It’s nice to see that tweet from President Trump that “America will NOT be cutting funding” for the GI daily Stars and Stripes. He was responding to reports that Pentagon budgeteers were going to shut the paper down by the end of September for the lack of $15 million. Even Congress protested.
I’m not here to plump for subsidies for Stripes, even though it ranks among the greatest newspapers of all time. If the government doesn’t want to support the paper, my instinct would be to see if a private owner can make a go of it. Rather, my purpose is simply to savor Stars and Stripes.
During World War II, some wag supposedly quipped that Stripes was where the brass assigned those GIs who, if left to the regular Army, would contribute to the Allied defeat. It was a wry libel. Stripes was always plenty patriotic, but also independent, in the newspapermanly way.
The tradition that the paper would be reported and edited by enlisted men goes back, legend has it, to World War I. That’s when the sergeant who was its managing editor got arrested in an argument over a comma—or, one version has it, for getting scooped by the Paris Herald. The officer who precipitated that catastrophe quickly realized his error, and freed the sergeant to get the paper out.
The sergeant was Harold Wallace Ross, who, no doubt finding postwar journalism weak tea, went on to found the New Yorker.
Stripes’ most famous figure was its World War II cartoonist, Bill Mauldin, who created the archetypical GIs Willie and Joe. Those two hapless heroes exemplified the American grit that won the war. “I can’t git no lower, Willie,” Joe calls out in one strip, as he hugs the ground under fire. “Me buttons is in th’ way.”
Another classic shows Willie and Joe helping lead a group of prisoners through the rain and mud. The caption: “Fresh-spirited American troops, flushed with victory, are bringing in thousands of hungry, ragged, battle-weary prisoners. (News Item).” The gag is that Willie and Joe are themselves so ragged and battle-weary that it is hard to distinguish them from their prisoners. In 1945, that won Mauldin the Pulitzer Prize.
My own time on Stripes was during the war in Vietnam, where I served as a combat reporter. I’ve never been in a newsroom I didn’t love, but it would be hard to beat the band that covered the war for Stripes.
One was an unassuming GI named Bill Toliver, who in civilian life had studied botany. One day in Saigon, he received a letter from his professor asking for help finding a rare—and poisonous—yellow flower that grows only in the remote Central Highlands of Vietnam. Spec. 4 Toliver borrowed a flower press from the University of Saigon and disappeared into the most dangerous hills in Vietnam. After a week of silence, we were preparing to report Spec. 4 Toliver missing in action when he walked into the bureau and proudly produced the poisonous petals. Stripes ran the story under the heading “Combat Botanist.”
Stripes had the best headline writers I’ve ever encountered. One classic ran over a story about a conscientious objector medic—a religious Christian—who refused a weapon as he was lowered into combat to rescue any survivors from a downed chopper. The unarmed medic managed to get the wounded out, but when it came time to lift him out, he waved away his own chopper because it was coming under fire. Alone on the jungle floor, surrounded by the enemy, he could hear bamboo on fire going “pop, pop, pop.”
What did he do? He kept “praying that Jesus Christ’s will be done.” His buddies came back to rescue him. Stripes ran out the story under the headline: “Trapped Pacifist GI Sticks to His ‘Guns.’ ”
My favorite example of the spirit of Stripes involves two of its GI reporters, Spec. 4 Jack Fuller and Spec. 5 Phil McCombs. When U.S. and South Vietnamese forces plunged into an area of Cambodia known as the Parrot’s Beak, they grabbed a station wagon from Stripes’ circulation department and raced to the border in pursuit of American armor. Once inside Cambodia, though, they were met with an ominous sign—everything was deserted. They pressed on until they encountered, in a bombed-out village, an American officer poring over a map. He would answer no questions.
Finally, Spec. 5 McCombs asked, “How far can we go until someone kills us?” The preoccupied officer appeared to be doing the math in his head. “Eight klicks,” he said, finally. The reporters jumped back into their station wagon and drove until they caught up with the American tanks—12 kilometers up the road.
That was the spirit of Stripes. The paper may have had its brushes with the brass and budgeteers over the years. In covering for American GIs their own astounding story, though, Stripes always went the extra klick.
Mr. Lipsky is editor of the New York Sun. As an enlisted man in the Army, he served on Stripes in Vietnam, 1970-71.
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