At War With The Stars And Stripes

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In the summer of the year 1944, in a time of world war that is already history to my children’s generation but remains vividly personal to mine as a moment of (in retrospect) astonishing simplicity and idealism, I found myself pointing a jeep in the direction of Pisa and Florence. On the so-called forgotten front in Italy, the Wehrmacht held the northern side of these cities; the line dividing their riflemen and ours was the river Arno.

The big show of the European war was being played out on the newly opened second front in Normandy. Along the French Riviera a diversionary side show became popularly known as the champagne war. Since the German 88’s had not been informed that our Mediterranean theater had lessened in strategic importance, they were still to be reckoned with.

My windshield was down and covered with tarpaulin —any fool knew that glass reflected and could draw artillery fire or even a Luftwaffe fighter seeking a target of opportunity. I was driving along happily and singing to myself because all I needed was in that jeep: a Springfield rifle, a scrounged .25-caliber Italian automatic, two large cans of gasoline, one helmet (I wore the liner as a sunshade and the heavy steel pot, useful for shaving and washing, rattled around in the back), several days’ worth of C and K rations, five gallons of water and two canteens of vino, and—most important of all—one portable typewriter.

That little Remington was the telltale of my military trade: I was an Army correspondent for Stars and Stripes , Mediterranean. Below the masthead of two enfolded flags its only mission was inscribed: “Daily Newspaper of the U.S. Armed Forces published Monday through Saturday for troops in Italy.” Although we were occasionally enjoined to do so, we were not supposed to propagandize, publicize generals, or even inform and educate. Our job was to put out a newspaper as professionally as we could. Although armed, the soldier-correspondent was not necessarily expected to go looking for the enemy but instead to report about the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who did.

As I drove along the seacoast road, noticing the island of Elba at one point but without worrying about Napoleon or anyone else’s war, the parting words of one of the correspondents came to mind. “Don’t forget,” he said, “your job is to get back stories, not get yourself killed.” Two of my colleagues, Sergeants Gregor Duncan and Al Kohn, had died covering the front, and all of us were shaken up when what was an everyday occurrence in combat outfits struck home.

There were stories everywhere. My immediate problem was not to be distracted before reaching the Fifth Army’s pyramidal tents. Ernie Pyle, whose influence as the most important single reporter at home and abroad of the Second World War cannot be exaggerated, had dignified the GI and the “little picture” in his syndicated newspaper column. I recalled having a drink with Pyle near the end of the Tunisian campaign in North Africa and could see part of his strength as an ingratiating reporter. He was skinny, wet, and shivering—a civilian version of the rifleman without rank, and therefore to be trusted.

None of us on Stars and Stripes deviated very much, or cared to, from his kind of reporting. Most of our seasoned front-line reporters, such as Jack Foisie, Ralph Martin, Stan Swinton, and Paul Green, roamed the field as Pyle did, covering not only battles but the “mess-kit repair battalions” (as the stray outfits were jokingly called) that supported the infantry. When I saw a sign that intrigued me—an outfit running a GI laundry somewhere near Leghorn—I stopped briefly, made a few notes for “flashes,” chiselled some gasoline for my half-empty tank, and remembered to keep going.

After getting a tent assignment and a briefing at Fifth Army headquarters, which was located in a forest near a village somewhere between Pisa and Florence (whose name I cannot recall, though I vividly remember a long evening’s talk with the parish priest about the art of the carillonneur and how his bell ringing regulated life and death), I decided to look in on something called an “armored group.” It consisted of a self-sufficient group of tanks, artillery, engineers, and riflemen—a forerunner of the integrated, brigade-size units several chiefs of staff assumed would work for the brush-fire wars of the future.

The artillerymen appeared to be most active that afternoon. They were maintaining their franchise by firing harassing shells across the Arno. I took my names and hometown addresses, listened to the battery commander explain his “mission” in stiff Army lingo, and then accepted the captain’s invitation to try out the armored group’s mess for dinner. What happened next sticks with me as an example of the confusion that existed right in our own theater about Stars and Stripes correspondents. I immediately noticed that the two long tables were divided between field-grade officers (colonels, lieutenant colonels, and majors) and company-grade officers (captains and lieutenants). The colonel directed me to sit with him and motioned the captain to sit with his ignoble kind.