Sidi-bel-Abbes, May 1943: The 39th Infantry was not ready to suffer the shameful diseases…

On November 8th, 1942, the U.S. Army jumped into game along with the British and French in North Africa. Today, it is well known and not disrespectful to say that the U.S. Army at that time, was not ready to fight the strong German Army, and the American success in North Africa were partly gained thank to some incredible leadership characters more than the nearly nonexistent combat experience. But at the U.S. Army Staff Branch 5 Office (Plans), there was one “detail” that they didn’t think about for their soldiers deployed: the venereal diseases…

For that medical issue, the 39th Infantry Regiment led at that time by Colonel William Ritter, became a precursor in the control of venereal disease for the American Forces. However, venereal diseases have always been a concern for the military forces. During World War I, more than 100.000 men were considered as casualties due to venereal disease than to being killed or wounded. Venereal disease raised on the fourth rank on the disease list, preceded by tuberculosis, heart disease and mental deficiency. Researchers and statisticians concluded this was a result of poor education.


Venereal disease was well known by the military staffs at that time, and they kind of prepared it with some naive videos they showed to the recruit while they were on basic training. But it posed additional problems for the Army in North Africa. They had no idea of the size and scope of the problem, and the American military adjusted established policies with a view to improve procedures to control venereal disease. The 39th Infantry Regiment was one of these pilot unit: while assigned to Magenta, Algeria, the Falcons were tested on these new procedures. Magenta was a town located nearby Sidi-bel-Abbes, home of the French Foreign Legion where soldiers had numerous occasions to experiment venereal disease.


After Operation Torch, the 39th Infantry was to enjoy a period of rest roughly for two and a half months. The toughest moment for the 39th Infantry came on March 28th, 1943 at the battle of Djebel Berda, where they had to assault Hill 369. The 2/39th had to cover 47th Infantry’s attack on the hill, and encountered huge amount of losses. Few days later, the regiment was involved in the Sedjenane Valley and lost, again, numerous troops. 39th Infantry’s combat effectiveness was nearly reduced to none, and the regiment was assigned on guard duty in Algeria, allowing them to recover. During this time, the soldiers found themselves in a strange land, one far from home and teeming with exotic pleasures and places. City of Sidi-bel-Abbes counted an incredible number of prostitutes by the time the U.S. Army showed up, and as far as it is known, the prostitution presence goes back to hundreds years.


On April 26th, 1943, Colonel William L. Ritter took command of the 39th Infantry Regiment, after two regimental commanders were captured or killed in April. He, as an combat unit commander, faced the venereal diseases when resting after the harsh time his unit suffered in Tunisia. He appointed the Lieutenant Charles Scheffel (at that time, platoon leader in B Company) responsible to contain and control the venereal disease for the whole 39th Infantry Regiment. One night, Scheffel went to a close down brothel in Philippeville (today called Skikda), a coastal town in Northern Algeria east of Algiers, looking for AWOL soldiers. The madam allowed him to search the house and he ran into a 1st Infantry Division’s soldier having sex with prostitutes. At that time, the 1st Infantry Division was fighting in Tunisia, and this soldier was far from the rear. Scheffel got him to promise he will be back to his unit.

williamritterCol. William L. Ritter while professor at the ROTC

When 39th Infantry arrived and set up camp, the women of Sidi-bel-Abbes haven’t received their usual “flow” of customers. Daily inspections of the American men’s genitals, known affectionately in the Army as “short arm” inspections confirmed what some feared. The sexual activity of Sidi-bel-Abbes became a barrier to keep the 39th Infantry’s combat effectiveness. At that time, Scheffel was requested by Ritter to focus on the regiment’s soldiers. He went to Oran, about 100 miles far from Sidi-bel-Abbes, to obtain the new miracle medicine, which was penicillin. Armed with his new miracle drug, Scheffel established a system and made it work. He visited every company commander in the regiment to collect money that would go to a particular activity or cause. He attained three thousand dollars and established a regulated US Army bordello.


The plan was to have registered prostitutes inside the Army, supported by prophylactic stations, with disciplinary actions on soldiers who don’t perform pre coitus and post coitus cleansing routines. Moreover, such a organized system would avoid the chances a rape might occur. Charles found a five story hotel that was doubling as a bordello in which two dozen women serviced French officers. He offered the women three thousand dollars and negotiated with the madam. With the house secured, the logistical side needed to be attended to. He procured trucks to bring 1200 soldiers from Magenta to Sidi-bel-Abbes, and soldiers then caught word of a bordello being established for them. Scheffel organized three round trips per day, while two dozen of women could service ten or twelve men a day. Scheffel created a ticket system where he developed little red tickets that were treated as ones pass into the bordello. Finally, the introduction of penicillin was the most important aspect of the operation, along with genital inspection and prophylaxis stations. Military police was also an integral part of the operation. The MPs set up a barricade of concertina wire on front of the house, which provided security around the house, and kept the men in line.

charlesscheffel1Charles Scheffel, then 1st Lieutenant, who was at that time platoon leader of B Company, affected to the Venereal Disease control for his regiment

Venereal disease cases in the 39th Infantry went down according to Scheffel’s account. Most important to solving the initial problem which created the need of this organizing system was the penicillin. Scheffel has done his job. He had confronted a problem that was serious one to the fighting integrity of his unit. The men were energized realizing the penicillin would cure their issue. He utilized the resources he had, and integrated a new way of fighting venereal disease. By setting up a quota system that was highly regulated, he was able to tackle this one specific problem and return his unit to a level of acceptable combat readiness. Colonel William Ritter acknowledged is success.