When I was young, my church (Richland Hills Church of Christ) and Christian private school (Fort Worth Christian) taught that homosexuality was an abomination to the Lord and that gays were going to Hell. The famous biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah was used to show what God has done and will do to gays—destroy them. After 9/11, evangelical leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell said that God was allowing terrorists to fly planes into our buildings to punish us because of our leniency toward homosexuals and lesbians. My thinking about gay people only changed at the age of 15, when I learned one of my favorite cousins was gay (Paul Barby). I started wondering, “how could such a loving person be evil?”
Our society has come a long way from 1986 when I was 15 and from 2001 when Falwell and Robertson made their hateful statements. Gays have always been part of the human fabric—science tells us that 10 percent of the human population is homosexual. The only country that does not have gays is Russia, according to its leader Vladimir Putin (a remarkable sociological event in the history of humanity!).
For the longest time, our military outlawed homosexuals and punished those “guilty” of performing such crimes as “homosexual acts.” Only in 2011, did President Barack Obama make it legal for gays to openly serve in our military. We, as a society, have always known that gays have served in our military. Why people hate these individuals so much and have persecuted them throughout time is hard for me to understand. The Nazis killed thousands of homosexuals alongside Jews, Socialists, the mentally handicapped, Communists, and a host of others. They were deemed degenerate and unworthy of life (Leben unwürdig). Society has indeed come a long way since 1945, but we still have further to go.
In honor of Pride Month, I want to share the story of a hard-chargin’, and intellectual Marine from World War II who was one of the drill instructors of Medal of Honor recipient Woody Williams, and who was persecuted for being a sexual minority.
I first came across USMC Sgt. Lawrence Pepin in the archives at the museum’s archive at San Diego Marine Corps Recruit Depot. I was searching for educational manuals from World War II and found a very thorough manual written by him on how to educate and treat recruits while they went through Boot Camp. I was taken with Pepin’s command of the English language, his grasp of the past and his thoroughness of exploring all topics from sociology, psychology, history, sex education to the Marine Corps, all of which showed this man spent a lot of time with books and thinking deeply about many issues. He had some of the best marks I have ever seen a Marine NCO ever receive, almost always perfect scores in Military Effectiveness, Neatness and Military Bearing, Intelligence, Obedience and Sobriety. And getting back to his manual, here are some issues Pepin discussed while a Drill Instructor at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego.
At the in-processing, Marines were told by Pepin that in the civilian world, they had freedom to do what they liked. However, Pepin told them things had changed. He started getting the men in the mindset for becoming Marines saying: “All of this was and always will be due to our great American way of living and our democratic form of government of which we will allow no other foreign sources to interfere.” To preserve the freedom they had as civilians, they had to fight Fascist warmongers throughout the world. This required giving up some of their freedoms and turning themselves over to the Marine Corps and its chain of command. They had to trust their NCOs and when told to do so something, they had to respond immediately and without question.
He gave lectures on Japanese tactics, mindsets and insignia. And since Pepin had fought the Japanese at Tulagi and Guadalcanal for three months in the fall of 1942, he knew whereof he spoke. He had been injured in combat and had received the Purple Heart, so when he instructed the men on how to fight the Japanese, they respected everything he said.
And Pepin spent a lot of time on Marine Corps language and curiosities—how to stand at attention, how to march, how to speak, how to call things, how to respond to adversity, etc. He also instructed them on what they should eat and what constituted healthy food—he even instructed them to tell their parents not to send them candy, cookies or gum because “sweets will make you sick.”
And from the volume of material Pepin wrote about the following subject matter, he seemed to be very keen on giving the men lectures on sex education and venereal diseases. Pepin gave a heavy dose of morality saying if they contracted a disease and later gave it to a woman whom they loved, perhaps a wife, then they might her harm her health later if they were irresponsible with their sexual exploits now. “Doctors claim that 80 percent of the operations for removal of ovaries and other organs are due to a husband having had gonorrhea at some previous time. A case of gonorrhea may thus cause untold trouble for an innocent woman.” A detailed description was given of the diseases one could contract from prostitutes and women who were “unclean.” Pepin continued:
“It is to be realized that you are young and human, and being human, you may occasionally fall from grace; therefore [you must] take the proper precautions to prevent serious consequences if you do happen to slip sometime. There are certain things which will assist in preventing venereal disease. First: if by any chance you should be playing around with a woman that you think is producing only for you, remember that the woman who is producing for you is apt to be producing for someone else when you are not around. Therefore, take precautions the same as you would if you were playing around with a whore…the best precaution is the use of the condom, commonly known as ‘rubber.’”
Pepin then described how to clean the penis properly with soap and “sanitube” medical cream. He gave a parting shot explaining this information was given not to be abused:
“Do not think that these preventive precautions have been told you in order…to indulge your lives without restraining…Stay away from free and easy women. Stick to decent ones…Statistics show that all women who are easy contract venereal disease some time or other. In some localities 90% of these women already have venereal disease in some form.”
Pepin was obsessed with talking about sex, but Marines in the past had proven that such education was crucial to have in order to stay healthy when deployed to foreign lands and in foreign ports. Since these men were going to train or travel for months without having a woman’s comfort, it was imperative the Corps instruct them on these matters so that when they finally did have access to women on leave, they do it responsibly. More importantly, this information was useful sociologically because it would be the first time many received any sort of sex education, having come from rural and conservative backgrounds.
“They showed us movies with pictures of what these diseases looked like on men’s bodies,” Medal of Honor recipient Woody Williams said. “Moreover, they showed us what diseases like genital warts, syphilis and other diseases on a woman looked like and I wasn’t about to stick my pecker into any of those.” Clearly, those instructions made a huge impression. The Corps was interested in this matter to ensure that when called upon, Marines could fight without any discomfort from sexually transmitted diseases. The 4th Marines in Shanghai, a unit of over 1,000 men, had a venereal disease rate of 35 percent in 1940, so the Corps needed to educate its men on these issues.
When not instructing men about the Japanese enemy, food, weapons or sex education, Pepin also went over ethics, morality and religion. He wrote, “Remember that there are no atheists in foxholes. God doesn’t want you to wait until you are over there to get close to him, no, he wants you all the time. Remember, ‘A strong mind is a clean mind and a clean mind is through Love of God.’”
After going through the MCRD file in San Diego, I was looking forward to going to St. Louis to look up Pepin’s file in the National Archives for Military Personnel Records, which I did a few months later. When I got it, I was impressed at first with what I saw. He was fluent in French and English, and had had a colorful career before entering the Corps in 1938 having performed as a contortionist, an acrobat and a burlesque actor. He had completed high school with high marks, attended some college courses and was interested in studying business administration later. He had completed Sea School, Scout-Sniper course and the Troop Leaders Course by 1945. But right at the beginning of his file, it was also noted prominently that he was dishonorably discharged from the Marines. What had he possibly done?
Soon after World War II came to end, Sgt. Lawrence Pepin, was found having sex with US Navy Sailor Wendell D. Willey. Both were arrested on 25 October 1945. Pepin’s rank was reduced to private, was tried, and then found guilty of misconduct on 12 December 1945 and sentenced to five years of imprisonment for “Scandalous Conduct Tending to the Destruction of Good Morals.” He was eventually dishonorably discharged and left prison on 21 December 1946 after spending 14 months behind bars (luckily the sentence was reduced and he was released back to society). Although wounded in battle at Guadalcanal after fighting there for three months, having been shot through the hip, and suffering malaria and dysentery on Tulgai, his prior combat service and sacrifices did not help him. Moreover, he was a Scout-Sniper and a graduate of the elite Troop Leaders Course, but even with this distinguished pedigree in addition to his combat record, he was viewed as “corrupting the morals of society” and unworthy of further service. Although he had shown incredible intelligence writing up many of the chapters in the training manual for recruits at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, and coming up with two inventions that improved the M-1 rifle and the gear to take care of it, his intelligent service and contributions were ignored.
Interestingly, his contributions to the Marine Corps also were also significant from a weapons’ viewpoint. At the time of his discharge, he had already received $10,000 ($142,438.33 in 2020) in royalties for a combination rifle rod which could fit into the butt plate of a M-1 rifle and had been adopted by the Marine Corps. Since he was earning around $1,100 a year as a sergeant at the time, this windfall of money was probably very welcome. It was expected that the Army was about to adopt Pepin’s invention as well, which would have increased his royalties to $100,000 ($1,424,383.33 in 2020). So, although he had to leave the service for sexual misconduct, Pepin bequeathed tens of thousands of men with better equipment with which to defend themselves, thereby strengthening the average Rifleman. Although he was a wealthy man, he wanted to remain in the Marine Corps and be “rehabilitated”—even requesting immediate sea duty. His request for re-instatement was denied and he left the Corps, probably the richest sergeant the Marine Corps had ever had to make his fortune in service to his nation as an NCO.
Now the story of Pepin makes one ask several tough questions. Does a person’s sexual orientation make him or her a bad warrior? Well, when one studies Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar or Pepin, one can say no. When I was in the Israeli Army in 1998, gays had had a tradition of serving inside the Israeli Defense Force for decades, but when I was in the Marine Corps, there was a lot of homo-erotic banter, but most Marines at that time, if asked, would say they would not want homosexuals in their ranks—and of course, it was illegal at the time to be openly gay and serving. Now, the law protects gay American servicemen and women, and their comrades have to accept them in their units whether they like them or not. In the end, maybe the major problem throughout time is that anyone different, whether a person with a different political persuasion or religious conviction or physical attraction, has usually always been persecuted. However, in America we value diversity and my conclusion is we have bigger problems in the world like how do we stop radical Islamic terrorists, solve world hunger, enforce women’s rights and defend against dangerous regimes like North Korea or China than to worry about what men and women do behind closed doors with consenting adults. If a lesbian or gay man kills my enemies, then I think I can embrace them as comrades. And as mentioned before, now the law of the land requires that I do so.
I think Pepin was treated unfairly. He wanted to stay in the Marine Corps. He was a proud Marine. He continued to insist on his innocence (sadly, one might add) saying he was only leaning over to pick up a bottle when the police found him performing oral sex on another man. In conclusion, in honoring Pride Month, I think we all need to think of Pepin and whether or not 14 months in the brig was justifiable. What inventions and other services could he have rendered the Corps had he been left alone to live his life as he saw fit just as long as it did not bother anyone else? So, Semper Fi, Pepin. Thank you for your service to our nation.
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