The fleet is in! And so is My Buddy: World War II Laid Bare (Taschen Books), an astounding collection assembled by the excellent smut historian Dian Hanson. We see, in this chunky Taschen volume, hundreds of nameless men photographed in groups, nude or nearly so, by fellow soldiers, sailors, corpsmen, and airmen.
Two obvious questions, neither of which has an obvious answer, leap to mind immediately. Were these photos (at least the unposed ones, of which there are many) surreptitiously made? And just how aware were the photographers and subjects that these pictures are extremely homoerotic?
Well, chances are they weren’t creep shots. Some (like the pyramid pose below) were certainly set up for the picture. As for the candid nudity, there are too many of these pictures out there in the world for them to have been made on the sneak, and a World War II soldier who carried a camera (and quite a few did; there’s a lot of downtime in a war zone, in between the scenes of mayhem) wouldn’t have been able to hide it easily. Moreover, we forget — and are reminded by an essay in the book by a World War II Marine named Scotty Bowers — about the physical closeness that these fighting men lived with. There’s no privacy in a foxhole; showers were rare and often communal, and toilets were open-hole latrines. If you served on the field of combat, you saw other men naked a lot more than you might today, even if you go to the gym after work. As Bowers points out, practical jokes that many of us would now consider invasive — slipping a hand down someone’s pants to tweak his penis, say — were within the realm of just-boys-being-boys high jinks. “Just grab-ass,” they’d say.
Even outside the service, men of that era probably saw each other naked more than we realize. A soldier from a Kansas farm had spent his youth skinny-dipping in the local pond with his friends; plenty of outhouses, and even some school bathroom stalls, had more than one seat; city high-school kids showered in an open room with nozzles along the wall, sans curtains or dividers, daily after gym class. Tenement kids slept three and four to a bed. Most kids — especially poor kids, but everyone — had far less of a sense of physical privacy than we do.
It would literally never occur to a lot of these guys that their photos give off sexual heat. To them, sex was for men and women, end of story, and God knows there are no women in these pictures. But of course a significant number of these guys found themselves at least partway up the Kinsey scale, and had experienced in some way sex with other men, whether just a fleeting encounter or something more permanent. (There are well-documented stories of gay soldiers in the U.S. armed forces going back to George Washington’s army, and the Newport sex scandal of 1919 occurred two full decades before this era.) I think it’s fair to say that most of these pictures were made without the least thought of their sexiness, but that the camera’s eye — as in so many things — reveals something true not only about the subject but about the photographer as well.
The photos, Hanson points out, typically appear in collections of more conventional pictures, and there are only one or two in an album’s worth. Nobody would try to get away with skulking around, snapping these photos every time the guys stripped down — but one? Sure. That funny skinny-dipping photo would just be a punctuation mark, tucked into the album of memories that got assembled back home in ’46. (Nearly all these pictures are anonymous, grabbed from estate sales and eBay and the like.) No, this was — at least on the surface — foxhole bonding, of the type we hear about from soldiers going back thousands of years. As Hanson notes in her essay, when you start a week with 30 men and end it with 15, those survivors have shared something incredibly intense. Military culture fosters that kind of intense relationship deliberately, because it’s about the only thing that makes the inhuman work of fighting even remotely tolerable, and has the mysterious power of making ordinary souls capable of heroism when the time comes. When the guys in your unit matter more than anything, you’ll do what you need to do to get them out alive.
We’re conditioned to an uncomplicated image of the heroic soldier, in formerly crisp, now rumpled uniform, toughing it out. That these guys were not cardboard but human — that they goofed around, smacked each other on the butt now and then, maybe even sized up each other’s dicks at the swimming hole on a Pacific island — reveals merely that they were ordinary, often crude, sometimes ridiculous teenagers. That’s okay, too. We don’t have to exalt them at every moment to remember that they won the war.