The American armies war on VD

The First World War offered American GIs a myriad of opportunities to encounter new sexual experiences.  Inevitably this increased the potential for the spread of sexually transmitted disease.  It was therefore not surprising that infections rocketed after 1917.   US Chiefs Of Staff grew increasingly concerned as S.T.D’s became widespread among the troops weakening it as a fighting force.

The American armies war on VD
Posters from the WWI era universally pushed a moral theme

VD was a great source of military inefficiency as despite it having a minute mortality rate, ironically it resulted in a more significant loss of manpower than combat.   For those afflicted, the cure was expensive, time-consuming, and often ineffective.  Statistics showed that for every four battle casualties,  there were twice as many in medical centres on treatment for syphilis and gonorrhoea.  The Government referred to STD’s as “military saboteur number one.”  An anonymous army medic stationed in France put the problem more robustly.  ” A diseased prostitute seeing upwards of three dozen customers a night can do more damage than a 500-pound bomb dropped in the middle of an army camp.”

The American armies war on VD
“Two girls for every boy”. GIs in a French brothel

Just rub mercury into your privates,  Private!

Unfortunately, the armies solution to the problem was both rigid and ineffective.  Its military sought to “victimise” those who caught  VD and employed a system that punished soldiers, who were examined bi-monthly, for symptoms.  U.S. officials believed that a combination of punishment and strict sexual discipline — abstinence – would significantly reduce the rate among its soldiers.  Incredibly,  soldiers weren’t issued condoms; instead, they were given a “Dough Boy Prophylactic Kit.”

The American armies war on VD
Dough Boy” Prophylaxis. During the war, soldiers were issued with prophylactic kits designed to allow him to perform treatment on himself if he feared he might have had sex with an infected woman. The individual packet contained a tube containing 5 grams of ointment (30% calomel + 15% sulfathiazole), a direction sheet explaining how to apply the ointment, a soap impregnated cloth and cleansing tissue.

The idea behind these kits was that soldiers who went out on a weekend furlough and had sexual contact would then clean themselves up afterwards with antiseptics and urethral syringes and creams.  This method was like closing the gate after the horse had bolted.  It was a naivety the army came to regret.  For the first time, STDs were spread to previously unaffected populations, like married women,  and rural towns, where previously they had been practically unknown.

By WWII, the military needed a new overall approach to dealing with sexual health. Advising troops merely to be abstemious and to use non-available condoms had proven ridiculously ineffective.  To its credit, the spectre of physical and moral degeneration among civilians and soldiers alike led to more considerable Government attention to this particular aspect of public health.

Medicine not morality

During the Second World War, both civil and military authorities took a more sophisticated and mature view of sexual activity.  Their concerns were now entirely practical. There was a significant shift away from the moralising way in which VD had been previously handled. Unlike in previous wars, there was no penalty for a soldier visiting a brothel. The army did, however, enforce strict rules on soldiers after a visit to a prostitute. Following each transaction, the soldier was under orders to visit the camp or station prophylaxis medic.  Failure to do so was a court marshall offence, whereas visiting the prostitute itself was not.  By requiring soldiers who had potentially exposed themselves to medical surveillance and treatment, the American military sought not to discourage soldiers from any sexual activity but rather to contain its effects.

The american armies war on VD
A leaflet which was printed on 1st January 1943 and that was issued to all troops stationed at Ft. Benning GA.

So advanced was the United States that by 1941, it was unique amongst the major powers in beginning the war with a coherent policy for combatting military venereal disease. This was in large part down to the work of Surgeon General Thomas Parran who broke down the taboo of talking about sexual health and initiated a longstanding and widespread propaganda campaign against STD’s.  Posters of this period were remarkable for their frankness, humour and educational value.  Venereal disease was now treated as a matter of medicine, not morality.  In this, the USA were decades ahead of their European counterparts.

The American armies war on VD
By World War II poster campaigns emphasised humour, not morality.

So successful was Parran’s campaign that by 1941 army recruits showed only a fraction of the incidences of VD that their compatriots had in 1917. Yet Parran’s avowed aim to make the USA  “the first citizen army in History to be free from Venereal disease” was inevitably, only a partial success.

“Careful you can’t tell who has it”

The reason for this was glaringly obvious.  Treatment of the soldier was only one part of the equation.  Realising that where profit was involved there would always be a market to satisfy it,  military authorities did not wage an all-out war on prostitutes themselves.  Merely the diseases they carried.

The american armies war on VD
Mary Lou. Please meet my mom!

Indeed brothels, often mobile in the form of trailers, became a staple of army camp life both in both the USA and overseas. Advertising themselves as “Perambulating Houses Of Pleasure” medics were bewildered to find over 100 mobile brothels operating within a 10-mile radius of Camp Shelby. Mississippi by Winter 1941.

These small, rural, often profoundly religious communities were suddenly overwhelmed by both the influx of thousands of camp soldiers and scores of dive keepers, pimps and prostitutes who followed in their wake. Some towns like Phenix city Alabama positively exploded as places where prostitution was not only tolerated but actively encouraged.  Secretary of War Henry Stimson called it “the wickedest city in America.” So notorious did it become that General Patton threatened to flatten it with his tanks.

The American armies war on VD
If this trailers a-rockin’. Don’t come a-knockin’

This became a double-edged sword for the army.  Local populations became fearful and aloof towards soldiers, often ostracising them from regular, wholesome, community events.  Bored, and lonely many young men inevitably sought the company of professional women as a result of their alienation from more virtuous local society.

The USO.  An Icon is borne of necessity

Loneliness, boredom.protitution and VD was a many-headed hydra that the army sought to vanquish.  One of the lessons the U.S. military learned during its involvement in World War I was servicemen required additional support when they were off duty.  The USO was founded in 1941 by Mary Ingraham in response to a request from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to provide morale and recreation services to U.S. uniformed military personnel. These went a great way towards creating an atmosphere in the forces were sex was not the sole free time activity for a man.  Service clubs were built near army camps to provide soldiers with entertainment and causal recreation facilities and though the USO cast itself as soldiers’ protection from harmful influences they were free from being the overbearing religious indoctrination centres they had been in the previous war.  The USO’s growth was significant. In its first five years of existence, more than a million Americans volunteered their services to more than a million visitors. By 1945, there was a USO operation in every state.

Hey Sailor. I only brought my sister here for a coke!

Hospitality, recreation and the holding out of a hand to a soldier were perhaps as influential in combating disease as any of the more direct public health measures.   But whichever was the most effective, the result of this two-pronged attack saw the USA record the lowest infection rate of any army in the Second World War.  Figures for non-effectiveness, which had been very high in 1941, dropped to record lows by the end of the war. This decrease undoubtedly reflected the tremendous advances in the treatment, education and social facilities for troops.

For a look at how black GI.s received an unexpected reception on their arrival in England during WWII see my article on

Black GIs battle of Bamber Bridge
Black GIs marching through Bristol UK

American posters of the Vietnam war became  Iconic works of art.  See how they helped change a Nations attitude to war here

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