“I do not believe that any one factor could have done more to sustain the morale of the (American Expeditionary Force) than the Stars and Stripes.
– John J. Pershing, Commander, AEF, World War I
“Free press and free speech. These are two great principles we are fighting to preserve. They are among the basic rights of mankind.”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander, World War II
Anyone who has served abroad in the U.S. military knows of Stars and Stripes, the newspaper that serves our Armed Forces and their families overseas. Many others have at least heard of it. What they probably don’t know is that both Illinois and Missouri are inextricably linked to its founding in 1861.
A group of volunteers in Bloomfield, a small Missouri town about 43 miles southwest of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, hopes to change that. Operating with little more than their own love of local history and sweat equity, they’ve created a remarkable museum to recognize the newspaper that launched so many illustrious journalistic careers and embodied the democratic values its military readers were defending.
That effort has been led for the last 25 years by Jim Mayo and his wife. Sue. “It’s been a labor of love,” Jim Mayo said. “The founding of Stars and Stripes is probably the biggest thing that ever happened in Bloomfield, and it’s what puts our town on the map.”
Story begins with Grant
The story of the Stars and Stripes Museum and Library begins more than a century ago in St. Louis, a strongpoint for Union forces during the Civil War thanks to the stationing of large numbers of troops at Jefferson Barracks and in other nearby areas on both sides of the Mississippi River. Early in the war, Ulysses S. Grant, who eventually would lead the Union to victory and accept General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, was stationed there.
After being promoted to general, Grant was appointed commander of the Military District of Southeastern Missouri. Ordered to drive Confederate forces out of the area in hopes of opening traffic on the Mississippi River to Union vessels, Grant planned a pincers movement on Bloomfield, the county seat of Stoddard County and heart of the rebel resistance.
Grant’s troops advanced toward Bloomfield from Ironton to the northwest and from Cape Girardeau to the northeast. Others, assembled from four regiments of the Illinois militia, came from the east under the command of Colonel Richard Oglesby, based at Birds Point, Missouri, just across the river from Cairo, Illinois.
After learning of the advancing Union troops and determining that he was outnumbered, Confederate Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson of the Missouri State Guard ordered a retreat toward Arkansas. With them went the editor of the Bloomfield Herald, a southern sympathizer.
Union troops with printing backgrounds
As some Union troops began looting undefended Bloomfield upon their arrival on Nov. 7, 1861, others were more constructively employed. As it happened, 10 of the Illinois soldiers had printing or newspaper backgrounds, so they decided to commandeer the Herald printing press and create a newspaper they called The Stars and Stripes. Even in its brief original incarnation, Stars and Stripes proved to be a morale booster for Union troops. Reading it helped take their minds off the rigors of war and separation from their families. The first and only issue published in Bloomfield was distributed on Saturday, Nov. 9. After that issue, the newspaper ceased publication as Union troops left Bloomfield and its printing press behind.
Word of the popular newspaper spread quickly through the Union army, and other troops published under the Stars and Stripes name as circumstances permitted. Of the known follow-up issues, two were printed in Thibodaux, Louisiana, on Feb. 24 and March 11, 1963, and two others on Dec. 1 and Dec. 8, 1863, in Jacksonport, Arkansas.
Pershing revives the paper
More than 50 years later, when Missouri native John J. Pershing was named commander of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I, he remembered hearing of Stars and Stripes and its positive impact on troop morale. Pershing gathered a group of soldiers with newspaper and magazine backgrounds to restart and staff the publication in France. Among them were Grantland Rice, who after the war would become a famous sportswriter, known best for dubbing the talented backfield of the 1924 Notre Dame football team the “Four Horsemen of Notre Dame.” Serving as editor was Harold Ross, who in 1925 would become co-founder of The New Yorker magazine. Stars and Stripes began publishing as a weekly in Paris on Feb. 8, 1918, and continued until June 13, 1919, as the last of the American troops were coming home. At one point during the war, circulation reached 526,000 a week.
Stars and Stripes lay dormant again until World War II, when officers ordered its restart and General Dwight D. Eisenhower quickly became its patron saint. Like Pershing, Eisenhower valued the contribution a newspaper would make to troop morale. During this war, the newspaper was printed in dozens of locations ranging from London to Cairo, and a Pacific edition was created in 1945. Quite simply, the newspaper went where the troops went, finally following them into occupied Germany. Among those who worked for Stripes (as staff members refer to it), perhaps the best-known was Andy Rooney, who later gained fame as the curmudgeonly commentator featured on CBS’ 60 Minutes.
Willie and Joe
Another famous World War II staffer was Bill Mauldin, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Stars and Stripes cartoons depicting Willie and Joe, two unshaven and bedraggled infantry soldiers. General George Patton objected to a cartoon that poked fun at his order that troops be clean shaven at all times, even during combat. Patton called Mauldin an “unpatriotic anarchist” and threatened to throw him in jail. Eisenhower came to Mauldin’s defense because his cartoons provided comic relief for the men and an outlet for their frustrations.
“Stars and Stripes is the soldiers’ paper,” Eisenhower told Patton, “and we won’t interfere.”
After the war, Mauldin worked at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for several years and won a second Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for a cartoon depicting Soviet author Boris Pasternak in a gulag. In the cartoon, imprisoned Pasternak asks another prisoner, “I won the Nobel Prize for literature. What was your crime?” Mauldin’s postwar Pulitzer at the Post-Dispatch and his later work at the Chicago Sun-Times represent yet another connection between Stars and Stripes and the Missouri-Illinois region.
Following World War II, the Cold War began, and four divisions of American troops remained in Europe. Others remained in the Pacific, and Stars and Stripes has continued to serve as a daily newspaper in both theaters without interruption since World War II. The Cold War eventually evolved into the War on Terror, and Stripes continues to fulfill its mission. Today, it is a tabloid with an average of 32 pages daily. Four print editions serve Europe, the Middle East, Japan and South Korea. There also are seven digital editions, but the printed newspaper remains hugely popular, particularly in war zones where internet access and cellphone service are either non-existent or often interrupted.
Museum exhibits from all wars
Today, the Bloomfield museum’s exhibits touch on Stripes’ coverage of all those conflicts. Included in its collection is a copy of the original issue from 1861, numerous photos from the many conflicts the paper has covered and hundreds of other artifacts donated by former staffers and the Stars and Stripes central office, now located in Washington.
In the Civil War, World War I and World War II, Stripes was staffed exclusively with soldiers, but after military officers began trying to limit its content during the late 1900s, Congress mandated that the newspaper be operated as a First Amendment publication with the freedom to print whatever it chose to print. Military editors were replaced with civilians, and most reporters also are now civilians. A few military reporters remain, but they wear no uniforms and by Department of Defense regulations cannot be held accountable to officers for their reporting at Stars and Stripes. An ombudsman, mandated by Congress, ensures that officers keep their distance from the newsroom, although military officers do oversee the business operations in both Europe and the Pacific.
So, Stars and Stripes embodies the freedom of expression our troops have fought to defend. It is owned and operated by the Department of Defense and targeted to its troops, yet no one in DoD is allowed to interfere with its content. Eisenhower would be proud of that. His notion that the officer corps should not interfere is now enshrined in the law and DoD regulations.
“Censorship, in my opinion, is a stupid and shallow way of approaching the solution to any problem,” Eisenhower said.
Brian S. Brooks is a retired associate dean of the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia and served as editor of the European edition of Stars and Stripes while on sabbatical and leave of absence from 1997 to 1999. This story is the cover of the fall 2019 print issue of GJR.