Over the course of its near hundred-year history, the song “My Buddy” has been recorded by more than 50 artists, from Al Jolson to Barbra Streisand, while also serving as a cultural thermometer from the Depression to the AIDS epidemic. Written in 1922, the song was inspired by the loss of the lyricist’s fiancée, and later, through recordings by Harry James, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Kaye and Bing Crosby, it became a World War II staple that emblematized devotedness between soldiers.
From Sinatra’s jaunty rendition to the more mournful version sung by Crosby, the popular song with its tender lyrics provides an apt soundtrack for Taschen’s My Buddy: World War II Laid Bare, an eye-opening photographic record of the emotional and physical bonds between servicemen. Edited by Taschen’s “sexy-book editor” Dian Hanson, the lushly produced hardcover offers a glimpse of soldiers and sailors cavorting in the buff and camping it up during a time when homosexuality was criminalized in the United States.
“The working title of the book was ‘Naked Soldiers,’” says Hanson, “which is okay, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. So finding the song was just delightful. Throughout World War II, the government had to encourage the ‘buddy system,’ and this song was repurposed on this great wave of support—so much so that no one questioned the very romantic lyrics. When we asked people about "My Buddy," they would say, ‘Oh yeah, that was the most wonderful song about the closeness of soldiers.’”
Los Angeles photographer Michael Stokes spent years combing through flea markets, military trade shows and ephemera sales, as well as eBay, to amass a collection of over 500 images of soldiers and sailors from around the world (although, when nude, it’s not easy to determine a serviceman’s origins or allegiances—apart from his buddy).
According to Stokes, the majority of photographs included in My Buddy are personal snapshots. As Stokes reminds us, “100 years ago, male nudity was less taboo than female nudity, depending on the setting. In the early part of the 20th century, a group of men could easily swim together nude in a lake or a river, whereas today it is considered taboo, illegal or sexual.”
Many photos show servicemen clowning around in affectionate and near-conjugal poses “in the full confidence of their heterosexuality,” as the book asserts. “They had an awareness of homosexuality,” states Hanson, “but only if it was effeminate. If it was not effeminate, then it wasn’t homosexuality, which meant that it was all right.”
Not that any of the men carousing in the nude at the peak of their physical prowess are homosexual—or, at least, as Hanson says, “It’s important not to make suppositions about their adult lives based on these photographs.” Not unlike the manner in which we withheld judgment of our own college fraternity brothers sharing our beds on the mornings after.