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June 25, 1995|ROBERT KOEHLER | Robert Koehler is a frequent contributor to Calendar and TV Times

It was called "The Good War," but for thousands of gay men and lesbians who served in it, World War II was something much closer to a nightmare.

Believing that they were part of the nation's massive patriotic drive to defeat the fascist powers of Germany, Italy and Japan, many recruits and enlistees found themselves caught in an anti-homosexual dragnet that sent some to military-run asylums for the "mentally ill."

Far less known than that other dark mark on American World War II history--the detention camps for Japanese-American citizens--the gay and lesbian round-up at the height of World War II is one of those hidden corners of history in which documentary filmmaker Arthur Dong specializes. His film, "Coming Out Under Fire," care of the Independent Television Service, airs Wednesday in prime time on KCET.

Like his fine 1989 work, "Forbidden City U.S.A.," which explored the struggles of Asian-Americans in show business, Dong humanizes formerly obscure stories of outcasts in "Coming Out," which won a 1994 Sundance Festival award for technical distinction. He bookends this story with clips of the 1993 gays-in-the-military controversy, a political maelstrom that is still fundamentally unresolved.

"I like to look at social history through human lives," says Dong, peering out a window at his Mt. Washington home. "This interests me much more than documenting research. The key theme in the film is how our government makes policies that affect whole classes of citizens."

Though he may deliberately place the research element in the background of his films, Dong greatly depended on the years of research and interviews conducted by author Allan Berube for his book "Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II."

"It's not really overt in 'Forbidden City,' but if you know what to look for, you can tell that it was made by a gay documentary maker," says Dong. "Allan saw this right away, so we had instant rapport."

Scattered among the book's many sources are the gay and lesbian veterans who decided to step forward and talk to Dong on-camera ("It's one thing for them to talk with Allan over the phone, and something else to speak facing a camera"). Their stories make up the bulk of the film's narrative, and their experiences vary as much as the men and women themselves.

Bruce Lee, for instance, felt the twin brunt of being black and gay as an Army Air Corps intelligence clerk. U.S. Marine Tom Reddy, with a knack for entertainment, performed in drag to the delight of soldiers on the front lines. Women's Army Corps radio technician Phyllis Abry--filmed months before she died of cancer--was such a model of the female ideal in the war effort that she was photographed for Army publicity purposes at work with a fellow WAC named Mildred, who also happened to be Abry's secret lover.

Because of military prohibition of any sexual activity other than heterosexual, "you had to form relationships very discreetly and privately," says another of the film's eyewitnesses, WAVES vet Sarah Davis, in a recent interview by phone from San Francisco. "We used to go to the bars open to lesbians, and hug and kiss and so on, but we had to keep things under control. And we definitely couldn't acknowledge commanding officers who might be lesbian, because you could get into big trouble."

After U.S. military ranks swelled to 10 million by the middle of the war, authorities realized that any effort at pre-screening had failed, and that an unknown number of gays and lesbians were in uniform. Dong's film explains how the old policy of including sodomy as one of several grounds for dismissal was useless in this new army of men and women.

"Everyone wanted to join the war effort," says Dong, "and gay men preferred concealing their sexual orientation to their commanders rather than bow out of the fight, and have the folks back home ask why they weren't in the service."

New military codes devised during the war, though, cast a wider net in the hunt. Grounded in the era's belief that homosexuality was a psychological deviancy, the new policy resulted in thousands of arrests of "undesirables." Dong's film includes stark images of cage-like stockades for gays.

Retired psychology professor Stuart Loomis, who began the war as a Navy sharpshooter and ended it as a psychological assistant, tells of the intensified pressure felt by gays in his medical unit: "We had heard rumors of arrests at other posts. There was a chilling effect, because we felt that authorities could appear at any time and ask about people's private lives. The captain I answered to was gay and very closeted, but even he was very worried."

Davis, who describes to Dong how her "spirit was broken" by the intimidating interrogations of her own private life, says that she didn't reveal this to the filmmaker when he first filmed her. "I guess I found it very tough to talk about," says Davis, "but Arthur is a very good interviewer, and he got after me to talk about it. I was very emotional, but it felt good finally talking about it after all these years."

"Coming Out Under Fire" airs Wednesday at 8 p.m. on KCET.

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