Touko Laaksonen moved to Helsinki in autumn 1939 after graduating from high school. Born into a conservative family, the 19-year-old had barely started his advertising studies in Helsinki's School of Sales and Advertising when the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland broke out. Touko was drafted into military service the following summer, several weeks after the end of the Winter War.
Touko first served in the infantry, and proceeded to train as a non-commissioned junior officer. The so-called Continuation War with the Soviet Union started in June 1941 and Touko was transferred to serve in air defence at the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress. Later on, he fought in the war in other parts of Helsinki, for instance at Pajakukkula in the city's Pitäjänmäki district.
Laaksonen was a distinguished soldier; he was in charge of his own air defence crew in Helsinki. The team successfully shot down a Russian plane and Laaksonen was awarded the Cross of Liberty medal, which the famed military leader Marshal Mannerheim personally pinned on the young lieutenant's chest.
Later Laaksonen spent little time recounting his actual combat experience. Wartime involved so much more than just violence.
Homosexuality was a crime in 1940s Finland and homosexual acts could even lead to two years in prison.
The war had, however, a positive impact on the general atmosphere in the country. The residents of a darkened city regarded one another with a little more broad-mindedness. With the presence of death lingering in the air, there was less opportunity to moralise and meddle in other people's business. Everyone had their own difficulties to worry about
Touko has later reported to even have been surprised about the openness of gay life in wartime Helsinki.
"For some reason, the central Esplanade boulevard known as Espa and the nearby Observatory Hill were the number one spots in Helsinki. Everyone was at Espa… I was casually passing through there and started to notice that pretty much everyone were of the giggling kind, and I realised that they must be gay…"
Touko found men to suit his taste at the Observatory Hill, a slopey park spreading around the old observatory.
The said hill had already become established as a notorious cruising spot at the turn of the century: a place for nocturnal meetings among men. The hill was a prime location for the bored soldiers from the adjacent Kaarti barracks who were into drinking and other escapades.
For three years from September 1944 until the Paris peace treaty in 1947, Helsinki streets were dotted with Russian soldiers on patrol rounds.
"Then the Soviets came. They seemed to be purposefully drafted from Siberia, sort of rough-looking guys who didn't speak any languages so they couldn't communicate with the Finns. These soldiers patrolled the streets in pairs and kept an eye on possible riots or troubles. They started to very quickly make their rounds at the Observatory Hill, which was a popular place among gays at the time."
The war was over and Touko was interested in life and sex, not in who was fighting on which side. Many nighttime encounters with former enemies on Observatory Hill turned into lasting impressions in Tom of Finland illustrations.
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Content Courtesy of Helsinki Marketing and he City of Helsinki