Retired major general Frank H. Partridge, who was the assistant commander of the Army's 97th Infantry Division during World War II and who lives in Arlington, doesn't read newspaper comics. But he was cheered by a phone call from an ex-corporal in his old headquarters calling attention to an episode featuring Sgt. Snorkel in Sunday's "Beetle Bailey" comic strip.
The strip's first panel, reprinted to the right, sets Sarge up for a reunion of his old outfit, the 97th Division. Superimposed on the paper Sarge is holding is the 97th's shoulder patch, a white trident on a blue field -- a revived insignia now worn by thousands of "weekend warrior" reserve troops in the Washington area.
"It's wonderful that somebody is paying attention to the 97th Division," said Partridge, who helped command the unit's combat troops in Europe and its occupation troops when the division was redeployed to Japan.
By coincidence, the strip appeared within a day of 40 years after the 97th went into combat on the Rhine. Trained for amphibious operations in the Pacific, the division was diverted to Europe after the Allied setback in the Ardennes in December 1944. V-E Day found it spearheading the attack on the Nazis in Czechoslovakia.
Since I was part of the unit on both sides of the world, curiosity led me to call Mort Walker, the "Beetle Bailey" cartoonist, at his Connecticut home. Sarge's reference to the 97th was no accident; Walker was a private first class in an infantry regiment of the division in Missouri and California before entering officer candidate school in 1944. He left the Army as a first lieutenant. Walker recalls the 97th with fondness and a respect he doesn't accord his strip's mythical Camp Swampy.
Anthony Hecht, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former poet-in-residence at the Library of Congress, was in the 97th. So were Kimon Gregory, a CBS radio producer stationed in Washington, and Raymond Watts, a lawyer who lives in Rockville. There must be many others.
The 97th Division was deactivated with the end of Japanese occupation, and was recreated in 1968 as the 97th Army Reserve Command ("Arcom"), with headquarters at Fort Meade. The revived trident insignia is worn by 11,000 active reservists on the Atlantic seaboard, concentrated in the District, Maryland and Virginia. It is currently led by Maj. Gen. Roger Blunt, a Washington businessman.