My husband and I spent the weekend with his father and stepmother on the Connecticut coast. While we were there, C helped his father construct a model of a sculpture that, when built, is going to be very large and will occupy one of the public spaces in their town on the coast. Later, at a meal, C and his father talked about the past, about C’s childhood, about when he came out, and what that had been like for him. At another point, C’s father and I talked about the president’s opening to Cuba and what Cuba had meant to Americans, particularly black Americans. We talked about The Wretched of the Earth (1963), by Frantz Fanon, and about Huey Newton, about Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael, some of whom had gone to Cuba and about what they had learned there. It seems, in our conversations, we sometimes drift back to things that happened a long time ago, even while we are in the midst of living in the present and dealing with its demands.
I have just finished reading a novel that someone on the web told me about. It is about a period of the collective life of gay people that hasn’t been the subject of many novels. It’s called Wingmen, by Ensan Case, and it is about Navy fighter pilots during World War II. Specifically, it is about two of these fighters who fall in love, how they do that, and then how they try to survive in a world in which two men falling in love is a very dangerous thing, almost as dangerous as going up in the sky in little planes and fighting Japanese fighters.
Lieutenant Commander Jack Hardigan was at Midway and Guadalcanal and other major battles in the Pacific, in his early thirties, and is an accomplished pilot and the leader of the new fighter squadron. He’s the best there is. He’s handsome and the other men seem to like him. Ensign Fred Trusteau, who is twenty-one, has yet to prove himself. At the beginning of the novel he is assigned to Hardigan’s squad and quickly proves himself at cards, at screwing women (“‘Seventeen minutes!’ someone whispered, awestruck.”) and at flying. There is a lot of air combat in this novel—four or five large battles between American aircraft and Japanese aircraft—from which we learn how dependent the pilots are on each other and how important a good squadron leader is to the survival of the other pilots. Soon, Ensign Trusteau becomes the wingman of Lt. Commander Hardigan.
From here on, they are together all the time—in battles in the sky, in the ready room between battles, in the ward room, in bars downtown and in the base officer’s quarters on the base. When they’re not flying, they’re in bars on Oahu chasing girls or in Honolulu getting drunk. Trusteau is shot down twice, both times over water, and Hardigan at least once, also over water, and the danger for these two men—and for all the other pilots—increases as the book progresses. Trusteau begins to have wet dreams about Hardigan. One thing that’s hard between them is that they don’t know what is happening. What do these feelings mean? “‘All this time, and all these things we’ve done together,’ he thought, ‘And still it eludes me.’” It’s 1943, and they don’t know. They have no experience with men who have sexual thoughts about other men. None.
Another pilot, the Executive Officer of the Squad, a man riven with jealousy and envy, sees the two men together and suspects something, but doesn’t know what to do to expose these two respected and admired men.
Trusteau is promoted, wins a medal, is promoted again, wins another medal, achieves five kills, and is now an “Ace.” Trusteau and Hardigan, who has been an Ace for years, spend a week in Honolulu at the Moana, on Waikiki Beach, exploring each other’s bodies.
One thread going through this novel is something called the “War Diary,” which is a diary entered every day by an officer of the squadron. Various people are assigned the job of keeping the diary, but they all quit for one reason or another, or are fired. Then Fred Trusteau keeps the diary for most of the rest of the war. This diary includes all the significant actions of the squadron. It is a history of the squadron. Apparently the Navy feels that keeping the diary is a good way to understand where they are at any moment and how they got there.
The novel goes down to its conclusion. I don’t mean to give anything away here, but I do say that this novel fills a void. There are very few war novels about gay men who are actually fighting the war, and it clearly confronts the issues of such men. What is it like on a ship in the Pacific when one man falls in love with another man, and there is nowhere to go on the ship that would allow either man to get away from the other? There is also no safe place where the two men can go together to be alone. No place.
We do know that it happened. There are major books on the subject of men who were in to same-sex sex who connected on board ship. Coming Out Under Fire is one book of history that gathers an immense amount of information about these men. There’s history, but not novels which might have told us what it was like. This is a story that you probably have never read before. That makes it interesting, and it makes it important.
The title is Wingmen. It’s by Ensan Case. I’ve never read anything like it. Men whose lives are divided between warfare in planes over the Pacific and who are also falling in love with each other and so fighting the culture they lived in.