Review of Aaron Hiltner, Taking Leave, Taking Liberties: American Troops on the World War II Home Front (University of Chicago Press, 2020), vi + 285 pgs.
They are called the greatest generation. They came of age during the Great Depression and went to fight the Nazis and the Japs in World War II. They were the greatest generation, but it is not just fighting that they were great at.
Just after the D-Day anniversary in 2019, I reviewed another University of Chicago Press book titled What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France, by Mary Louise Roberts. That book proved and meticulously documented, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that U.S. soldiers in World War II were the greatest generation of whoremongers in the history of the American military.
But that book focused on the actions of U.S. soldiers overseas. Now we have Aaron Hiltner’s Taking Leave, Taking Liberties: American Troops on the World War II Home Front (hereafter Taking Leave, Taking Liberties). It shows, in like manner, that U.S. soldiers home in America during World War II were the greatest generation of fornicators and carousers.
Hiltner has a Ph.D. in history from Boston University. He is a historian of U.S. military and transnational history and an assistant faculty associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Taking Leave, Taking Liberties is his first book. And what a book it is.
In between an introduction and an epilogue titled “Postwar Invasions and Occupations,” Taking Leave, Taking Liberties has four long chapters: (1) Making the Military Man, (2) Taking Liberty, (3) Women Face the Uniform, and (4) The Militarized City. The book ends with acknowledgments; a list of abbreviations; fifty-six pages of notes; a bibliography of primary sources—including the National Archives, documentaries and films, newspapers and periodicals, collections, guides, memoirs, novels, and oral histories, and previously unseen military archival records—and an index.
Hiltner sets the stage in his introduction. He reminds us of the realities of the U.S. troop presence overseas:
GI carousing from Australia, China, and Okinawa to Britain, France, and Germany was enormously disruptive. Rape, assault, petty crime, and casual violence became all too common hallmarks of American liberations and occupations. In Commonwealth nations, the phrase overpaid, oversexed, and over here served as a shorthand description of GIs. … The growing contingent of American personnel in Brisbane erupted into conflicts with Australian troops over women and increasingly scarce goods like cigarettes. … In Britain, Americans caused similar disturbances. … Across the Channel in France, troops arrived as liberators and armed tourists but also as persistent threats to local women and civilians. And in China, the Philippines, Okinawa, and Japan, servicemen thirsting for sex and drink repeatedly threatened both local and international relations well into the postwar era (p. 5).
But here at home things were thought to be different: “Many people believe that Americans on the home front uniquely avoided the effects of war and of conflicts between civilians and the military” (p. 6). The home front “has long been portrayed as separate and shielded from these overseas stories” (p. 5). Women were depicted as “Rosie the Riveter, worried wives and daughters, or doting lovers waiting for a sailor’s kiss or a letter from abroad” (p. 6). “Most stories of women and troops on the home front center on teary-eyed goodbyes and love separated by an ocean” (p. 7).
If only that were the case. Instead, “Troop crime plagued American cities throughout the war, and civilians—especially women—lived with many of the same dangers and fears felt by the residents of occupied cities overseas. … Liberty ports became international zones of trade and entertainment were GIs sought alcohol, sex, and other excitements” (p. 3). Nationwide, “the papers filled with lurid stories of criminal activity perpetrated by soldiers and sailors” (p. 8). And worst of all, “The sexual violence and rampant crime were not secret. Everyone knew that troops coerced, assaulted, and raped women with shocking regularity” (p. 9).
What people often forget is that during the war: “Soldiers effectively occupied many US cities. Sixteen million Americans served in the military, passing through towns near training camps, cities along transit lines, and ports of embarkation. … Many of these troops never went abroad. … Twenty-five percent of the army never left the county at all” (p. 3).
Hiltner says that “his book recovers the history of American liberty ports—cities in the continental United States that were profoundly affected by military mobilization because they were destinations for millions of sailors and soldiers. … Recovering this history “overturns the idea that the home front was a protected place, unscathed by the violence embroiling the rest of the globe” (p. 3).
Chapter one contains a very informative account of the opposition to the Selective Service Training and Service Act of 1940 by large segments of society. “The stiff opposition to the draft further delayed mobilization and guaranteed that the army would struggle to train any men it did draft effectively” (p. 16). It chronicles the conflict between army regulars and conscripts and enlisted men and officers, as well as the alienation of soldiers from civilians and civilian life. Eventually, the army became “united more by a sexually aggressive and anticivilian culture than by discipline and commitment to service” (p. 20). Civilian men were feared and despised as sexual threats. They were Jodies (short for Joe-the-Grinder) “grinding away on top of all the women back home” (p. 47). Hiltner notes that “Army researchers became fascinated by the soldier’s obsession with sex and infidelity, noting that fears of civilian men stealing women at home drove his desire to reaffirm his own masculinity and sexuality when outside camp” (pp. 47-48). It is no surprise that “camps that lacked a lively nearby boomtown attracted prostitutes with their own trailers, ready to take men away in ‘chippie wagons’ or ‘brothels on wheels’ garishly outfitted with ‘lush red velvet draperies and cushions” (p. 49). “Smoking, drinking, and chasing girls” with fellow soldiers constituted the “first step into manhood” (p. 50). Before their first time on liberty, “new recruits participated in ‘bull-sessions’ where they talked about ‘women and other fantasies’ or listened to the stories of more seasoned draftees about the delights of liberty” (p. 50).
In chapter two, Hiltner reminds us that because “the vast majority of American men in uniform were stationed in the United States,” and “the majority of men never saw combat,” the bad behavior of soldiers was not “the result of combat stress or a response to the brutality of war” (p. 54). Many of the U.S. soldiers who stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, had spent time in New York for two weeks of “boozing and carousing before leaving for Europe” (p. 56). Continues Hiltner:
Most servicemen on leave gravitated toward three things on hitting port: women, alcohol, and brawling. Civilians were expected to provide them all (p. 59).
All thoughts came back to “women, women, and women and more women and liquor” and “sally[ing] forth in search of gin and sin” (p. 60)
The army and navy set up policies that discouraged courts-martial while giving tacit approval of criminal behavior in liberty ports (p. 63)
Troops arrived in liberty ports ready to get drunk, exacerbating already growing problems of sexual assault, prostitution, and vandalism. Men often hit the bars near the dockyards before moving on to the red-light districts and honky-tonks (p. 72)
Women often found little recourse for this chronic pattern of harassment, threat, assault, and rape (p. 79).
The focus of chapter three is on the women who helped make much of the above possible:
Many women echoed the themes of novels and films when they confessed to being “uniform-crazy” and to lusting after “the handsomest thing you ever saw in his uniform.” Married women worried that they might be unfaithful if they spent too much time with a man in uniform” (p. 108).
Many war workers seized opportunities to transgress sexual boundaries and enjoy the change to date multiple men (p. 110).
Other women used the USO to pursue their own desires. Most USO hostesses were in their late teens and early twenties, unmarried, and quite often looking to meet men (p. 112).
Women were also compelled by patriotism to tolerate the abuses of servicemen. Over and over, single women were reminded of their key role in boosting and maintaining servicemen’s morale (p. 129).
The FBI became so concerned about prostitution among war workers that it directed women’s counselors to investigate prostitution recruitment occurring in factories (p. 134).
Yet, despite the potential threats, “young women and girls eagerly sought out dates with troops.” (p. 108)
Chapter four describes the militarization of American cities during World War II, with a focus on Boston and Norfolk. The troops loom large here; for example:
In booming ports like Boston, servicemen revitalized and expanded red-light districts, creating whole new sexual networks that brought martial masculinity into everyday life (p. 143).
Early war anti-venereal disease efforts pushed sailors out of Norfolk’s established and regulated vice district in the East Main Street area, ultimately leading to a diffusion of drunk and criminal activity throughout the city (p. 159).
But the balance of the chapter is on the actual transformation of cities, “not just by the presence of millions of servicemen but also by the military’s annexation of property, policing, and regulation of businesses” (p. 143). The militarization of American cities is the story of congestion, civilians, conditions, costs, control, cooperation, and conflict.
U.S. soldiers in World War II were heroic, they were brave, they were altruistic, but they were also the greatest generation of fornicators and carousers. Taking Leave, Taking Liberties makes this perfectly clear, but also exposes the negative effects of the militarization of society.