Recent news about an Army general freely introducing his husband at a Pentagon Gay Pride event brought back some 1940s memories. Military sexual orientation attitudes and actions have changed drastically over the past 70 years.
In 1944, I received duty orders to report to the U.S. Naval Station, Shoemaker, California. As I walked from the bus lugging my seabag, I was met at the main gate by two rifle-toting Marines. A Marine sergeant looked at my papers and barked to the guards, “Escort this swabbie to the lock-up.”
With serious looks on their faces, the Marines marched me through the base to another guard station at a wire-enclosed area topped by a sign: USN Disciplinary Barracks. I wondered what the hell I had done to be sentenced to prison.
As the first guards laughed and took off, two other armed Marines marched me through to a barracks building with barred windows. Expecting to be put in a cell, I was met by a Navy chief petty officer. He sent the Marines away and explained it was a joke they enjoyed playing on newly-arriving Navy personnel assigned to the prison staff. My orders hadn’t specified my duties on the base.
As a just-promoted yeoman, I had been trained in Navy benefits programs, and my job at the Disciplinary Barracks was to counsel those who were completing court martial sentences. I was to inform those allowed to return to active duty about resuming family allowances, pay and other benefits.
For those being totally kicked out of the Navy with dishonorable discharges, I had to explain more serious details. They included facing disgraced lives with similar difficulties and restrictions as those of newly-released civilian ex-convicts.
There were about a thousand prisoners at the Disciplinary Barracks then, each sentenced for up to two years for such offenses as missing a ship’s sailing, absent without leave and homosexual acts. Those committing more serious crimes, such as assault, murder and robbery, received longer confinements at the Navy prison in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
My saddest duties were with those who had been sentenced to prison for homosexuality, to be followed by dishonorable discharge. Some were young sailors, but many had been career Navy officers and chief petty officers before their court martial trials.
After years of service, they no longer qualified for family, retirement nor veterans’ benefits. They were reduced to the lowest Navy rating of seaman and kicked out in disgrace. Not only were service careers destroyed, but their futures would always carry the stigma of the harsh Navy sentence. It was a heartbreaking duty to see those men ruined for lifestyles of what now are accepted by a more understanding military and all of America.
In today’s enlightened Armed Forces, the system of don’t ask, don’t tell opened the doors for gay servicemen and women. As with the recent news about the Army general who introduced his husband, they’re now free to pursue normal careers. They no longer need to fear what during World War 2 was considered a major crime, to be punished with a prison sentence and lifetime of disgrace.