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AFTER 40 YEARS, ARMY LAUGHS AT `BEETLE'

For 40 years, the Army grumbled about Pvt. Beetle Bailey. He's a real misfit, they said. Lazy. No spit and polish. Drives the Sarge nuts. He'll never make corporal. Let him peel potatoes forever.

Then one fine day, somebody in the Pentagon with silver stars on his shoulders looked around the table and told the men with silver eagles on their shirt collars: Hey, you know, the little guy's funny.Yes, sir! they all replied, nodding in unison.

And so it was that an incredulous Mort Walker, a cartoonist who once slogged through the mud at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., as an Army draftee in World War II, was ushered into the Pentagon on Thursday and given a hero's welcome.

Walker, who created the Beetle Bailey comic strip in 1950, could hardly believe it. For years, he had braved the Army's fire when Beetle and the gang _ Zero, Sgt. Snorkel, Lt. Fuzz, Gen. Halftrack _ did something foolish.

On Thursday, he blinked before TV lights in the Pentagon briefing room. Generals slapped him on the back, praised him to the skies and asked for his autograph.

The war was over.

"I can't believe I'm actually here," Walker said, "As hard as it is to find anything in the Pentagon, they finally found a sense of humor."

"Through it all, you have entertained us, although sometimes we haven't always liked it," said Brig. Gen. Bill McClain.

The Army brass wasn't always that charitable. They thought the strip presented an unflattering image of Army life.

The Tokyo edition of The Stars and Stripes military newspaper drummed Beetle off its pages in 1954 because the strip poked fun at officers.

Stars and Stripes banned the strip again in 1970, as did some Southern newspapers, when Walker introduced a feisty black character named Lt. Flap who complained about Sarge's "honky outfit." Feminists protested Miss Buxley, the bosomy secretary to Gen. Halftrack.

But all was forgiven Thursday.