experiences. My father used to tell the tale of seeing a man cooking sausages over the Flame in the Shrine of Remembrance in Anzac Square. When Dad questioned him, the man said he was an ex-serviceman, which seemed to be an adequate justification for his transgression. I wonder, though, if Dad realized at the time that this place was a gay beat?

At school, we were told not to wait for buses in the city at the covered bus stop in William St – another pick up point. And my mother’s dark but obscure references to the Pink Elephant Café make more sense now – the proprietor of the café was Frank Mitchell, a close associate of the artist Donald Friend, whose painting of naked men showering is on the cover of Smaal’s book. Mum visited the café as a teenager, all the same, though whether she met ‘Lana Turner’, ‘Pearl of the Pacific’ and the other cross-dressing waiters, she has never divulged.

By the standards of the day, I think my family was pretty relaxed about same sex relationships. My grandparents had a self-contained flat attached to their old Queenslander, which they rented out to a series of ‘confirmed bachelors’. One of them was the distinguished poet Val Vallis. My grandmother got on famously with them, and many of them came to her funeral.

Smaal’s research for this book is remarkable. Sodomy was illegal, so there are numerous court and police records – both civilian and military, Australian and American – and he has made good use of these. Many consensual encounters never reached the courts, though, especially if the participants were discreet and could conduct their encounters in privacy, though this was not always easy in a military setting. Smaal has interviewed a few remaining survivors of this era, and has used earlier interviews from the 1980s onwards. There are also memoirs and diaries. Faces are pixellated and pseudonyms are used where an unexpected revelation could cause someone embarrassment.

Sources on sex are always hard to come by, and so are sources on illegal activities, so Smaal is working under a double disadvantage, but one of the characteristics of military organizations is that they are vast bureaucratic regimes with a capacity for generating endless paperwork – the raw material of historians.

Both the Australian and the American armies worried about homosexuality within their ranks, and its implications for the civilian community. These concerns were less moralistic than practical: as with women in the army today, the top brass worried that consensual same sex relationships might change the group dynamics of the fighting unit. They worried about non-consensual sex, or sex with young boys (though since all homosex was illegal, no legal age of consent existed). They worried about venereal disease.

Smaal looks beyond Brisbane to other places across the South Pacific where soldiers met and mingled – and encountered other races and cultures, with different attitudes towards homosexual relations, looking particularly at the experiences of the Australians in New Guinea and the Americans in New Caledonia.

Studies of same sex relations can often be a rather cheerless read, partly because medical and criminal records invariably form an important part of the research on which they are based. What I like particularly about Smaal’s book is that his subjects are not constantly viewed in the dock, or under the microscope, but were frequently joyful participants of the world they inhabited, ‘a very social world. Australian girls and US belles made their own fun. Friends and lovers organized regular get-togethers and sing songs.’ [83] It sounds like the obverse of the nurses and marines in South Pacific, and no doubt it was fun – though the slightly hysterical fun that young men on a battlefront engage in, constantly aware of their own mortality in a war zone.

It was a world that operated below the radar. Though many of the men Smaal describes were good soldiers and brave men, they inhabited a world that was out of kilter with the dominant narrative of manly fighting men and the Anzac spirit. As Robert Aldrich said, when he launched the book last Thursday, the word ‘Anzac’ is even missing from the index – and how good is that.

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Emails and Paper Trails

There are two things I don’t understand about the Sony hack. First, why does anyone with the ability to accomplish such an impressive hack want to live in North Korea, when they could clearly sell their IT skills for millions in the global market?

Another film that caused offence Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Another film that caused offence
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

And second, why are people such idiots that they continue to write stupid or outrageous comments, and put them in emails saved to the company’s mainframe? Continue reading

How should we deal with racist language?

If you go to iTunes to download a copy of one of Joseph Conrad’s classic novels, you will find it listed under the name The N—— of the Narcissus (1897). Apple’s antennae are very sensitively tuned when it comes to the use of what Americans call ‘the N word’.

There has recently been a controversy over racist terminology at ABC Radio. A sports commentator, Warren Ryan, was suspended for using the racist term ‘old darky’, and has now quit because he refuses to apologize for something that was taken out of context. He says he was quoting from Gone with the Wind. You can read the details here.

As a completely dis-(and un-)interested bystander regarding anything football-related, I know nothing about Ryan, except that in general I think sports commentators should act in a civilized manner and keep their traps shut as much as possible, but the story does raise the issue of how we deal with racist comments that are not our own, but those of another generation. Continue reading

Thanksgiving and the Battle of Brisbane

Growing up in Brisbane as a baby boomer, I always knew something about the Battle of Brisbane.  It was part of the rich soup of stories we grew up in: the impact of the Pacific War, the rationing, the American presence and how this sometimes led to fights between Australian soldiers and the Americans –  ‘overpaid, oversexed and over here’.

Aussies in WWII

Some of the stories were funny.  Here’s an American account of one:

Many Australian troops returning home resented the Americans.  Dell Brooks [a submariner from the Seahorse] encountered that resentment in a theater in Brisbane showing Walt Disney’s 1942 animated classic, Bambi.  In one segment, Bambi cries out, “Mommy, mommy, where are you?” From the balcony came a voice, “She’s out with some damn Yank; where do you think she’s at?”

Others were serious.  Continue reading

California Design: A Brave New World

It was purely coincidental that I visited the latest Queensland Art Gallery exhibition, California Design, on the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, but they fitted together brilliantly.

California Design looks at the sleek, modernist, optimistic designs that came out of California between 1930 and the 1960s, and JFK’s Camelot image was polished – and tarnished – by the same broad-brush strokes. The Kennedys were always attracted by the lure of Hollywood.  In lusting after Marilyn Monroe, the brothers were only following in the footsteps of old Joe, who made Gloria Swanson his mistress during the 1930s.

The exhibition begins with a pair of aerial shots of Los Angeles.  In 1923, LA is little more than a triangle of country roads and an airstrip.  By 1930, the triangle has been filled with houses, and outlying farms are already turning into suburbia. The pace of change must have been shocking or exhilarating to live through, and the boom in housing gave architects and designers an opportunity to concentrate on building – and filling – the private houses of a new wealthy elite. Continue reading

Dracula and the Witches

In June 2009 I visited Salem, Massachusetts, for the World History Association conference. Salem was wonderful, and the conference so engrossing that we were perhaps the last people on earth to notice that Michael Jackson had just died.

Salem was full of summer visitors, most of them there to see witches, and there were witches everywhere: rag dolls made into toothless crones, witches on broomsticks, witches with pointy hats, and memorably, witches made of black licorice. None bore much relationship to the characters in The Crucible, but nearly all the visitors were drawn to Salem by the play. Imagination, and enthusiastic marketing, did the rest.

Yet there’s so much more to Salem than the the 1692 witch trial. One of the privileges of history conferences is that there is often a guided tour given by someone who knows the history of the region, and we were taken on a walking tour by a PhD student who really knew her stuff. Nathaniel Hawthorne lived here while writing A Scarlet Letter, and the customs house where he worked still exists. Salem was an important port before the shipping trade moved to Boston in the 1820s and 1830s, and tea merchants coming back from China and the Pacific started the exotic collection of items that became the Peabody Essex Museum, the oldest in America.

I’ve just been travelling in Romania. Last week I visited Bran Castle in Transylvania, universally but in accurately known as ‘Dracula’s Castle’. Bram Stoker modeled Dracula on Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia. Dracul, the family name, comes from ‘dragon’, though it also has an overtone of ‘devil’. Vlad ‘the Impaler’ was gruesome enough – he is said to have impaled a whole Turkish army on a forest of spikes. He may just possibly have spent a few months in his childhood at Bram Castle, but he bears very little resemblance to the toothy gentleman in an opera cloak of Hollywood films, just as the toothless crones of Salem bear little relationship to the real victims of the witch trial.

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Cultural heritage and tourism can make for an uneasy mix. As a historian, I would like to think that visitors to a historical site go away knowing more about their history. The truth though is that many people prefer their history in bite-sized gobbets of stereotype, preferably with added blood and gore.

In Australia, many tourists are perfectly content to see a convict site like Port Arthur in terms of blood-soaked triangles and a cat-o’-nine-tails, rather than learn how the penitentiary system worked.

As a historian, I find this trivialization of important historical sites depressing, but I can see the appeal from the perspective of tour guides. Maybe in the end, as Jimmy Stewart says at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, ‘When truth becomes legend, print the legend.’

Oscar Ameringer and the Life and Deeds of Uncle Sam

Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich by promising to protect each from the other.

We seem to be going through a phase of extreme cynicism about politics and politicians, so I’d like to introduce a delightful author and, by all accounts, a very nice man.

Oscar Ameringer was born in a small town in Bavaria in 1870, and brought up in a conservative Lutheran household.  He had a talent for painting and music.  His father was a master craftsman, and young Oscar learned furniture making from him, but in the 1880s, industrial production was taking over traditional craftsmanship.

One after the other, guild masters gave up the ghost [and] were sucked into factories… I never minded learning the furniture trade… There is something fascinatingly creative about helping a dead piece of wood evolve into a thing of beauty and service to man.  But young as I was, I foresaw the end of the golden age of handicraft.

Oscar left for America 8 months before his 16th birthday – to seek his fortune, but also to avoid call up for military service. Continue reading