They gave their newspapers names like the Snarkyville Gazette, Bull Sheet, Scars and Gripes, and the Sunday Mud and Mildew.
Their stories clackety-clacked out of battle-scarred typewriters in war zones around the world to be published on beat-up mimeograph machines.
And yes, enemy bombing raids sometimes delayed publication and ingenuity was often required to keep the presses running. Insect repellent mixed with black shoe polish might take the place of ink. When newsprint ran out, the blank backs of company memos and motor pool invoices filled in nicely.
“It just shows you how precious freedom of the press really is,” said Molly Guptill Manning, author of “The War of Words: How America’s GI Journalists battled Censorship and Propaganda to Help Win World War II.”
“They valued it so much they would do just about anything to make sure their newspapers got out,” she said.
The story of the American military’s troop newspapers in World War II has faded like old newsprint in the eight decades since that war was fought. But at their peak as many as 4,600 individual newspapers were in circulation around the world.
Army Chief of Staff George Marshall spearheaded the newspaper initiative as a way to boost morale for troops far from home. As well, the papers helped troops in Europe and the Pacific understand what they were doing, why they were fighting, and much more, Manning said.
“There were times when I think troops kind of wanted to be able to tell their own war stories and not just rely on civilian correspondents,” she says. “As a practical matter, civilian correspondents couldn’t be on every ship. They couldn’t be in every nook and cranny of the war.
“And so I think the troops kind of picked up the slack where there might not have been someone to tell the story for the home front,” Manning says. “They didn’t just let the story not be told. They told us themselves.”
If you had no idea that American troops created so many unit newspapers during World War II, don’t feel bad. Manning didn’t either until after she’d published her previous book, “When Books Went to War,” which explored the World War II program that provided 120 million paperback books for American troops to read during lulls in the work of the war.
“I was contacted by a World War II veteran who said, ‘You know, we did read books, and they were very precious to us,’ ” she said. “ ‘But another thing that was extremely important to us was the shipboard newspaper. We lived and breathed by it. It told us all the gossip about one another, but it also kind of helped us make sense of the war.’ ”
Manning, an associate professor at New York Law School who has undergraduate and graduate degrees in history, was intrigued.
“I wanted to figure out how ubiquitous this was,” she said. “Was this just one ship that had a newspaper or was there a bigger story here?”
Marshall saw troop newspapers as a way to boost morale by giving American forces the ability to tell their own stories as they fought in combat, worked behind front lines or at bases in the United States. So the Army created, and other branches adopted, a kind of newspaper-in-a-box kit: One big crate that included all the supplies necessary to publish — typewriters, cameras, mimeograph machines, ink and paper.
The newspapers included stories about the war, obituary notices for fallen comrades, cartoons, poems written by soldiers, sailors and Marines, and letters to the editor to praise or complain about matters within the individual unit. (G.I. gripes were always popular: The Bitching Post was the title of one troop newspaper’s popular complaints column.)
Manning’s early research led her to materials in the collection of the Army Heritage Center in Carlisle, Pa., but she ultimately hunted down old newspapers wherever she could find them.
“Sometimes one source would reference other newspapers, and they’d be described in such a way that I’d want to get my hands on that particular title. So I would just start digging. Sometimes they’d come up for auction or they’d be on websites that specialize in World War II ephemera.
“Once they survived for a year, they’d have a one-year anniversary issue and that would tell the whole story about how the newspaper started,” Manning said. “Their difficulties, how it’s been going. So those were always the best sources, I thought.”
Stories from the front
Troop newspapers may have all received the same crate of supplies from the War Department, but most similarities ended there. Some published several times a week while others might be monthly. Press runs depended mostly on how many people were in any given unit.
Among the largest was The Railsplitter, published by the Army’s 84th Infantry Division, which even while in serious combat such as the Battle of the Bulge, printed 2,000 to 3,000 copies of each edition.
The Rainbow Reveille of the Army National Guard’s 42nd Infantry Division published about the same number of copies, with its coverage of the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp some of the most powerful journalism done on the death camps.
Others were much smaller but no less important to the war effort, Manning said.
“There were sometimes little groups of engineers or an air depot (in the Pacific), and they would have their own little newspaper about the comings and goings of airplanes and the work that they were doing. They would also try to make sense of, ‘Well, how is our work on this airstrip contributing to the fight against Japan?’
“Every single group had its own specialized interest,” she said. “So the beauty of these newspapers was that if it was a very small unit, and they weren’t getting much credit because they weren’t actually in combat, they could kind of give themselves a pat on the back. And make sense of the work that they were doing, and that it was important work.”
Marshall in Washington, D.C., and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in Europe were mostly hands-off when it came to the newspapers and what they could print, Manning said. Those fighting under Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific weren’t so fortunate.
“He hates newspapers, all types,” she said. “He doesn’t want any press coverage of anything. He wants to be able to call the shots and tell the story because he was very sensitive.”
Yet any commissioned officer could request a newspaper crate for their troops, and many did in spite of MacArthur’s resistance.
“These officers saw the suffering,” Manning said. “They saw what a hard time the men were having. They also saw that these newspapers were a place where troops could make sense of their losses, make sense of their gains. So even though MacArthur didn’t want any newspapers, they proliferated.
“And so the newspapers in the Pacific ended up having some of the most caustic, sarcastic, depressing, just really negative newspapers about the war,” she said. “Which is funny because that’s the exact opposite of what MacArthur wanted, and yet that’s exactly what came out of the Pacific.”
Love letters to democracy
One of Manning’s favorite stories in the book involves the lengths to which the 1903rd Engineers Battalion went to publish its newspaper while in transit to the war in the Pacific.
“The newspaper was aptly named the Tough Sheet, and it’s like every possible problem just rained down on them,” she said. “First, they accidentally packed all of their paper in the hold of the ship: Mimeograph is inked, the stories were written, everything ready — except they realized, no paper.
“And it took them two or three days to through the belly of the boat and finally find the paper,” Manning said. “And then they get somewhere in the Pacific and it’s even worse somehow. Their typewriters aren’t cooperating. The stencils they’re using get gummy and they’re difficult to carve, and it’s just one thing after another.”
But they kept at it.
“Giving up on publishing was never an option. Their newspaper just had to be printed.”
In many ways, the newspapers reminded the troops of the freedoms they had at home, which the Axis forces of Germany, Japan and Italy had eliminated in territories they controlled. Manning said that part of the story — the way in which newspapers reinforced the tenets of democracy — surprised her in her research.
“Some of them developed such a strong understanding of how important democracy was,” Manning said. “They encountered the repressions of the Nazis. They saw what it was like when people were robbed of their freedom, so they didn’t take their freedom for granted.”
The lessons they learned remain relevant today, she said. Without healthy local journalism, democracy suffers.
“In the pages of these newspapers it’s almost by the end like love letters to democracy, where they see how important this form of government is,” Manning said. “And they feel sincerely in their hearts that fighting for this freedom is worth whatever price they have to pay.”