Shakespeare and Sun Tzu will be accompanying U.S. troops into combat should the Bush administration launch an attack against Iraq.

In an echo of World War II, several publishers have begun a major distribution of free books to U.S. troops abroad.

About 2,000 books were given away Dec. 11 on the Pentagon's concourse to enthusiastic takers. Thousands more were handed out the next day in Norfolk aboard the guided-missile frigate USS Nicholas.

About 100,000 copies of four books, including William Shakespeare's "Henry V" and "The Art of War" by Chinese strategist Sun Tzu, are being sent this month to U.S. troops in Kuwait, Qatar and Afghanistan, among other places.

The idea for the project predates the current prospect of war with Iraq or the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to coordinator Andrew Carroll, who said, "It's certainly gotten more relevant now."

Carroll, a Washington native, is director of the American Poetry & Literacy Project, a nonprofit group that distributes free volumes of poetry to the public. He is also founding director of the Legacy Project, a nonprofit organization that collects wartime letters sent home by soldiers.

Browsing through an antique bookstore in San Francisco in 1999, Carroll came across an old Armed Services Edition of John Steinbeck's "Cannery Row."

It was one of more than 123 million paperback books distributed free to troops overseas in World War II. More than 1,300 titles were published and sent, including mysteries, biographies, crime stories, adventure novels and classic literary works by such authors as Ernest Hemingway and Herman Melville.

The giveaway represented the largest free distribution of fiction and nonfiction books in history, according to Carroll. The program was discontinued in 1947.

"It's one of the forgotten stories of World War II," Carroll said.

Intrigued, Carroll decided that it was worth doing again and enlisted support of publishers and the Pentagon.

Two other books included in the current project are "Medal of Honor: Profiles of America's Military Heroes from the Civil War to the Present" by Allen Mikaelian, with commentary by Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes" and "War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars," edited by Carroll. Other titles may be added.

All of the books have been formatted into a "cargo pocket" size and will have the same vintage appearance as the original Armed Services Editions of World War II.

Unlike during World War II, the current book project involves no government funding and operates on private donations. Hyperion, Simon & Schuster and Dover Publications are participating in revival of the project.

"Getting quality reading material to our troops on the front lines is a great initiative, and one that all the armed services are eager to support," said Rear Adm. Stephen R. Pietropaoli, the Pentagon's chief of naval information.

Some of the first books were sent to U.S. troops in Bosnia and are receiving good reviews.

"I really love how you can carry it around in your cargo pocket," Army Maj. Susan Traylor, who read "Medal of Honor," wrote in an e-mail. "So many times other paperbacks are just a bit too big. . . . This is the only book I have managed to read in the last four months."

He's Sweeping Down Slopes Now

Almost exactly one year ago, Army Staff Sgt. Matt Hess, a 28-year-old ammunition specialist, was at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, helping to sweep the runway for unexploded ordnance.

Hess is assigned to the U.S. Army's 744th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company, a Fort Meade-based unit that deployed to Afghanistan last December and was clearing the base for use by U.S. forces.

Hess, gathering up old Soviet 57mm rockets, stepped on an antipersonnel land mine. His left foot was torn away below the ankle by the explosion Dec. 18. Eventually, his left leg was amputated below the knee. But Hess was not down for long.

This month, he was snowboarding on the slopes at Breckenridge in Colorado in the Hartford Ski Spectacular, the nation's largest winter sports festival for people with physical disabilities.

"He's just shredding the mountain right now," Kirk Bauer, executive director of Disabled Sports USA, which organized the event, said in a telephone interview. "It's great to see."

Founded in 1967 by disabled Vietnam veterans and based in Washington, Disabled Sports USA provides opportunities for individuals with physical disabilities to participate in sports, recreational and educational programs. Bauer, a resident of Rockville and an accomplished skier, lost a leg from a hand grenade during an ambush while serving with the Army's 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1969.

Hess lives in Odenton in Anne Arundel County with his wife, Pam, a staff sergeant assigned to Fort Meade. He plans to retire from the Army next year after 10 years of service and return to college to complete a degree in computer information technology.

Hess, who is being treated for his injury at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, found that it was no problem to snowboard as well as he did before the injury. "There are only a few things I've gotten hung up on," he said.

Honors for Thurmond

The Air Force did not let Sen. Trent Lott's experiences scare it away from honoring Sen. Strom Thurmond on his 100th birthday.

At a ceremony Dec. 12 at Andrews Air Force Base, the Air Force named one of its C-17 Globemaster cargo planes after the South Carolina Republican, who is stepping down in January after 48 years in the U.S. Senate.

Thurmond watched as the aircraft's name, "Spirit of Strom Thurmond," painted in an oval shape over the crew door, was unveiled during the ceremony inside an Andrews hangar.

An Army officer in World War II who crash-landed in Normandy on D-Day in a glider, Thurmond is a member of the Senate's Armed Services and Veterans' Affairs committees.

"It's a great honor that both the name and the spirit of a great American resides with this airplane," said Gen. John P. Jumper, Air Force chief of staff. "It signifies the gratitude of generations of airmen who have served and will continue to serve around the world."

The C-17 chosen to carry Thurmond's name was the 100th off the assembly line. The plane had been in service for a month and had to be flown all night from the Middle East to Andrews for the ceremony.

Lott, a Mississippi Republican, has earned widespread reprobation for his comments a few days before the Andrews ceremony at a 100th birthday party for Thurmond. Lott said that had the nation elected Thurmond president in 1948, when the South Carolinian campaigned on a segregationist ticket, "We wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years."

Not surprisingly, speakers at the Andrews event shied away from referring to the controversy.

Military Matters appears twice each month. Steve Vogel can be reached at vogels@washpost.com.