Duncan Turner, a New Englander from Rhode Island, served with the 26th Division–the “Yankee Division”–in France during World War I. Like many soldiers, Turner kept a pocket diary to record brief descriptions of camp life. Generations of American soldiers, sailors, and marines will understand his reference to the “short arm inspection,” a tradition that lasted through the Vietnam era. Short arm inspection often occurred after a unit returned from leave (and its accompanying temptations), and often in the middle of the night. At the sergeant’s order, the men lined up, often wearing only boots and overcoats, while a doctor or medic checked each man for any signs of venereal disease. The ritual often had a military flair, with the men ordered to “Present” and then “Recover” as the doctor moved on. Turner’s neighbor in line apparently failed to pass muster, so to speak, which might have meant crude and painful treatment in the age before penicillin and antibiotics.
At several points in his diary Turner mentions the “cootie machine,” a contraption resembling a large boiler on wheels, designed for delousing clothing and blankets using steam. The army went to great lengths to prevent epidemics of typhus, the age-old scourge of military campaigns. Typhus was spread by the louse, itself endemic to the trenches of World War I. By the time of World War II, the army had replaced the cumbersome cootie machine with hand-held DDT sprayers, applied directly on the men themselves.
For more on Duncan Turner and his diary, click on the entries above.