A secret history of sexuality on the front Archived files shed light on relationships in the army, writes Andrew Stephens. The war had just ended - Hiroshima and Nagasaki were ashes - but most soldiers in Asia remained on active duty in the all-male environments they'd become accustomed to.
They were starved of relationships with women, so the fantasy of screen idols was an intense one. When someone spoke about Marlene Dietrich, things got steamy.
One of the horny soldiers, writes Roderic Anderson in his memoir Free Radical, said how much he wanted sex. But when someone put on a ''sissy voice'' and said ''I didn't know you cared!
Shower in a ruin, a pen, brush and ink work by Donald Friend. Australian War Memorial Art A few days after this incident, however, those same eight soldiers were drunk on ''jungle juice''. Anderson writes that the lights were blown out, they ''groped each other, paired off and disappeared into the night''.
Afterwards, an unspoken conspiracy of silence buried the matter; no one discussed whether they were ''making do'' or whether it was a more permanent orientation. Back in those days when ''gay'' meant happily carefree, the idea of a distinct homosexual identity was in its infancy. Homosexuality was illegal in Australia and, in the defence forces, homosexual acts were punishable by life imprisonment. The heterosexual-homosexual divide we take for granted today was a relatively new concept - the very term ''homosexual'' only emerged towards the end of the 19th century.
Official silence, a veil of secrecy and even outright disbelief about wartime sex among servicemen has reigned supreme ever since, compounded by mythologies about Aussie diggers and the ''mateship'' legend. Now, historians are telling a different, more realistic story thanks to the release of an army file on the discharge of male homosexuals in WWII.
Advertisement During investigations over the past two years, researchers Yorick Smaal and Graham Willett gained almost complete access to the National Archives file, first released in but in a heavily edited form that revealed little. One of the key episodes outlined in the fuller file is about a series of incidents in New Guinea in late involving a group of self-identifying homosexual - or ''kamp'' - men. The records include the life stories of 18 of these soldiers, who were interviewed by a major after they were reported for illicit sex by a United States defence investigator.
The soldiers' names and identifying material have been withheld, but the file details how army authorities, for the first time, began to tackle the idea that there was a difference between homosexual behaviour and homosexual identity. Dr Willett, a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne's Australian Centre, suspects that the men agreed to tell their stories in detail in exchange for a medical discharge rather than a dishonourable one.
The historians, whose research was partly funded by the Australian Army History Unit, say they had long suspected homosexuality in the armed services was far more common than traditionally acknowledged.
They initially pieced together fractured accounts from novels, diaries, memoirs, oral histories and official records. The accounts include ''situational sex'' between men - ''making do'' because there were no women around, so that ''butch'' men might have sex with ''queens'' with no loss to their masculine status.
This is possibly the case with some of the ''jungle juice'' soldiers in Borneo. Other incidents the researchers came across involved a more clearly articulated homosexual identity. The stories in the National Archives file, however, are different to those other sources: The file, and other New Guinea research material, reveals such things as wild sex parties in the jungle, regular sexual horseplay, and liaisons with American soldiers in old shower blocks.
Some Americans would often take half a dozen Australian 'girls', as they were known, out to the bush by jeep or truck where sex would take place. There were usually about 15 US men to six 'girls' at these parties and it was common for the Australians to have more than one partner a night to keep the men satisfied. Once or twice we went along the beach, other times we went in parties in trucks into the bush.
We had relations with them. While Dr Smaal says the ''girls'' were simply one group of Australians - most likely there were also butch Australians going with effeminate Americans - it just so happens this is the group they have found out about. All the ideas playing out in New Guinea about their sense of self and sense of identity are the same that are happening back in Sydney, Brisbane or Melbourne. It is not an isolated instance. The provost had worked with a vice squad, ''so he knew what he was looking for - the signs and codes of the 'perverted practices' he was seeking out''.
Gore Vidal, the late American author and US Army veteran in the Pacific, is quoted in Dennis Altman's Coming Out in the Seventies, as saying that Australian soldiers ''had a reputation for rolling over on their stomachs most obediently''. This sort of account, including Robert Hughes's reports of widespread convict-era homosexual practices in The Fatal Shore, often meets with stern denial along the lines of ''there were no poofters in the armed services''.
This, remarkably, was not the case in New Guinea. Dr Willett says the commander of Australia's military forces in New Guinea wrote anxiously to Melbourne headquarters and wanted to know what to do after the US told him about what was happening among the men. When alerted to the ''problem'', the top brass spent several months debating the causes and how to respond, being unsure whether to use legal or medical approaches. They realised this was about homosexual people rather than homosexual behaviour.
It might have confirmed their sense of identity and desire for other men. For some men, they wouldn't be prepared to go back to the lives they were living before the war; they wanted to go back and live with their best friends and lovers. This I have promised to do.