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7th October, 2015

Lives and Loves in the South Pacific: Queer Soldiers in the Allied Forces, 1939-45

Event Details

7th October, 2015
17.30 - 19.30
Virginia Woolf Building 22 Kingsway King's College London

The King’s American Studies Research Group welcomes Dr Yorick Smaal at their first research seminar session this year.

Dr Yorick Smaal is an Australian historian and postdoctoral fellow at CEPS. He previously taught at the University of Queensland. Yorick has particular interests in sex and gender, war and society, and the law and criminal justice system. He is currently undertaking a study of child-sex crime in nineteenth and twentieth century Queensland, the first substantial longitudinal historical project of its kind in any Australian jurisdiction. Yorick is also working on two other projects: homosexuality and Army management; and models of sexual identity in Queensland in WWII. This is sure to be an amazing presentation and should not be missed!

Dr Smaal’s abstract

American military investigators in the South Pacific had an especially heavy caseload in 1943. In September that year, the US authorities discovered blossoming queer worlds in strategic forward bases in Noumea, the capital of French New Caledonia and in the town of Port Moresby in New Guinea, directly to Australia’s north. Here, on two islands some 1200 kilometres apart, men from different branches of the forces gathered to find fellowship, conviviality and to cruise for trade among the many young men serving alongside them. Queer New Zealanders formed part of the mix and in Port Moresby, a number of Australians admitted to practising the ‘female side of homo-sexual intercourse’ much to the shock of commanders in Melbourne.

The scope and detail of these queer lives is quite extraordinary. Private parties and select gatherings dotted the social calendar; some men documented these events taking photographs of friends and lovers recording intimate memories of the moments they shared together. Self-described American belles like ‘Sea Biscuit’ and ‘Canteen Mary’ formed part of numerous rival clans in Noumea while the Australian girls in Port Moresby formed a tightly-knit and exclusive social group alongside other Allied troops.

The use of female names points to the vibrancy of gendered identities as a form of self-expression during the Second World War, coexisting alongside other sexual practices and identity. Rank and ethnicity structured lives and loves in other ways. Some officers found creative ways to spend their rest and relaxation with ordinary troops, visiting Black soldiers mixed with Australians and white Americans while encounters with Melanesian and Polynesian populations are occasionally glimpsed among the records.

Sex was a crucial part of the lived experience of course, and the forces provided opportunities for intimacy on an unfathomable scale. Men watched pornography in company, cruised for sex in parks and service clubs; they commandeered army trucks for orgies of homosex, while others created secret forts where they could enjoy moments of intimacy in private.

The lives and loves of American and Australian personnel in two contemporary subcultures at the height of the war in the Pacific reveal how men in uniform forged new beginnings and possibilities, created circuits of thinking and practices at home and forward bases, and employed strategies of resistance and negotiation to live happy and fulfilling lives. While Allied commanders were sharing intelligence on the scope of the problem of homosex and just what to do about it, men on the ground reaffirmed their lives and lifestyles, discovered denied or repressed desires, and discovered their sexual selves among the uniformed throngs.

This talk was organised by the American Studies Research Seminar group and will be followed by a Q&A and wine.

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