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Author's book revisits Plum Island case involving gays in military

Plum Island was once home to a former

Plum Island was once home to a former Army base, Fort Terry, which some refer to as the "lost city." Credit: Newsday/Mark Harrington

The author of an upcoming book detailing the 1914 court-martial of an Army officer at Fort Terry on Plum Island hopes the book will highlight how the Long Island case played a key role in the earliest instances of discrimination against homosexuals in the military.

Marian Lindberg, of Wainscott, said she came across the story of Maj. Benjamin Koehler — whose highly-publicized case is the subject of her book, “Scandal on Plum Island: A Commander Becomes the Accused” — in 2016 while she was reading another book on Plum Island's history and working with a nonprofit to help preserve the island.

“I was fascinated that this historically significant case that nobody had heard of took place right here,” said Lindberg, a trained attorney.   

Koehler was born Jan. 1, 1872, in Galeena, Illinois, into a Midwestern family that later grew to prominence. He graduated from West Point, served in both the Spanish and Philippine wars and had a stellar service record before being assigned to Fort Terry in 1911. He was stationed there for two years and was charged with improving the discipline of the fort’s soldiers. Koehler’s strict sense of discipline earned him enemies among his staff and motivated subordinates to move against him with allegations of sexual misconduct, Lindberg said. 

Koehler pleaded not guilty during his court-martial in February 1914 to allegations that he groped several subordinates. He was found guilty and dishonorably discharged in March 1914.

Though several congressmen and U.S. senators pushed for a memorandum to overturn the verdict, and Koehler’s family hired a private investigator to look into the matte, the verdict was upheld. 

Koehler subsequently left Long Island and returned to the Midwest. He spent the rest of his life as a farmer and died on Christmas Day 1946; he was 74. 

Lindberg spent more than 18 months researching the case and said her findings — including  inconsistencies in the testimony of several accusing officers — support Koehler’s claims of innocence.

Ruth Ann Bramson, an Orient resident who co-authored the book Lindberg read four years ago that helped pique her interest in the case, said Koehler’s case served as a precedent for some of the military’s future anti-gay policies. 

“In many ways, it was a precursor to ‘Don’t ask, Don’t tell,’” Bramson said, referring to a now-repealed law that then-President Bill Clinton signed in 1993 ordering that military personnel “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue, and don’t harass” closeted gay, bisexual or lesbian military members while barring openly gay people from military service.

Michael Kimmel, a retired professor of sociology and gender studies at SUNY Stony Brook University, said Koehler’s story showed “how fragile and precarious is our sense of masculinity, and how the gender police can test even the most decent of men.”

Lindberg said she hopes that telling the story will set in motion the wheels for Koehler’s posthumous pardon and illustrate how the gay community still faces discrimination.

Mary Elke, 72, Koehler’s grandniece, said she is glad her granduncle’s story is being told, primarily to highlight her family’s history for its future generations.

“As soon as the book comes out, I’m putting it together with things for my grandchildren to appreciate when they get a little older,” said Elke, of Napa Valley, California.

Searching for the truth
As part of her research, author Marian Lindberg said she found a typed letter from one of Koehler’s subordinates accusing Koehler of committing deviant sexual acts while that subordinate claimed to have served under Koehler in San Francisco. That letter was shown to the prosecutor and Secretary of War as part of efforts to incriminate Koehler. Lindberg’s search through Army records found that the subordinate officer had never served in California. Lindberg’s book will be released June 2.

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