The Myrtle Beach Bitch

black and white photo, profile of a man in military suit, holding a cigarrette up

Allan Berube

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 16 No. 3, "Mint Juleps, Wisteria, and Queers." Find more from that issue here.

Allan Berube is completing a history of lesbian and gay Americans during World War II, entitled Coming Out Under Fire, to be published next year by the Free Press, a division of Macmillan. A longer version of this article originally appeared in The Front Page. 


Most histories of the gay movement and gay life in America focus only on San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and other Northern and West Coast cities. The South has an equally rich gay past, but it is often locked in the memories of men and women who are only now feeling safe enough to talk about the years before “gay liberation.” 

World War II may have transformed gay life in the South more than any other event before the 1970s. The massive war mobilization threw millions of young men and women from all over the country onto the military bases that sprang up almost overnight in every Southern state. The Army and Navy used these Southern bases to train recruits before shipping them overseas. Many young men crowded onto these bases soon discovered they were homosexual and began to meet other soldiers and sailors like themselves. 

In 1943, two GIs stationed at a South Carolina air base had met so many gay servicemen on other Southern bases that they decided to start a newsletter for their new friends. Because they were stationed at the Myrtle Beach Bombing Range, they named their newsletter the Myrtle Beach Bitch. Campy, patriotic, and naive, these young pioneers had no idea they had put together one of the first gay papers in the United States. They also weren’t prepared for the high price they’d have to pay for their innocent project. 

Two of the men associated with the Myrtle Beach Bitch had their first reunion since the end of World War II during Christmas 1983 in San Francisco. Norman Sansom, a “subscriber,” had told me about the Myrtle Beach Bitch and his war buddy Woodie Wilson, one of the editors, when I had interviewed him in 1981. Woodie, Norman, and I talked all afternoon and into the early evening. 

As Woodie talked, I began to realize that his story not only captured the spirit of gay life in the wartime South, but also revealed some of the hidden origins of the gay press in America. 


Giddy, Swishy, and Gay 

Like millions of other young Americans who served in World War II, Woodie enlisted in the Army Air Corps just before his 21st birthday in June 1942. By the end of the summer he was stationed at Keesler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi, where he was trained as an airplane engine mechanic to service the new B-24 bombers. At Keesler Field, Woodie met a “gang” of gay GIs, including one known as the “tall MP.” 

Woodie remembered well the day he first met the tall MP. It was a hot Mississippi summer evening, and he was standing in a long line of men waiting to get into the War Department Theater to catch the first-run Hollywood movies that were the only entertainment on the base. He passed the time by watching the MPs keep the men in line. 

“And this very tall — over 6-foot-4 I’m sure — absolutely blonde young MP comes up and he would swing his club and he’d say ‘Get up, girls! Get up, girls! Get up, girls!’ And obviously he was a gay fellow! He kept saying ‘girls’ to whoever was standing in line. And there would be lots of giggling in the line and a lot of horseplay like ‘Oh what do YOU want, you fairy!’ But they kept him part of the MP division on that base. 

“So very carefully I started to talk to him one night at the service club on the base,” Woodie continued. “And he introduced me to two or three other people. We all played cards together at the service club when we had time off. And suddenly I realized I had a fast friendship with these guys who hung out in the service club and particularly this MP. It wasn’t sex — nobody wanted to go to bed with anybody. They were just guys who were giddy, swishy and gay. They didn’t all like one another, but they all knew one another. We were from all over the United States. And I began learning about places I had never been.” 


The Female Trio 

In the spring of 1943, Woodie had to leave his new gay “gang” and his “tall MP.” The Army transferred him first to Shepherd Field, Texas, then to Hunter Field near Savannah, Georgia, where he was assigned as a glider mechanic to a squadron preparing to ship off to Europe. 

But Woodie wasn’t without friends for long. “Oddly enough,” he said, “guess who appeared again? The tall MP, still in the Military Police, still swinging her little club around and as gay as pink ink!” And Hunter Field was where Woodie met Norman. 

Woodie first saw Norman at an audition for a musical variety show that Special Services was putting on called “Private Maxie Reporting.” “What we actually auditioned for was the men’s chorus,” Norman explained. “But they found out that the show needed some humor.” So the three gay GIs — Woodie, the tall MP, and their new friend Norman — decided to put together a “specialty act,” a comedy routine in drag. 

The show also had a “Chorus of Girls” made up of local women from Savannah. Ironically, it was the presence of these women in the cast that introduced the trio to gay life in Savannah. Since the cast had to “rehearse into the night” and women were not permitted on the base, the soldiers were put up at the De Soto Hotel in town across from the Municipal Auditorium. “That’s how we found out that the bar was really the ‘closeted’ gay bar of Savannah. That’s where we did our drinking and had our fun.” 

On opening night, Woodie recalled, it was the trio’s drag number that brought down the house. He pulled out a yellowed clipping from the Savannah Morning News and read a review of the act headlined, “Air Base Show Draws Big Crowd. Pvt. Maxie Reporting Proves Successful.” 

“The ‘female trio,’ who almost stopped the show on the opening night, were again received by a roar of ovation,” the reviewer wrote. “Clad in clinging evening dresses, the three drew howls from the audience, which mounted when they returned on roller skates for an encore. Lyrics sung by the three were composed by themselves. Private Sansom was also make-up man for the men’s chorus.” 

“You certainly were!” Woodie teased Norman, laughing his good-natured, campy laugh. 


The Gossipy Bitch 

Woodie had to leave his friends again when the Army sent him to Myrtle Beach Bombing Range in South Carolina. A new unit was forming to go overseas, and he was assigned to be a clerk for the officers, taking care of all records for the squadron. 

“Well, who comes along who’s the chief clerk of the orderly room where we were working? The tall MP! We called him Sister Kate by now because we had been the three sisters in the show. So from then on ‘she’ was Sister Kate. 

“Of course, we kept in touch with Norman from the moment we found ourselves on the same base again. And that’s when we formed the famous Myrtle Beach Bitch.” 

From Hunter Field, Norman was transferred to Walterboro, South Carolina. Right after his arrival, he got a letter from his two friends in Myrtle Beach. “They told me they were going to publish a newsletter to come out every month because there were a lot of us gays in the Air Corps.” 

Woodie explained how he and the tall MP came up with the idea to put out the Myrtle Beach Bitch. “Sister Kate and I were two people who had lots of time on our hands. I had met gays in how many fields by this time, like Norman, that we knew had gone off to other places but we kept in touch. So we just started having a ball in the orderly room typing up these things, and then running them off on the mimeograph machine. Of course we were busy all day long, and sometimes into the evening, doing the rosters and all the damned things you had to do to prepare to go overseas. We could come in at night if we wanted to do extra work. So it was perfectly all right. 

“The Myrtle Beach Bitch might have been issued five times in its life,” Woodie went on. “I would say that the first one might have had three or four pages to it. I think we even did little crazy drawings. The second one might have been four pages. Another one I can remember was just one page. It was just a mimeographed standard size piece of paper that was stapled together. 

“We wrote in it that Norman had gone to Walterboro, South Carolina. And we mentioned ‘Ray’ that we’d met in Mississippi, and we wrote ‘Miss Ray,’ or ‘Martha Ray,’ or whatever we called her. And this one went there, and doesn’t everybody remember Woodie’s Brad that he used to get under the mess hall with, we think he’s at OCS in Florida. It was things like that.” 

“It was like a gossip column,” Norman added. “Who was going with whom. Who was sleeping with whom. Who ‘divorced’ each other and were going with someone else. Who had graduated from a Pfc. lover to a captain or a lieutenant. So all of this kept everybody up on who they knew had ‘bettered’ themselves, so to speak, by ‘marrying into’ the officers’ club. And the names were mentioned, either the first name or the last name, or their feminine name that we gave them — Carol or whatever.” 

“It was almost like receiving a newsletter from home,” Norman said to Woodie, “because it was the only communication we had about people we had met in other bases.” 

“I remember us getting it together and having a wonderful time. By the way, with the help of a poor fellow who knew we were both gay but just got laughs and belly laughs from us. He worked with us in the same orderly room. . . . He was in charge of the mimeograph machines in the orderly room. He inked our mimeograph for us. So we wrote in the Myrtle Beach Bitch, ‘Guess what Sister Kate and Miss Woodie are doing now. They have somebody in this orderly room that you girls should see! You wouldn’t believe it!’ He was not gay. He just enjoyed the fact that we were. 

“We couldn’t have had a big mailing list. Only the people that we had met, Kate and I. We sent out 10, 12 copies at most.” “But you can’t go by those numbers,” Norman was quick to explain. “I know when I got mine I passed it on to somebody else whose name might have been on it and maybe he mailed it to somebody else. So it was recirculated. It reached more than just 10 or 15 people.” 

“You never saved the Myrtle Beach Bitch?” Woodie asked Norman. “Nobody saved anything,” Norman answered. “You see, people didn’t save things in those days because we were all so afraid, not only of the service but of our families.” 

“I’d love to have a copy of it,” Woodie said. “There were copies up until 1964 that I knew of. And by the way, Kate and I always kept a copy. That was the worst thing we ever did. 

“Because that’s when the shit hit the fan.” 


The Stockade 

Woodie paused, trying to remember precisely what happened on that day 40 years ago. “The first I knew about it, I was called into the office by my adjutant, and he said, ‘Have you ever heard of the Myrtle Beach Bitch?’ And I stood at attention and I said, ‘Yes, sir, I have.’ He said, 'Do you have any ideas about who has written the Myrtle Beach Bitch?' And I said, 'Yes sir, I do. It’s me.’ And he said, ‘Go over to your barracks right now.’ And he sent for Kate too and told her to report to her barracks. The provost marshall was there, with two MPs apiece at our bunks. And right in front of us, they picked up our foot lockers, took them away and put us into the stockade. Surrounded by barbed wire. 

“The stockade was full of both black and white prisoners who had done all sorts of things: AWOL, stealing, manslaughter. We all had blue uniforms with a ‘P’ on our backs for ‘prisoners.’ We were in that stockade over three and a half months awaiting trial. We were taken out every morning with guards to clean up the beach. We picked up the trash, raked leaves and pine needles, and were always under the eye of a guard. The Myrtle Beach Bombing Range never looked better! 

“The investigation went on slowly. We would be interviewed one day, then we’d work for two weeks. Then we’d be interviewed three times in three days. We never gave them the names of anybody. We refused. We said we didn’t know. 

“Eventually it got around what we were in for. We were GAY. But we still didn’t know what the charges were. Then I began to realize we might be tried for homosexual acts committed in the service — that just blew my mind. I was getting madder and madder and gayer and gayer! I didn’t give a shit. I was just giving hell to everybody. When we showered, I carried on, ‘screaming’ like a queen. The guards kept saying, ‘That Wilson, watch him. He’s our problem.’ I was called in to the provost marshall several times. He said, ‘Will you quiet it down? Quit screaming like a sissy.’

“And would you believe it, they came into the stockade barracks and built two special cells, TWO SPECIAL CELLS, out of two-by-fours around our beds! That gave us just enough space to turn around and pass cigarettes through the bars. We would come out of our little cells in the morning and go to work. We were all marched to eat over at the mess hall and marched back to go to the bathroom but we were kept there at night because they wouldn’t trust us with the rest of the prisoners. We were treated rather good by the inmates themselves. They didn’t ostracize us. But that was the nearest to segregation I have ever in my life known as a white man. 

“The trial — a general court-martial — was quick. We went in and sat at a table. I can remember being nervous. Of course, we were admitted homosexuals. I think from the moment we got the first interrogation, we both said we were gay. But that was the one thing at the general court-martial we were not sentenced for. Because we and our lawyers had stipulated everything. We had them cross out everything that said ‘homosexual.’ 

“So our charges were ‘misuse of government property’ — which would have been the mimeograph machine, the paper we printed on, the typewriters — and ‘misusing our franking privileges.’ When you mailed a letter in the service, you had to write ‘free’ in the corner of the envelope where the stamp usually was. Imagine using your franking privileges and putting your return address on the envelope to send out the Myrtle Beach Bitch! I mean, my God! It’s silly — right there, in ink! We were also charged with ‘sending vulgar and obscene letters.’ 

“And I can remember when it was read to me that I would be dishonorably discharged from the service without pay and rights, I realized that our lark had been really a bad thing to do. I was very upset. I thought the world was awful. I hated being locked up in a cage in that stockade. I felt very humiliated. Yet I don’t think I was ever GAYER! I must have made more wisecracks in that stockade and had more fun. Kate would scream out, ‘Oh, shut up, Woodesia!’ You see, we kept it up! Fuck ’em! Fuck ’em! We were going to hang, that’s all there was to it. We were going to be discharged. 

“Then I was really worried because there had been a case or two ahead of ours during the three months we were awaiting trial, and we knew that he was sent to Fort Leavenworth before being dishonorably discharged. And sure enough, within three days we were put on a train, sent to Columbia, South Carolina, and then straight to Greenhaven Federal Prison in Stormville, New York. And we were sent there for one year.” 


A Little Ashamed 

I asked Norman and Woodie how it felt to be together again after not seeing each other for over 30 years. Norman said, “Fabulous. I can’t get enough of him.” Woodie said, “Seeing each other is marvelous. It was so nice of Norman to say, ‘You’ve got to come to San Francisco and see me someday!’ ‘All right,’ I said, ‘Christmas in San Francisco.’” 

When it was time for me to go, I gave them both a hug and a kiss goodbye. I told Woodie two things: that I and my generation were forever indebted to him for trying to start a gay press that we all now take for granted, and that he had done nothing to deserve going to prison. 

Until our afternoon together, Woodie had never told anyone the whole story of the Myrtle Beach Bitch. When I asked him why, he answered, “I guess I was a little ashamed.” I thanked him for deciding to finally let go of his secret. 

Woodie Wilson died of a heart attack in June 1984 while vacationing in Atlantic City. Norm Sansom died in July 1985 in San Francisco.