At War With The Stars And Stripes

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There was only one slight error in seating rank here: I, like most correspondents on Stars and Stripes , was a lowly sergeant. By the rules of the Army game I was not supposed to be waited upon at either of these tables, but instead to be somewhere out in the field with a mess kit in which the Spam floated around in the brown gravy and peach juice. One lieutenant colonel—to be on the safe side—kept sirring me. I waited for the inevitable to happen, trying to postpone it at least until the dessert. Finally, after a series of questions, the colonel nearest me asked pointblank: “Are you fellows on Stars and Stripes civilians or soldiers?” I mumbled something to the effect that we were soldiers but operated in the same manner as the civilian correspondents. He pursued: “Then what’s your rank?” Swallowing, I said: “Staff sergeant.” Nothing, of course, happened, the embarrassment being all on my side.

The reason for the confusion was that we carried a patch on our left sleeve saying “Stars and Stripes,” without any mark of rank. This was by design. I recall a meeting of the Stars and Stripes staff in the Red Cross building on the Boulevard Baudin, Algiers, where we lived and worked. Several of the correspondents had just returned from the Tunisian front. An opportunity existed for some members of Stars and Stripes to be commissioned. One already had been James Burchard, a former sportswriter for the New York World-Telegram , who was in his late thirties (most of us were in our twenties).

Lieutenant Burchard and two sergeants described their reporting experiences. The lieutenant said that in order to get GI’s to speak to him freely he had to take his bars off and put them in his pocket; he did find the bars useful for eating and pulling rank for transportation.

As a result we decided to avoid commissions because correspondents could perform better as enlisted men. Most of us did not wear our sergeant’s stripes precisely because we wanted to foster the impression that we were—or at least until discovered—as privileged and possibly as talented as the regular civilian correspondents (whose pay greatly exceeded ours). I always liked to think of it this way: a Stars and Stripes reporter could honestly interview himself and, without fear of contradiction, say he had talked to a GI.

Although Stars and Stripes did have commissioned officers on the staff, they were mainly engaged in administrative duties. A specific difficulty arose when I was managing editor of the combined Oran-Casablanca edition of Stars and Stripes . A cast-off first lieutenant was assigned to us to censor the mail, requisition food, sign pay vouchers, and so on. He had been pressured by a base-section colonel to run that bane of all military newspapers, “The Chaplain’s Corner.” I refused his demand to run it. Several days later our own Stars and Stripes commanding officer in North Africa, Colonel Egbert White, came down to Oran from Algiers and, rather bluntly in my presence, told the lieutenant that the sergeant who was managing editor had final say over the contents of the paper.

In nearly every other case involving this delicate issue of officer-and-enlisted-men relationships on Stars and Stripes , there was no awkwardness. Nearly everyone was on a first-name basis, regardless of rank. All of us were so pleased to be out of regular outfits that we gladly abandoned the normal military way.

Whenever another Mediterranean invasion was in the wind, everyone on the staff hoped to get a piece of the action. Stars and Stripes reporters were poised with different units before the invasion of Sicily, for example. Sergeant Ralph Martin went in with the Rangers; Sergeant Phil Stern, an ex-Ranger himself, took three hundred pictures with the Seventh Army; Sergeant Paul Green swept over the island in a 6-25; Sergeant Jack Foisie started out with the airborne infantry and, in the middle of the Sicilian campaign, was the only correspondent to accompany a small American force that made an amphibious attack seven miles behind the enemy lines along the coast of northern Sicily.

By the time the Mediterranean edition of Stars and Stripes had followed the troops across to Sicily and then to Naples and Rome, it had gained the loyalty and affection of officers and enlisted men—Air Force and Navy as well as Army. I saw its importance even to generals when American troops crossed the Arno and entered Pisa.

Naturally everyone wanted a close look at the leaning tower. I went there for a special reason; I was sure that the figures I had seen walking around its upper floors from across the Arno were German observers. I looked for a trace of their presence and found it in a piece of their orange-colored signal wire still hanging down. This, despite their claims that they were not using the campanile because it was church property. I was negotiating with an Italian official to enter the locked tower when, in a flurry of jeeps, General Mark W. Clark, the Fifth Army commander, drove up.