Conduct Unbecoming: Lesbians and Gays in the US Military, Vietnam to the Persian Gulf
In 1956 I was eighteen years old and a Seaman First Class in the United States Navy. I had joined during the summer of 1955 at seventeen and been sent to the Navy’s Radio School at Norfolk. Later that year I was assigned to the class of ship known as an AKA or attack transport. In those grainy old wire photos of the Normandy invasion or Okinawa, AKAs are always visible offshore. They have the classic single stack and superstructure outline of cargo ships but with large A-frames fore and aft. Amphibious landing craft are stacked and secured over their cargo hatches. The ship that features in Thomas Heggen’s novel Mr. Roberts was an AK, a noncombatant cousin of the AKA.
Heggen’s novel catches something of the spirit of the “Gator Navy,” as the amphibious force is called, in the period during and after the Second World War. Then as now, its ships were specialized, their form grimly followed function and they were as plain as dumpsters. The Navy did not generally dress them up in pennants for display. During the 1950s, in the Sixth Fleet’s own Mediterranean, while the cruisers and supercarriers basked in the sunshine of Rapallo and Villefranche, the amphib gator ships were elsewhere: Bari, Patras, Izmir. Much time was spent practicing amphibious assaults on beaches in Turkey, Crete, or Sardinia.
Like hotels, colleges, and prisons, ships have their particular informing atmosphere. And despite the Navy’s mode of slate-gray uniformity, each vessel had qualities that could be isolated and analyzed. To lifers, career petty officers, the first question about a ship was often: “Is she a good feeder?” Eating was the principal pleasure available at sea. Good cooks were prized.
The personnel clerk who typed the orders transferring me from radio school to my new ship was a fellow New Yorker. We fell into conversation and he told me I was going to a problem ship.
“They’re always falling off ladders,” he said.
During the 1950s, discipline in the US Navy was tight and fairly effective. Nevertheless, a ship was essentially its crew. Certain ships were dominated, prison-style, by cliques of sailors—sometimes men from the same tough town—who enforced a code of their own below decks. It has to be said that this was not universal, but everyone heard the stories. Such a ship’s officers might be only vaguely aware of the systems that prevailed in the enlisted quarter. Masters-at-arms and senior petty officers either looked the other way or, like crooked cops, made some political accommodations with the de facto leadership. Certain captains naively approved, seeing a form of rough democracy, crude peer pressure that furthered cohesion.
Taking up my new billet, I was assigned to bunking space of the deck division because there were no bunks then available in the radio gang’s sleeping quarters. At that time, men assigned to each of the ship’s divisions bunked in the same compartment. The sleeping arrangements than consisted of “racks” four or five high from the deck, sheets of canvas stretched within metal rectangles and secured to the bulkhead by lengths of chain.
One day during our first week at sea I went below to arrange my gear in the deck division’s compartment and encountered Flem (not, as they say, his real name), a third-class boatswain’s mate, who was goldbricking below decks while better men worked topside. He ran a little tailoring and pressing shop in a tiny locker off one of the passageways. Seeing me settle in, Flem assumed I was a new seaman in his notoriously tyrannized deck division, thus his inferior in rank and with my fortunes at his disposal. He was a small, freckled man, round, neckless, and thick-featured. With his slack smile and shifty eyes he looked like a lying witness at a country murder trial.
When Flem introduced himself he made no offer of shaking hands, itself a considerable insult. He told me a few things I already knew about how tough life was aboard that particular AKA and how much tougher he could make it. He told me I looked like “tender gear” to him. “Tender gear” was a common Navy expression, dating back to the good old days. It was applied to sailors of youthful appearance, when imagined as passive partners in prisonstyle, “facultative” homosexuality or as the victims of rape.
(This phrase was one of many homoerotic terms current in the Navy. Like them, it could be used insultingly, ambiguously, or good-naturedly as in: “Carruthers, I’m so horny you look like tender gear to me.” A man’s reputation for wit, something useful and valued, could ride on the quality of the rejoinder.)
But Flem wasn’t my buddy and he wasn’t kidding. He wasn’t starry-eyed with affection either. That night I thought it prudent to take a spare bunk chain to bed with me. Some time during the dead of night he woke me up with a lot of prods and heavy breathing. So we ended up fighting up and down the faintly lit compartment. A few men were awake and silent or laughing; I was new, nobody much cared. In those days I was always blundering into fights only to be reminded that it wasn’t like the movies, to be amazed by the strength and determination of my opponent. Although drunk, Flem had the energy of an insect and, apparently, great single-mindedness.
But I was younger, stronger,and sober, my reputation on a new ship was at stake, and I had the chain. I was also considerably embittered. The youthful appearance that aroused lust in Flem seemed to make any woman I had the temerity to approach dismiss me as a Sea Scout. Flem went into the head to wash the blood off himself, cursed me out from a distance, and crept back to the tailor shop where he lived. The next day his face was swollen and covered with welts as though he had landed on his chin in poison ivy. The worse Flem looked the better for me, since every enlisted man aboard soon knew the story.
A few days later, we were off Gibraltar and I went past his shop and he said something to me I couldn’t hear. I doubled back, lest it be thought he could mock me with impunity.
He stood beside the presser, looking down at a blue jumper on the pad.
“You cried just like a cooze,” he said, still not looking at me. I had an immediate anxiety that he was speaking for effect, trying to make anyone within earshot believe things had turned out differently. But there was no one around so I went on my way. Appearances were everything.
I didn’t want to think I had cried during engagement but it occurred to me that I might well have. I didn’t care for the picture the reflection summoned forth, me whacking Flem repeatedly with a bunk chain, weeping away “like a cooze.”
I was surprised by the memory of my difficulties with Flem some time last year when I was about to engage in a public discussion on the subject of sexual harassment. I had originally approached the issue as an examination of conscience, looking back on my relations with women over the years.
Flem and I were not romancing the wilder shores of love, we were acting out an old dirty sea story that must go back to the Phoenicians and has more to do with power, cruelty, strength, and weakness than with any kind of attraction. I’m sure Flem felt about the same fondness for me that he felt for his favorite farm animal back home. Flem today, if he’s alive, retired in his trailer among the palmettos, is unlikely to regard himself as “gay.” I think it very likely he thoroughly opposes the notion of gays being able to serve in the military.
A second bit of reminiscence about my time in service. About two-and-a-half years after the business with Flem, I was serving aboard a different ship, also an AKA. By this time I was a petty officer myself, feeling very experienced and salty. The ship had just returned to the States from a long voyage that had kept it at sea for many weeks at a time and away from the United States for the better part of a year. Evenings at sea or on duty nights in port when we could not go ashore, a group of us, junior petty officers, took to gathering on the ship’s fantail or in the shipfitter’s shop. We were wouldbe intellectuals, of about college age, on average twenty-one or twenty-two. We met to smoke and talk and hang out. We liked progressive jazz and thought the Playboy philosophy was pretty hot stuff.
It was 1958, the year after On the Road was published. We were all shorttimers, a few months shy of our discharges; the Road seemed to be waiting for us. Moreover we found in the Navy an inexhaustible fund of humor and buffoonery. Everything about it—from the hats we shared with Donald Duck to the grotesque locutions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice—struck us as risible. Without question, we got on some people’s nerves. We were presently to learn the nature of the nerves we got on.
One evening while I was in New York on leave and on my way to the Central Plaza for an evening of jazz with my date I was arrested by a couple of plain-clothes New York cops on a charge of being absent without leave. I was not in fact AWOL. Nevertheless I was turned over to the New York military police headquarters in Hell’s Kitchen where I spent several hours leaning against a wall on my finger tips trying to persuade an MP sergeant to call my ship in Norfolk. Eventually the sergeant did, the ship’s duty officer confirmed my leave status, and I was released.
My false arrest had been part of the shockwave from a purge touched off by some incident in the Naval District. Foolish inquisitions and malicious informing were being promiscuously encouraged. Someone had told the executive officer about our gang of malingerers in the shipfitter’s shop. It seemed that we were planning to found a motorcycle gang to be named the Weird Beards. It would have its headquarters near the Bethlehem Steel Yards in Staten Island. It would engage in unlawful activities and actions prejudicial to good order. Its members would carry arms and be dangerous. They would worship Satan, harass Christians, use marijuana, and, conveniently, be homosexual.
This was all amusing in every regard save one—that the Navy in those days was obsessed with in-service gangs and homosexuality and tended, on not much evidence and without much formality, to lock alleged violators in the bowels of Portsmouth Naval Prison for years and years. The report of my being AWOL (based, needless to say, on some fantasy spun in the shipfitter’s shop) seemed to speak most urgently to those obsessions.