Tom Dooley's fall depicted in Shilts' book

April 16, 1993|By Newsday

NEW YORK -- Tom Dooley's medical service among the lowly of Southeast Asia invited frequent comparisons to Albert Schweitzer. Dooley was a charismatic Navy doctor who first treated refugees in Vietnam, beginning in 1954. His best-selling account of the experience, "Deliver Us From Evil," helped earn him a place on the Gallup Poll's list of the most admired men in America.

In addition, Dooley's background -- he attended the University of Notre Dame -- made him a leading role model among his fellow Catholics. He was prayed for in Catholic schools. Indeed, the respect for him and his work was so far-reaching that his death from cancer in 1961 was reported on the front page of the New York Times.

In "Conduct Unbecoming" (St. Martin's Press), Randy Shilts' new 784-page history of gays and lesbians in the armed forces, another side of Dooley emerges: an anguished homosexual who quietly received an undesirable discharge from the Navy in 1956 after an exhaustive undercover investigation confirmed his sexuality.

"His entire life, it seemed, was an effort to compensate for this," Mr. Shilts writes, "and everything good and everything evil that he did can be traced back to the shame he carried over his homosexuality."

According to the book, which draws on voluminous government files, the Navy sought to get rid of Dooley without undoing the valuable good will he had brought to the service for his work in Vietnam.

Agents of the Office of Naval Intelligence followed him on his 1956 lecture tour of the United States, bugging phone calls, eyeing him during airport layovers, picking through his luggage and questioning those he spoke with. They listened outside his hotel rooms when he was joined by other men and sent informants to strike up conversations with him about sexual matters. To one of these plants, Dooley said that he never made passes while in uniform, adding, "I don't, and I never want to disgrace the uniform."

After weeks of this, the Navy confronted Dooley in New York with its evidence -- and he abruptly announced that he would leave the Navy. He went on to open hospitals in the jungles of Laos.

Although Dooley's work was cited by President John F. Kennedy when he launched the Peace Corps, the doctor is offered by Mr. Shilts as a prime example of gays in uniform. He writes: "No matter what the content of his character, Dooley, like millions of others, would always be identified as queer; they were unworthy."

Publication of "Conduct Unbecoming," which is based on 1,100 interviews, was accelerated to coincide with the debate in Washington over gays in the military. An estimated 225,000 copies of the book are in print. Mr. Shilts, a national correspondent with the San Francisco Chronicle and the author of "And the Band Played On," disclosed in February that he has AIDS.

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