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Media : Airlifting the News: Stars and Stripes in the Saudi Desert : The 'Persian Gulf edition' of the GIs' hometown newspaper is actually printed in Germany, which presents quite a circulation problem. In bringing the news to the front, Stripes is following a tradition that started in World War I.

November 13, 1990|WILLIAM TUOHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DARMSTADT, Germany — The "hometown" newspaper of American GIs in Europe, The Stars and Stripes, is preparing to go to war again.

The European edition is printing 190,000 copies a day, up from the usual 140,000, and is flying the paper to Saudi Arabia, where it is distributed to U.S. troops. But with more than 230,000 U.S. servicemen and women in that region, all starved for news, "there's still not enough to go around," says Managing Editor Bob Wicker.

The staff of "Stripes," as it is familiarly known, tries to deliver the paper to soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines within a day or two of publication, depending on the vagaries of the airlift system.

New readers in the Persian Gulf region find a varied journalistic diet in the tightly edited, 28-page tabloid, with national and international news, features, comics, syndicated columnists, plenty of sports and a lively letters-to-the-editor page. In pages where readers of the famed World War II edition saw drawings of Bill Mauldin's "Willie and Joe," today's military reader can peruse the equally trenchant Gary Trudeau's "Doonesbury" and Los Angeles Times editorial cartoonist Paul Conrad.

And, of course, there's a daily special section with reports from the Middle East called "Crisis in the Gulf."

"We edit with the idea that we are our readers' hometown paper, in the sense that we are trying to keep them widely informed while looking after their special interests," said Wicker in his Spartan office in a suburb of this Rhineland city.

Other American newspapers are attempting to have their editions airlifted to the gulf from nearby U.S. military air bases, and some, including The Times, have launched special fax editions to the troops. But Stripes has a much wider distribution system, processed through the Army Post Office (APO) in Saudi Arabia to more than 200 units in the field and at sea.

"We've got readers from Turkey to Iceland, and now Saudi Arabia," said circulation manager Deane B. McDermott. "It's not an easy job getting the papers to them, but we're used to complex distribution."

McDermott says that more than 80% of the papers for the gulf region are flown by military aircraft from Frankfurt-Main air base to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and the other 20% by commercial cargo to Riyadh, the capital.

In getting the paper to the troops at the front, the European edition of Stripes is following distinguished precedents. The first professional Stars and Stripes was published late in World War I, on Feb. 8, 1918--a weekly produced by an all-military staff for the American Expeditionary Force. On its staff were such journalistic notables as Pvt. Harold Ross, later to found the New Yorker, critic Alexander Woolcott, and sports writer Grantland Rice. Gen. John J. Pershing credited the paper with being a major factor in sustaining the morale of the American troops in France.

After the war the paper folded, but the European edition was reinstituted on April 18, 1942, in London, first as a four-page weekly selling for 2 pence--then about 5 cents. It quickly grew to an eight-page daily. A separate Mediterranean edition was soon established with its own editors and staff, and also a Pacific edition. The papers expanded rapidly, with as many as 25 printing locations in Europe, North Africa and Hawaii.

During the war, the paper was published in rear-line cities, but also from presses newly captured from enemy control. Reporters and editors were always on the move, setting up shop as close to the front as possible.

"We kept printing in plants as we moved forward: Algiers, Naples, Rome," recalled retired Los Angeles Times correspondent Jack Foisie, who served as a combat reporter with the Mediterranean edition in North Africa, Sicily and Italy.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, an admirer and special friend of Stripes, issued a hands-off directive against officers who wanted to bring the publication under official Army editorial control.

"There was a lot of pressure from the military to make us a propaganda sheet, but Gen. Eisenhower insisted on our editorial independence," said Foisie. "He said he wanted it to be as close to a soldier's hometown newspaper as possible, not in the narrow sense, but with plenty of news about things the GI was interested in. For us, it was a great job--serving your country, up front with troops, but not getting shot at every day, and practicing your profession."

After the war, a decision was made to continue publication in Europe and the Pacific as long as American troops remained abroad. The European postwar newspaper plant moved several times in Germany before settling in Griesheim at a former Luftwaffe training field. Over the years, the paper built up a reporting staff with a dozen bureaus, and extensive news agencies.

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