Conduct Unbecoming: Lesbians and Gays in the US Military, Vietnam to the Persian Gulf
by Randy Shilts
St. Martin’s Press, 784 pp., $27.95
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 …