Reviewed by Peter S. Kindsvatter
By Herbert Mitgang
Taylor Trade Publishing, Lanham, Md., 2004,
In 1942, 22-year-old Herbert Mitgang enlisted in the U.S. Army. On the day before, he had been sworn in to practice law at the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court. When he was discharged from the service at the end of the war, he proudly listed his civilian occupation as reporter, not lawyer, reflecting his three years as a uniformed correspondent for the Army newspaper, Stars and Stripes. Mitgang then began a long and distinguished career as a journalist, retiring after 47 years with The New York Times. He also wrote 15 books on American history, biography, literature and fiction. In this short memoir, however, Mitgang only briefly describes his postwar career, focusing instead on his World War II experiences working for the Mediterranean edition of Stars and Stripes.
A staff sergeant by war’s end, Mitgang first served at Headquarters, Fifth Bombardment Wing, in North Africa. He worked in the intelligence section, but devoted increasing amounts of time to his one-man production, a unit newsletter called “The Bombfighter Bulletin.” His interest in journalism thus sparked, he landed a job with Stars and Stripes, then being published in Algiers. Hired on as an editor, Mitgang served with the Algiers, Oran, Palermo and Rome offices, occasionally covering stories at the front.
Mitgang’s memoir is a lively mix of his personal experiences, thumbnail sketches of the uniformed and civilian correspondents with whom he worked, and excerpts from his and his colleagues’ stories published in the paper. As a correspondent he observed a British parachute drop into Greece, described the French Resistance’s fight against the Germans who were on the island of Corsica, interviewed the African-American soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division (also noting the prejudice of some of the unit’s white officers), and reported on the German destruction wrought on Florence, Italy. Given his Jewish background, Mitgang was quick to note the anti-Semitic acts perpetrated by the Nazis. He also notes, through personal experience, that anti-Semitism was not unknown in the U.S. Army as well. Perhaps Mitgang’s most interesting experience was watching how close some U.S. artillery forward observers came to destroying the Leaning Tower of Pisa, then in use as an observation post by the Germans.
Mitgang also gives due credit to the Stripes staff who set the type, printed the paper and distributed it to the troops in the field. He describes how local newspaper publishers in North Africa, Sicily and Italy were persuaded, and occasionally coerced, into providing their printing plant and staff to publish Stars and Stripes.
The author has praise for the independent thinking and reporting of the staff. He also gives credit to General Dwight D. Eisenhower for encouraging and supporting the paper.
Finally, Mitgang contends that American soldiers were well aware of the issues at stake in this war, even if they rarely expressed their feelings openly: “We are… for many things, beginning with the Four Freedoms enunciated by President Roosevelt. These weren’t lessons we were taught in classrooms. These ideals came naturally to people brought up in free countries.”
Mitgang’s brief memoir by no means provides a detailed history of the Mediterranean edition of Stars and Stripes. Even his personal experiences are related in episodic fashion, interspersed with newspaper excerpts. His story is nevertheless well crafted and well told. Anyone interested in wartime reporting or actions in the Mediterranean theater in World War II, or anyone who just wants to experience one man’s war, should read Newsmen in Khaki.