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At War With The Stars And Stripes
Army newspapers in World War were unofficial, informal, and more than the top brass could handle
April 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 3
The news itself was supplemented by the two most popular features in the paper: “Puptent Poets” and “Mail Call.” Although some distinguished poets in uniform were published, most of the men who submitted poems made no claim to expertise. There was humor (“Dirty Gertie from Bizerte/Hid a mousetrap ‘neath her skirtie”) and sentimental awareness ( This is the bridge. Dante stood in this place/And caught a fire that flamed Firenze town”). Corporal John Welsh III found himself doing little else but handling poetry on the Mediterranean edition; in two years one thousand poems were published, and fifteen times that were acknowledged with regret. In many cases poems were published posthumously. For the GI, poetry was the Greek chorus of his conscience, emerging in language of humor, protest, and even beauty.
The “Mail Call” column, edited by Sergeant Robert Wronker, exceeded the poetry in numbers received and printed. Initially, when Stars and Stripes published a new edition, the managing editor might write a few provoking letters under an assumed name to get the letters coming. What better way than to have a fictional “1st Sergeant McGonigle” demand more calisthenics for draftees overseas to keep them in trim as in the good old days of the prewar Regulars? What a private couldn’t tell his supply sergeant and what a platoon lieutenant couldn’t call a base-section saluting demon wound up in Stars and Stripes as a letter, poem, or article—and sometimes commanders listened, learned, restrained.
Bill Mauldin’s daily cartoon reflected the paper’s editorial attitude, yet he seldom editorialized. “Up Front … By Mauldin” was just that—a greatly talented soldier’s view of what was on the combat GI’s mind but not articulated until Mauldin expressed it for him in a simple sentence. He was in a direct line from the First World War’s Bruce Bairnsfather, the British creator of the “Old Bill” cartoons and the play The Better ’Ole . One of Mauldin’s early cartoons, showing the bearded Joe and Willie in an Italian foxhole, was captioned: “Th’ hell this ain’t th’ most important hole in th’world. I’m in it.” The Mauldin cartoons were not jokes; nor were they bitter humor. Rather, they were sardonic comments lifted out of the mouths and minds of front-line soldiers.
The cartoons invariably heroized the real dogface, often with a swipe at the rear echelon. In a cartoon that caused many soldiers to categorize themselves, Joe points to a couple of soldiers sitting at an outdoor café in France and comments, “We calls ‘em garritroopers. They’re too far forward to wear ties an’ too far back to git shot.” Mauldin’s cracks were against oppressive authority, officer or EM .
Most of the generals—with a notable exception—enjoyed the Mauldin cartoons, defended them, sometimes asked for an original. But the cartoonist really stuck his neck out when he drew a cartoon ridiculing the tight discipline in the Third Army area—General George Patton’s—that included a list of fines signed “By Order Ol’ Blood and Guts.”
An obligatory scene was played out between the General and the sergeant at Third Army headquarters. Captain Harry Butcher, General Elsenhower’s naval aide, who arranged the confrontation, warned Mauldin to please wear a tidy uniform, stand at attention, and salute smartly. The General objected to the unkempt appearance of Willie and Joe; the sergeant said that he thought his characters faithfully represented the front-line GI . The meeting was a stand-off. Later, General Patton told Captain Butcher, “Why, if that little s.o.b. ever comes in the Third Army area again, I’ll throw him in jail.” Mauldin returned to Italy. Recalling the meeting long afterward, he told me, “I was frightened but steadfast.”
Occasionally, in Naples, Mauldin would try out one of his caption lines on me. Rarely did I succeed in getting him to change a word—for a very good reason: his ear had perfect GI pitch. Who could improve upon the cartoon showing two stuffy officers overlooking a sunset and its accompanying line: “Beautiful view. Is there one for the enlisted men?”
There was a special reason why formal editorials were not needed. A positive tone characterized the paper. Stars and Stripes was not an “Army” newspaper—it did not exist between the two World Wars—but, instead, a creation and expression of civilians under arms. A most important influence—more so than any general—was President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who voiced the American dream in language understood by the ranks. The President’s popularity was shown by the soldiers’ ballots in the 1944 election.
The Four Freedoms speech delivered by Roosevelt, the inspiring speeches of Winston Churchill, the organization of the United Nations, were all fully reported in Stars and Stripes . The civilians in uniform who put it out had wide interests and horizons. We were, many of us, fresh from the New Deal years, and some of the sociological thinking for the little man (temporarily called the enlisted man) pervaded the reporting, not only of staff members but of letter writers and poets.