Sex and the Single GI

Hello Again, Friends!

I hope that the title has caught your attention! This blog by our Director of Education, John Long, needs very little introduction, so I hope you all enjoy learning more about some items in our collection and the history behind them. 



Matchbox cover from the National D-Day Memorial’s
They were, after all, teenage boys for the most part, or just a bit older. The testosterone would have been pumping even in peacetime. Now put them into a war zone. The red-blooded American GI was far from home, deprived of female company during most days (except alluring posters of shapely pin-up girls), understood that tomorrow could be his last day on earth, and universally considered himself no longer a boy but man.

What you got was a pretty sexualized undercurrent to the GI experience in Europe in World War II. It’s not often mentioned as part of our historical narrative, but it should come as no surprise that more than a few American boys overseas ignored the pleas of their mothers and the advice of their pastors when it came to sex. Need some evidence? After the war, nearly 15,000 infants were transported by the US military back to America, often to meet their father for the first time.
Whether they wore combat boots or a sailor caps or pilot’s wings, sex was seldom far from the minds of the servicemen overseas. For their commanders, meanwhile, a duality existed as to how to handle the raging hormones of a 20-year-old soldier taking a 48-hour leave. On the one hand, there was a pragmatic acknowledgement that it was going to happen. On the other, there was the sensible effort to minimize the trouble that sexual escapades might cause.
And so the US Military embarked on what was surely the biggest sex education effort ever attempted to that time.
Flyer on venereal disease in the National D-Day
Memorial’s collection
The primary concern was the spread of venereal diseases. It had been a major problem in WWI, with tens of thousands of fighting men in France incapacitated in treatment centers at any given time. Wider use of antibiotics kept this number lower in WWII, but even so it’s been estimated that over 600 men a day in the European Theater of Operations sought treatment in health centers.
While abstinence was stressed by some of the outreach efforts (“Just because you have the desire is no reason why you must give in to it. Sex relations in the military should be kept for marriage…”), the primary emphasis was on use of preventative measures. Condoms were widely distributed in the military, whether or not the men chose to use them or found the opportunity. Occasionally they came in handy for other purposes also—it’s known that on D-Day many men used them for waterproofing their equipment or on the barrels of their M-1 rifles.
Preserved in the collection of the National D-Day Memorial is some evidence of this all-out Allied sex ed offensive. One flyer features an attractive young lady and two, well, less than comely females, with the admonition “You can’t tell who might have V. D.”
Letter on the back of the pictured flyer from
the National D-Day Memorial’s collection
Interestingly, that particular document survived because a soldier used it as stationery to write home to his wife! Hesh, as he called himself, tells his bride (who must have had a terrific sense of humor) “Since you’ve been sending me all kinds of samples of stationery, I feel obliged to return the compliment. V. D. isn’t my monogram, and the texture of the paper isn’t of the finest quality. But you must admit that the sheets are quite colorful besides being rare. I hate to think of the consequences if I sent these things home regularly…”

In the end, the military’s sex ed campaign was considered successful, with rates of sexually transmitted disease in the ranks plummeting from the peaks in WWI. Few of the men came home and talked openly about that aspect of their wartime experiences, certainly not to moms and girlfriends. But it was undeniably part of their history as well. 
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