A Remarkable History of Condoms in War
Gene Metcalfe was the last man in a line of paratroopers waiting to board a C-47 that would drop the men at Groesbeek Heights, Holland in the initial wave of Operation Market Garden. As each man approached the hatch, and just before the plane’s crew chief reached down to lend a hand, he noticed a young RAF officer was affixing a plain cardboard box to the front of their reserve ‘chutes. Once everyone was aboard, an 82nd Airborne paratrooper opened his cardboard box and discovered it contained 144 condoms.
Some of the men blew the condoms into balloons and tossed them out of the plane as it taxied into position, allowing everyone to enjoy a good laugh. All the men affixed a condom to the tip of their rifle barrel which would help keep the barrel clean in the event it plunged into the earth upon hitting the ground. Given that literally 100% of the 19 man combat patrol would be wounded within 11 hours of landing, it’s a good bet none of the condoms was put to the medically intended purpose anytime soon.
The distribution of condoms that day wasn’t unique, not to the men participating in Market Garden or to just about every other individual combatant in World War II.
By 1939 condom distribution within the military had become standard issue. While condoms had been around for centuries it was not until WW I that they began to find themselves in the mainstream of army distribution. At the time of World War I there were no fast and easy cures for STD’s and the condom was just about the only line of defence readily and cheaply available. Yet it was slow to be adopted by the warring nations.
The German military was the first to widely distribute condoms in WW I. However, the Germans found it necessary to adopt measures to assure the condom distribution would, in fact, minimise manpower losses due to STD’s.
The German military didn’t assume the men would use them or even know how to use the condoms. They put the troops through a series of ongoing medical inspections to assure themselves that the men were using them properly and were formally educated as to the consequences of contracting STD’s such as Syphilis and Gonorrhea. Attrition rates due to STD’s in the German ranks dropped dramatically. The Western Powers, however, had to learn some hard lessons before they also began the allocation of condoms.
Despite the fact the war had commenced in July 1914 it wasn’t until 1917 that the British military, facing an alarming attrition rate due to the spread of STD’s, commenced the dissemination of condoms to the troops. Lectures informing the men how to use them, and advising such use was mandatory, proved necessary. British culture had yet to embrace the topic of condoms, let alone their use, as socially appropriate. British morality dictated that the easy availability of condoms would promote extramarital sex. Consequently, condom use in England had been just about nil.
When the United States entered the war they failed to learn from the British and shunned the distribution of condoms. The US Army found it necessary to discharge 10,000 men due to contracting STD’s and suffered a loss in the neighbourhood of an additional 7 million man-days to the diseases. When the US finally decided to issue condoms they discovered it was necessary to educate the men as to how to use them. They created and strictly enforced, a set of regulations absolutely requiring their troops to use condoms in the event they engaged in sexual relations.
The Comstock Act of 1873 not only banned the distribution of condoms in the United States it also banned the distribution of information regarding their use. Given the lack of information relative to condoms in general, it was probably to be expected the US would issue very thick-walled condoms and urge the men to reuse them in what may have been a misguided effort to save money.
While it was readily apparent condoms would keep dirt out of a rifle barrel, US Navy underwater demolition teams in WW II found a particularly unique, and deadly, use for them.
The US Navy had invented a series of waterproof fuse igniters for its frogmen. Despite their best efforts water seepage continuously rendered the igniters useless frustrating the frogmen who had, at great personal risk, affixed explosives to underwater obstacles intended to block U.S. Navy landing craft from reaching the enemy beaches. It wasn’t long before a clever frogman realized a condom was the perfect size for packing a fuse igniter, yielding two results.
- The frogman teams enjoyed a dramatic increase in the success rate of underwater demolitions.
- There was a significant increase in requests made to the supply chain for condoms, perhaps causing some supply sergeants to wonder if they were missing out on something for themselves; or if there really was a legitimate reason for the otherwise unexplained surge in demand.
Distribution of condoms varied from country-to-country. Canadian soldiers earned themselves a reputation as extremely fierce fighters, to the point their German adversaries called them Sturmtruppen. Despite their battlefield prowess, the Canadian troops suffered an STD infection rate upwards of 90% landing many of them in hospitals. Australians and New Zealanders also endured high affliction rates.
Some soldiers among the Commonwealth countries apparently considered the contraction of an STD to be a good thing as it resulted in a 30-day hospital stay. There were even certain women-of-the-night who were known to be infected with an STD and as a result, could command a higher fee because the soldier/customer knew he’d be gaining a 30-day respite from the trenches. The Canadian troops were paid a great deal more remuneration than their British counterparts and could afford hotel rooms while undergoing treatment for their STD’s which might explain, in part, their high infection rate.
The discovery that each man had been provided with a supply of 144 condoms considerably lightened the mood in the cabin of Gene’s C-47. Besides tossing balloon condoms out of the plane, one paratrooper commented while they’d each been handed 144 condoms the Brit paratroopers received only one apiece. The levity was much needed as one of the paratroopers had intentionally shot himself in his thigh and had been dragged from the plane, moaning, while leaving an unwashed trail of blood. Though the condoms could protect the paratroopers from STD’s it didn’t protect them from the 10th SS they would soon be engaging.
Left for Dead at Nijmegen, the True Story of an American Paratrooper in WW II, 2019, Casemate Publishers.
To discover more about Gene Metcafe’s remarkable story, be sure to get your hands on a copy of Left for Dead at Nijmegen, available April 2019.