By A.J. Llewellyn
Vagabond Heart, my latest release for Total-e-Bound, has been a passion project since I got the idea. It's also quite a departure for me as an author.
Three years ago, I started writing M/M paranormals but this story, of a gay male prostitute working in Honolulu during WWII came to me after I saw a riveting documentary on TV: Sex in World War II: The Pacific Front, in which the lives of 200 women who lived and worked as prostitutes in Hotel Street, Honolulu, servicing US servicemen were depicted.
I'm an insomniac (just by the by) and caught this program at 3am one cold winter day. I kept calling my own voicemail, leaving myself messages since I was too tired to get up and grab a pen and paper and had no DVR at the time.
The details of these women's lives staggered me. I could not BELIEVE that each one serviced at a minimum of 100 men a day, each, and that the men received three minutes of time for three bucks. They were called Three Minute Men.
Apart from being working girls, these women virtually lived like nuns. They weren't allowed to go out to bars, restaurants, Waikiki beach, couldn't ride a bicycle (!!) or a street car. They couldn't ride in - or own a car. They weren't allowed to own a bank account OR send their money back home to the mainland.
What intrigued me was that when Pearl Harbor was bombed, these same women gave up their beds for wounded men and worked side by side in the local hospitals with the nurses, who, initially disdainful, came to respect these women.
I returned to Honolulu last month to complete in-person interviews with some Pearl Harbor survivors, including Mr. Al Rodriguez, who survived the attack on the doomed USS Arizona, which still lies at the bottom of the ocean, its trapped seamen still inside.
Survivor guilt? Oh yeah, he has it. He visits Pearl Harbor's memorial site at least once a week to explain and in his words, educate today's generation about the attack.
I took a tour of Pearl Harbor and was surprised at what an emotional experience it was. I left in tears. Any visitor there starts with a short movie. It felt eerie to watch it surrounded by Japanese tourists. It's a devastating piece of footage shot during the attack you won't see anywhere else.
I left Pearl Harbor to visit Hotel Street. So much of Honolulu has changed. I wanted to make sure the places I wrote about were still there for the two sequels to Vagabond Heart. Some things are the same. Some things are long, long gone.
I was shocked how run down it was and it saddened me. I had my map of the Chinatown neighborhood from way back then with the hotels all listed. Almost all are gone. I also have photos and could visualize exactly where all those sailors lined up to "climb the stairs" to visit their favorite girls as they drank imitation gin, nursed fresh tattoos from the numerous parlors on Hotel Street.
Ironically, a few tattoo parlors remain.
I even heard some honky-tonk, the only music the bars played back then. Hawaii and country music have always had a close relationship.
Some people in Honolulu are ashamed of this particular piece of history and I think this is why Hotel Street is a shocking dump today. I don't see this chapter of US military life as shameful. I think it needs to be told.
These 200 women were the first sexual experience most of these young soldiers had. From the oral histories of two of the men who went to them, I've learned that the women were often maternal and caring and when they could, talked to the boys...some of whom died in battle soon after.
When Pearl Harbor was bombed, these ladies of Hotel Street gave up their beds to injured men and worked side by side with the nurses in the hospitals, tending the sick.
I think they were quite heroic.
I read "Honolulu Harlot", the autobiography of Jean O'Hara Hotel Street's most famous sex worker and I must admit I adore her. She once got beaten up by the local cops who kicked her teeth in. She defied all the rules and bought a car and wound up in the poky.
And yet, she cared about the men and provided a service.
I've interviewed so many people who were in the islands then and wish I could have talked to her but her book tells quite a tale.
Jean O'Hara disappeared a couple of years after Pearl Harbor was attacked. I wonder where she is and hope she's happy, rich and loved. I also wonder how she survived the damage done to her own...Vagabond Heart.