Tag Archives: world war II

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.

Ina’s Story: The Memoir of a Torres Strait Islander Woman

Henry Kissinger once said that he had never visited Australia because he had never been on his way to Antarctica! Or so it is said – I can’t find the statement on Google. Apocryphal or not, the rest of the world does tend to think of Australia as utterly remote and isolated from the world.

In Australia too, the idea of ‘the tyranny of distance’ is  pervasive – there’s something about sitting for 24 hours or more in an economy seat that tends to reinforce this perspective. Yet our sense of isolation is coloured by the fact that most of us live in the southeast quadrant of the continent – the last 5 to 6 hours of that gruelling economy flight is spent flying across Australia.

In North of Capricorn (2003), Henry Reynolds argued persuasively that if you go north, the situation is very different.  North of the Tropic of Capricorn, in an arc stretching roughly between Rockhampton and Broome, there has always been another Australia, one that is multi-racial, with Aboriginal, Islander, Asian and European threads intertwining in fascinating ways, where white settlers were in a minority, though a politically powerful one. That arc passes through Torres Strait, where Australia’s border with the rest of the world almost touches the New Guinea coastline (thanks to some highly inequitable colonial map making).

Torres Strait was always an important, if dangerous, maritime route between the Pacific and the Indian Ocean.  It is named after Luis Vaez de Torres, the first European to sail through the region in the early 16th century, but who knows how many other sailors passed this way in earlier times? It was certainly a crossroads well before Lieutenant James Cook raised a flag on Possession Island in 1770.

Catherine Titasey, Ina's Story book cover

For a new perspective I can really recommend a wonderful memoir that illustrates Reynolds’ thesis well: Ina’s Story: The Memoir of a Torres Strait Islander Woman (2012).

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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

The Feathered Internet

It’s such a great story.  An English man was recently renovating his home, and when he cleaned out his disused fireplace, he found pigeon bones in the chimney.  This was not just any pigeon, but a pigeon On His Majesty’s Secret Service.  Attached to a leg was a capsule holding an encrypted message, sent during World War II.

large-pigeon-message

Seventy years ago, this pigeon was released by Sergeant W. Stott, probably somewhere in France.  It flew across the English Channel, and made it as far as Bletchingley, Surrey, before it paused to rest on a chimney – and toppled in, perhaps overcome by smoke.  It could have been heading to General Montgomery’s headquarters nearby in Reigate, or to the code breakers at Bletchley Park, though that is much further away, north of London in Buckinghamshire.

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Alan Mathieson Turing: where does the Mathieson come from?

2012 has been announced as the Alan Turing Year.  Next Saturday, 23 June, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alan Mathieson Turing.  There have already been various events to mark the anniversary – on radio and television, and there will be a conference on Turing in Manchester this weekend. Turing was a mathematician, a very good one, possibly a genius – but nevertheless, most mathematicians don’t get this kind of celebrity treatment.

Turing’s fame depends on 2 periods of his life:

Firstly, during World War II, he led the team of cryptographers at Bletchley Park who cracked the German Enigma Code, thereby (according to Winston Churchill) shortening the war by 2 years.

Secondly, in 1952, the Manchester police charged him with ‘gross indecency’ for a consensual homosexual act.  He was given the choice of imprisonment, or a series of compulsory injections of oestrogen to cause ‘chemical castration’.  He chose the latter, but he was found dead 2 years later, having apparently eaten cyanide smeared on an apple.  There was no suicide note, and his mother never accepted it, but the general consensus is that he killed himself.

So there you have it.  Two evocative stories of triumph and tragedy, and Turing, a shy and awkward nerd who stuttered and chewed his fingernails, emerges as a hero and a reluctant gay icon.

Alan Turing don't ask don't tell

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Clothes and the stories they tell

Helen [not her real name] got married during World War II.  There was strict rationing in Australia at the time.  Wedding dresses were exempt, but not other non-essential items such as a trousseau for the honeymoon.  Being a feisty young woman even then (and she is still, in her 80s, a feisty old woman), Helen decided to get what she needed wherever she could.

Pellegrini’s Catholic Depot was the traditional supplier of Catholic religious furnishings in Brisbane.  Helen bought lace altar cloths, and sewed them into the lingerie that was considered suitable for her wartime honeymoon.  Possibly the crosses, chi rhos, and other religious symbols on her knickers and nightdresses added to their sexy allure. Continue reading