Were Asked, Didn’t Tell…Much: Wisconsin Gays and World War II

PART 1: LGBT soldiers’ stories are largely erased or forgotten, but some fascinating and important accounts of life as a gay man in the Greatest Generation do exist.

Camp McCoy shows the typical World War II camp in Wisconsin. Truax Field had a similar military layout.Camp McCoy shows the typical World War II camp in Wisconsin. Truax Field had a similar military layout.

In America’s mainstream memory, the young men who fought and won World War II have become the Greatest Generation. Though the qualifiers are never stated, it is implied that this is the greatest, straightest, white, male generation. Sometimes there are all-too-brief nods to the women who served, and occasionally we hear of minorities like the Tuskegee Airmen or the Navajo code talkers.

Without taking away from the legend of the Greatest Generation, it’s clear that not all have been treated equally in historical memory. Gay soldiers and sailors were not part of the World War II narratives, at least not a positive part, for many decades following the war.

This silence was broken in a big way by the 1990 publication of Allan Berube’s Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two. He based much of his research on oral interviews conducted with gay and lesbian veterans. He shows that despite not being wanted, many gay Americans were still an important part of the Greatest Generation. And some of them hailed from Wisconsin. Reviewing their history reveals not only a spirit to serve, but also some early stirrings of gay liberation.

Bob Neal and Edgar Hellum, two gay men who had undertaken pioneering historic preservation work in the Cornish settlement of Mineral Point, were two who wanted to help the war effort. They wanted to do something “essential.” Neal and Hellum closed up Pendarvis House, where they had served Cornish cuisine, and moved to the east side of Madison, where they got jobs at Truax Air Field, Bob as a cook and Edgar as a stores manager.

Journalist Betty Cass, an early fan of Pendarvis, in her Wisconsin State Journal column “Day by Day” of Feb. 14, 1943, described their transition. They’d been used to serving guest parties of four to 12. Now they were cooking “for a thousand to 1,500 people every day.” There were 500 soldiers and civilian workers who had to be fed three times a day. But, as she quoted Bob Neal, “We wanted to do something useful….” She described how they learned about quantity cooking; not quite the same as the artistic dishes they had prepared for the last eight years. In a Truax booklet the large mess sign says “Eat all you want BUT you must eat all you take.” Bob Neal did such a good job at Truax that after the war the Army asked him to help set up a new cafeteria at another base in Florida.

A yearbook-type publication for the base had a section on “MESS.” It noted, “Without a doubt one of the most important parts of any Army post is the ‘good ole mess hall.’” Recreation was important, too. One photo shows a male dressed as a woman with a long cone covering the nose. The caption reads, “A soldier asks advice from ‘the woman with the paper nose.’ This character, first made famous in Radio Post, Truax’s own newspaper, later went on the air.” As a sign of the times there was also a separate Service Club with a dance for black troops, or as it was called in another publication, the “Colored Detachment.”

The booklet also describes the City of Madison, a “capital city that eats cheese three times a day.” An aerial shot of downtown includes a caption that reads, “This is the area known as ‘the square.’ It is Madison’s heart.” The military maintained buses that ran directly from the base to downtown. That things must have gotten a little rowdy in the city is indicated by a group shot of 12 MPs who reported to the Madison Police for duty downtown.

While no direct connection has yet been made, a study at Truax Field in 1945 of 20 homosexual servicemen who had indicated their orientation showed some soldiers at the base considered themselves members of a local gay club. The study noted the best Madison gay cruising ground was the Capitol Square. That the base ran busses for military personnel to get downtown made it oh-so-convenient. This networking among gays in Madison during the war appears surprising some full two-and-a-half decades before Stonewall.

Allan Berube notes there were many bars around the country that served as cruising grounds for gay military personnel. Among them was Milwaukee’s Royal Hotel at Fifth and Michigan Streets. The website on the History of Gay and Lesbian Life in Milwaukee indicates this was a popular place from the mid-1930s and through the war. Later in the ‘60s it had names like The Stud and even later Club 546, or was billed as Michelle’s. Its last day as reported in Milwaukee’s GPU News was September 23, 1973, when the building was torn down.

There were Northwoods Wisconsin connections for gays and the war as well. In 1995, the University of Wisconsin Press published For You, Lili Marlene: A Memoir of World War II by poet, scholar, and gay man Robert Peters from Eagle River.

Next door in Oneida County was the Rhinelander home of Wally Jordan, a gay soldier of 23. Jordan’s nearly 40 wartime pen-pal letters to James Kepner, then a young man of 19 working in the dockyards of San Francisco, provide a rare, revealing picture of gay life in the war. Jordan was a dreamer of schemes and, by his own account, very socially and sexually active with other gays throughout his service, ranging from an Arizona military camp to North Africa and Italy. Kepner, though having discovered his homosexuality just prior to the start of the correspondence, would go on to become a key gay activist in the early homophile movement and then help promote gay archives to preserve our community’s history.

The Jordan correspondence has been cited as one of the first expositions of efforts to organize gay men into a national homosexual-rights network. James T. Sears in Behind the Mask of the Mattachine: The Hal Call Chronicles and the Early Movement for Homosexual Emancipation chronicles the war buddies’ letters. Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, in Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, quote from Jordan’s writing in 1943: “What lies ahead? Can we incorporate ourselves? Can we first organize into a defensive body to fight for our rights?”

While both the Peters’ memoir and the Jordan letters are focused on the war from the eyes of Wisconsinites, they also reveal gay life “Up North.” Both soldiers had Wisconsin sex experiences with men before going to the service. Peters talks of his neighbor friend, who died while serving in the Navy but in whose “barn one summer I discovered sex.” The mother with her gold star for a lost son comments to him, “You two was friends, I know.”

Wally Jordan in 1943 claims he had been “in the life” for nine years and describes an outrageous trip to gay Montreal in 1939. He claimed that a cousin in the Army Air Force and his younger brother at home were also gay. He also claimed many other queens who belonged to the nascent gay network in his hometown were in the service, “however some of the members being yet aways from the induction notice or even the actual registration are still carrying on.” Jordan, in another passage, writes of a letter from a friend back home who “finally after four years of genuinely sincere denial, admitted his condition to me.”

Jordan maintained enough gay contacts back in Wisconsin that he could write in 1943, “From what I hear, the Homosexual Retreats are being invaded all over. In Milwaukee, seven different places have been raided, 4 or 5 others closed shop for the duration, and a number of others are saturated with undercover men. There are, thank heaven, a few places still open, still free of suspicion, but just how long will they last under the vulture-eye vigil of intolerance Squads.”

Jordan talks of gay marriages happening in the early 1940s. For himself, after describing a crush on a higher-ranking enlisted man, he exclaims, “Oh to be a sergeant’s wife!” Later he tells of what he terms an “informal marriage” he has to the man. Though a bit later he receives a letter breaking their ties after one of them is transferred, noting, “it will be fatal to both of us to spend the duration waiting for each other, as it is damn certain that we’ll never meet again while in the Army.”

While Jordan was having a gay time, Peters was largely in denial. At one point, he claimed his sexual-identity crisis and self-denial was a means to personal growth. He noted, though, in his boyhood a girl would ask him if he “preferred boys.” And he wrote that he admitted to himself his youthful attractions to boys. While the memoir finds male sex offered or occurring around him, no record is put down of his participation. Another soldier whose “tone is more educated than queer,” attempted to bring him out. Peters declared to him, “I’m not queer,” and gets as a response, “It’ll be our secret.”

Peters had his military status changed to a clerk typist before shipping out. Berube has noted these positions were often havens for the gay soldiers and where they could do administrative favors for other gays. Peters also volunteered as a chaplain’s assistant, another role Berube claims was stereotypical for gays in the service.

Peters described being along with a friend in blacked-out London near the Eros Fountain where the friend received oral sex even though the friend knew the performer was a man in women’s clothes.

He wrote of his own attraction to another soldier, the lanky, “well-proportioned, sandy haired” man who dominated his fantasies. As they are demobilizing, this same soldier, who he presumed might be gay, subsequently introduces Peters to his own friend. Peters says, “You could be brothers.” He gets the reply, “Other guys have said that.” And then he is told, “We plan to meet in Chicago. We’ll go to the university there—if we can get in on the GI Bill.” He paused. “It’s a lifetime thing.”

The war would change America in many ways. Gay men experienced part of that change—by being taken out of their hometowns with tight social structures, by being put in a single-sex environment with other men, and by facing an immediate mortality that might make them more open to things otherwise hidden. That some used this to learn about the broader experiences of life seemed bound to occur.

Yes, the gay men from Wisconsin in the 1940s were part of that Greatest Generation and perhaps had more at stake than most in the outcome of the war. Wally Jordan wrote, “My cousin joined the Army to fight and die, if necessary, for our Free Country. But he’s fighting more for freedom of the Middle-Sex than anything else. His idea is that if we lose the war the middle-sex will be lost too, along with everything else.”

Jordan’s expressed concern was that if America lost the war, freedom-loving people would be the real losers. And Jordan personally knew how deeply homosexuals in the 1940s facing constraints needed to be freedom-loving people.

How Great is that dedication and vision?