113th Field Artillery Venereal Diseases Investigation April 1918

Matthew M. Peek, Military Collection Archivist

[Due to content discussing sexuality and venereal diseases during WWI, discretion is advised for people under the age of 16, and parents or guardians are advised to consider this post before allowing younger viewers to read it. The views discussed in this post are not the views of the author or of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. All perspectives discussed are based on historical records].


During the Progressive Era in the United States, “progressive reformers and social critics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries identified venereal disease as the quintessential product of a series of transformations in American life in the post-Civil War years including the rapid growth of cities, the increase in immigration, and the changing nature of the family” [quote from “Venereal Disease,” Visual Culture and Public Health Posters, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institute of Health, online exhibit].


The issue of sexuality during World War I was complicated for hundreds of thousands of male soldiers stationed in makeshift or new military camps, isolated from their girlfriends or wives. Social reformers during this period—especially those with religious intentions or backgrounds—equated sexual behaviors outside of the bonds of marriage with all sorts of societal ills. This was particularly addressed at the spread of venereal diseases, which could cause birth defects and deaths in newborns or young children, and expose family members to lifelong health problems.


During the war, “a tension developed between ‘social hygiene’ reformers, who condemned illicit sexual behavior and emphasized education as the key to fighting venereal diseases, and more pragmatic medical officers who promoted prophylactic stations for the treatment of venereal diseases on military bases” [quote from “Venereal Disease,” Visual Culture and Public Health Posters, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institute of Health, online exhibit].


The U.S. military could not ignore the reality that men away from their personal relationships at home would likely seek sexual intercourse elsewhere, and that these men needed to be educated in fighting the spread of venereal diseases. One of the most common ways for the U.S. military—particularly the U.S. Army—to fight the contraction of venereal diseases during WWI was the use of a prophylaxis, particularly prophylactic chemicals. These chemicals were meant to be applied to a man within 2 hours of a sexual encounter, supposedly killing the germs before they could cause infection.


The U.S. “War Department opted for a different procedure. They believed that the only way to reduce venereal diseases was the Army’s use of direct medical prophylaxis. To make sure this policy would be implemented, they ordered that any soldier who failed to get treatment, and developed later a disease, would face trial and imprisonment” [from “Venereal Diseases,” Medicine in World War I online exhibit, Yale University Library].


The Army set up prophylactic stations at local railroad stations, U.S. post offices, military bases, and other public sites frequented by military personnel, in an attempt to encourage control of venereal diseases. If men were sick from such diseases because of carelessness, the thought was the men would not be available to fight against the enemy in war. Treatment of the sick men also ate up valuable medical supplies needed for treatment of other ill military personnel, including those suffering battlefield injuries. Such prophylactic stations were often manned by military personnel who slept overnight in the stations, so that servicemen requiring prophylactics at any hour would be able to acquire them. The prophylactic stations’ agents also assisted in applying the chemical prophylaxis to the servicemen.


As one can only imagine, not every man was responsible or followed the U.S. military’s rules regarding such sexual intercourse outside of marriage during WWI. Military camps saw waves of men coming down with gonorrhea, syphilis, and other sexually-transmitted diseases. The military would investigate venereal disease cases, in order to discipline the men, identify anyone who could be affected or someone who could be spreading the disease, and use the rulebreakers as an example to other servicemen in camp.


When the U.S. Army’s 30th Division (North Carolina National Guard) went to camp for training at Camp Sevier in late summer and early fall 1917, the camp was still under construction in Greenville, S.C. Issues with supplies and living conditions were widespread in such a crowded camp. As the months of being away from home built up, members of the 30th Division—as with all Army divisions—began showing the widespread issue of venereal disease in training camps. By the spring of 1918, hundreds of cases were under investigation by the U.S. Army, which would conduct interviews with the soldiers—taking an official statement that was examined for any lies as to how the soldiers became infected.


The 113th Field Artillery of the 30th Division struggled with this issue 100 years ago this month in April 1918. During an April 9, 1918, report of an investigation into four gonorrhea cases involving North Carolina soldiers Angus C. Wicker of Southern Pines; William V. McCotter of the community of Bayboro in Pamlico County; Lloyd F. Jackson of the community of Benlaville in Duplin County; and Charles S. Lindsey of the town of Lenoir in Caldwell County.


Of interest in the report of how the four men contracted gonorrhea is the various lies that the men tell to get out of trouble. Claims include that they had not had intercourse for months previous to the disease presenting itself; or that they could not get a prophylaxis because the station was closed. Another interesting thing is the way in which the women with which the men had intercourse are referred to in the reports: unknown woman on streets, or unknown woman of streets. Likely, this is a reference to a prostitute, as numerous prostitutes camped nearby U.S. military camps during WWI for the business that the camp’s men provided. These phrases could be euphemisms for women that the soldiers do not wish to name, or else the Army might contact them to tell them the soldiers gave them or spread a venereal disease. The phrase in and of itself indicates the carelessness with which the soldiers had intercourse, breaking Army protocols and putting the women in harm’s way.


These sexual encounters occurred everywhere. The April 9th report alleges the interactions to have occurred in Goldsboro, N.C.; New Bern, N.C.; Lenoir, N.C.; and Greenville, S.C. Of the cases investigated, Angus Wicker was found to be lying about the Greenville prophylactic station being closed, and was recommended by North Carolina Brigadier General Samson L. Faison for charges to be brought against him.


These issues continued for the 30th Division until the men left for Europe in May 1918. Venereal diseases continued to be a menace while the men were in Europe, particularly during the occupation following the Armistice. The U.S. military never solved the issue of venereal diseases among its service personnel, as the situation continued during World War II. It is a reminder that regardless of what individuals did in wartime in the military, they were still people struggling with typical human desires.


You can learn more about life at Camp Sevier for the original units' records of the 113th Field Artillery, 30th Division, in the WWI Papers of the Military Collection at the State Archives of North Carolina.