Working for Stars and Stripes in 1969

Contributor: Martin Limon

Let’s not over-glamorize the Stars and Stripes. Recent news reports that it might be curtailed have characterized the Department of Defense-sponsored publication as being produced…

Topic: Books, Language, news, Yongsan Legacy
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Martin Limon, pictured in spring 1975, works on The Communicator, the newspaper of the 1st Signal Brigade, at Yongsan Garrison. / Courtesy of Martin Limon

Let’s not over-glamorize the Stars and Stripes.

Recent news reports that it might be curtailed have characterized the Department of Defense-sponsored publication as being produced and written by the average American soldier, for the average American soldier. In other words, an independent GI-run newspaper.

I wish this were true.

Back in 1969, as a young enlisted soldier, I reported for the Korea News Bureau of the Pacific edition of the Stars and Stripes, traveling around the country and earning my share of by-lines. By-lines, by the way, which always included your rank to show that you were one of the troops. The entire editorial staff of the Stripes, however, was composed of civilians hired by the Department of Defense, both at the local bureaus and at the Stripes headquarters in Tokyo. Overseeing everything, of course, was a full colonel, responsible to the brass above him.

As such, every story and every sentence and every word was under the relentless gaze of the military honchos and their unspoken rules. Specifically, don’t embarrass the command and don’t write anything that will piss off somebody in a position of power.

As a naive 20-year-old, I transgressed these rules once ― without even realizing it.

I was dispatched north to the DMZ, to the Joint Security Area where North and South Korean officials meet to hash out differences. The event was called a Military Armistice Commission (MAC) Secretariat meeting. After enjoying the North Korean guard’s glares of unadulterated hatred, I entered a hut that was set up with a loudspeaker that would relay everything that was said in the meeting, simultaneously translated into three languages: Korean, English and Chinese. I found it fascinating that both sides had similar epithets for one another. Americans were referred to as “imperialist running dogs” by the North Koreans and the North Koreans were referred to as “renegade communist bandits” by the Americans.

I led the story with this linguistic peccadillo.

Late that night I dropped the typed first draft of the story into my civilian editor’s in-basket, locked up the office and wearily returned to the barracks.

The next morning, all hell broke loose. Quietly at first.

My editor told me to report to the MAC Executive Officer. I don’t remember now if I even asked why. In those days, if he would’ve told me to grab a mop and swab the floor I would’ve done it. We were trained to perform menial tasks without expecting an explanation. So, being the obedient young troop I was, I walked over to MAC headquarters.

A field table had been set up in the foyer. A nervous secretary ushered me to a folding chair about five yards in front of the rickety wooden table and told me to sit. I sat.

Ten minutes later, a full colonel, seemingly in a hurry, marched into the room, plopped himself down behind the table and stared at me with a look very similar to the ones I’d received from the North Korean guards. He started lecturing me about the superiority of democracy over the brutal Communist dictatorships that controlled half the world. As he spoke, his face became red and he began to shout. Then he grabbed a copy of the draft article I had written and shook it in the air. “If this article is published I refuse to allow my name to be used.”

As far as I remember, his name wasn’t in it in the first place.

Then he tore the article in two and tossed it in the wastebasket, after which he rose and stormed out of the room.

No comment was ever solicited from me. Figuring I was done, I rose and walked back to the Stars and Stripes office.

Once there, a stony silence hung in the room. My editor had nothing to say to me. Confused, not really understanding what had just happened, I didn’t ask questions. Neither my article nor any mention of that particular MAC Secretariat meeting ever appeared in the columns of the Stars and Stripes. A month later, I was released from the staff of the Korea News Bureau and sent back to the 8th Army Public Affairs office ― without thanks, I might add.

So does the military brass influence the content of the Stars and Stripes?

Of course not. It’s a fully independent newspaper. By GIs and for GIs.

Martin Limon is a full-time writer having published 14 novels set in Korea’s modern past, featuring CID detectives Sueno and Bascom. He spent 20 years in the military, 10 of which were in Korea on three tours: 1968-69, 1973-76 and 1977-80


This Yongsan Legacy column was published in The Korea Times Newspapers