Venereal Disease and Treatment during WW2

Medical troops transport wounded soldiers back to the Aid Station using a Collapsible Field Carrier (Item # 9917500). Taken Winter 1944.

Background:

Since the early dawn of military maneuvers and activities, sexual hygiene and behavior have proven to be a major problem for the Worlds’ Armies, and WW2 proved to be no different. Soldiers on assignment overseas were often lonely, had time to spare, got homesick, or were just looking for female companionship…

During the Great War, V.D. had caused the Army lost services of 18,000 servicemen per day. Although by 1944 this number had been reduced 30-fold, there were still around 606 servicemen incapacitated by V.D. every day. This drop in numbers was partly because of the Army’s effort to raise awareness about the dangers faced by servicemen through poor sexual hygiene, but also because of the important developments in medicine in the area of treatment of the disease. In late 1943 a case of gonorrhea required a hospital treatment of 30 days, and curing syphilis remained a 6-month ordeal – by mid 1944, the average case of gonorrhea was reduced to 5 days, and in many cases the patient remained on duty status while being treated.

Two of the worst venereal diseases known to the Medical Department during the Second World War were gonorrhea and syphilis, consequently the majority of treatment and awareness programs had great emphasis on these two infections in particular. The discovery of HIV and AIDS would not be made for another 40-some years, and so this did not particularly pose a problem to U.S. servicemen during WW2.

Prevention:

The first American Forces stationed in Northern Island (USANIF) and in the British Isles (USAFBI) received special attention from the Medical Department. The units were directed, in cooperation with local authorities, to establish the first off-base Prophylactic Stations and trace the contacts of servicemen who became infected. American units were warned to keep everything as tactful as possible, and to use general terms such as U.S. Army Aid Station, instead of Pro(phylactic) Station. Despite the measures taken, V.D. was to spread among the troops, and even with rapid and effective treatment, including the use of sulfa drugs and penicillin, the cost to the Army was heavy in lost time from duty and diversion of medical resources, as well as being a source of political and social tension between American Forces and their British hosts. This was also to happen in France, after the liberation of Paris, and to some extent in Germany, although this country was by then militarily defeated, and occupied.

An illustration showing a leaflet which was printed on 1st January, 1943, and that was issued to all troops stationed at Ft. Benning GA. (Reference Number: 26386-BENNING, GA., 1-1-43-100,000).

V.D. Control Officers were appointed, special recreation programs were introduced in close cooperation with the Red Cross and Special Services. Sexual education was emphasized and line Officers, Surgeons, and Chaplains gave lectures. In order to improve the sexual hygiene of its troops, the U.S. Army produced a number of documents and equipment which carried messages about sex hygiene and venereal disease. For example matches included in K Ration cartons were often printed with catchy slogans warning against the dangers of V.D. Films and posters, graphically presented slogans and warnings, urging men on grounds of patriotism, unit pride, faithfulness to loved ones at home, and personal self interest to avoid illicit sexual contact, which, as was emphasized, almost invariably led to infection! If soldiers were unable to comply, the education programs urged them to be careful by using the mechanical and chemical prophylactics provided by the Army correctly.

The U.S. Government produced a number of pamphlets which were issued to troops educating them about the importance of good sexual health.

War Department Pamphlet supplied to each recruit upon Enlistment, it explains Sex Hygiene and Venereal Diseases in 16 pages (US GPO:1940 Ref 254247°).

One of these pamphlets was SEX HYGIENE AND VENEREAL DISEASE, printed August 1, 1940 by the U.S. Government Printing Office (as per A.G. 726.1 dated 20 Oct 39, the pamphlet was to be furnished to each recruit upon enlistment). The booklet not only offered information to soldiers about avoiding V.D., but also what to do if they became infected. The pamphlet provided sufficient information about various diseases to allow troops to diagnose diseases and infections without visiting the Pro-Station. The following is the Summary which is offered by the pamphlet:

Summary

  1. Manhood comes from healthy sex organs.
  2. It is not necessary to have sexual intercourse in order to keep strong and well.
  3. Disease may ruin the sex organs and deprive a man of his health and happiness.
  4. You have a fine healthy body now. Keep it that way.
  5. Venereal diseases come from sex relations or intimate contact with a diseased person. They are very serious. Gonorrhea and syphilis are two of the worst.
  6. Most prostitutes have venereal disease.
  7. Guard against venereal disease by staying away from “easy” women. Don’t gamble your health away.
  8. If you do not have self-control then do not fail to take safety measures.
  9. If you get diseased, report at once to your commanding officer. Time is most important.
  10. Will power and self-control help to keep a man’s body and mind healthy.
  11. A healthy body and a healthy mind lead to happiness.

Another major step which was taken by the U.S. Government to raise awareness about the ideas of practicing safe sex amongst its recruits was a series of posters which were produced and displayed at Army Barracks, Hospitals and Railway Stations. Many of the posters and propaganda leaflets were hard-hitting and to the point, similar to the awareness posters of today.

Illustration showing three variations of Prophylaxis (or Urethral) Syringes in use by the US Army during WW2. As can be seen from the markings, this was Item # 38610 (later 3861000).

Perhaps one of the most important steps which was taken by the U.S. Army during WW2 to reduce the spread of V.D. amongst its soldiers was the issue of U.S. Army Prophylaxis. This is described as Item #9118100, Prophylactic, Mechanical, Individual, 144. The Medical Department issued condoms without charge at a rate of six per man, per month, and individual pro-kits (sometimes called “V-Packettes”) at a rate of two per man, per week. Apart from the Medical Department issue Prophylaxis, troops would often purchase condoms privately from PX Stores and other sources. Brands included Cello, Golden Pheasant, Texide, Doughboy, Silver-Tex, Thins, Trojan and Prophyl-tex

Treatment:

In the U.S. Army, treatment was free, but it wasn’t always confidential. In some units it was an Article 15 (Company punishment) offense and in others a Court Martial offense. While a combat soldier might not fear the repercussions, often Military Police and Cooks did. An MP could lose a stripe and often cooks were forbidden to handle food until all traces of the disease were gone.

Illustration showing a selection of Individual Chemical Prophylactic Packets issued to every soldier.

Every G.I. was issued with an Individual Chemical Prophylactic Packet (Item # 9118000), designed to allow him to perform prophylactic treatment if he feared V.D. was present (also sometimes designated E.P.T. Kit, or Emergency Prophylactic Treatment Kit). The individual packet contained:

  1. 1 Tube containing 5 Grams of Ointment (30% Calomel + 15% Sulfathiazole)
  2. Direction Sheet
  3. Soap Impregnated Cloth
  4. Cleansing Tissue

Illustration showing the contents of the Individual Chemical Prophylactic Packet
(Item # 9118000).

In addition to the soldier’s individual prophylactic treatment kit, a number of other medical items were in existence to deal with the treatment of V.D. For example Item #9792500, Venereal Prophylactic Unit would have been issued, along with other supplies to the “Pro-Station”. It contained the following, for the treatment of Venereal Disease:

9792500 – Venereal Prophylactic Unit
Number Item Quantity
9793000 Chest, Venereal Prophylactic Unit, Empty 1
1282000 Mercurous Chloride, Mild, Ointment, 1 lb. 2
1285400 Mercury Bichloride, 250 Large Poison Tablets 1
3861000 Syringe, Urethral Prophylaxis 4
7178000 Towel, Hand 12
7493000 Soap, White, Floating, 6 oz 2
7711000 Basin, Hand 3
7811000 Graduate, Glass, 125-cc 1
7935400 Tissues, Cellulose, 75 8
9120000 Protein Silver, Strong, 100 Tablets 2

Photograph showing the Venereal Prophylactic Unit Chest (Item # 9792500). Notice the maroon color of the wood and contrasting metal banding.
Photograph courtesy of Alfonso I. Casso