A chapter of world history closed on Thursday when the U.S. Army's 793rd Military Police Battalion was removed from active duty -- "inactivated" in military terminology -- in a ceremony at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. The battalion has had many high-profile assignments since World War II but is probably best known for protecting the Red Ball Express supply lines after D-Day and for its involvement in the Nuremberg war trials in 1946.
The shuttering of a unit that saw almost 72 years of continuous active duty marked "the end of an era," said Chaplain Brad Lee in his invocation before the crowd at Buckner Field House.
The battalion, known as the "Spartans," was established at Camp Maxey, near Paris, Texas, on Dec. 26, 1942, a year after the bombing of Pearl Harbor that brought America into World War II.
Arriving in France in August 1944, the Spartans were charged with providing security for the Red Ball Express, a massive system of truck convoys that brought supplies to the Allied forces as they advanced across Europe. Bombing had destroyed most of the rail system in France, and retreating Germans sabotaged much of the infrastructure that survived the bombs. Nearly 6,000 Red Ball trucks, mostly driven by black soldiers, moved along the battered roads and forded rivers to get food, ammunition and medicine to the front lines.
The 793rd had responsibility for managing the staggering flow of traffic, prioritizing cargo and "keeping the enemy off (the convoy's) back," said Brig. Gen. Mark Spindler, Commandant of the U.S. Army Military Police School in Missouri. "It worked so well that even the Germans commented on the success." The convoys played a significant role in the defeat of the Third Reich, he said and called the Spartans "the champions of the Red Ball Express."
Aside from being exposed to enemy attacks, the project also had to overcome problems of maintenance, lack of sleep among the drivers and the threat of pilferage. The 793rd provided protection from jeeps at the front and rear of each convoy and the Red Ball Express was able to deliver 12,500 tons of material a day from the beachhead in Normandy to the rapidly advancing battle front.
Following the war, the battalion was stationed in Nuremberg, Germany, where it became part of the cast in what has been called "the greatest trial in history." Some 200 German officials, including Nazi leaders Hermann Goering and Rudolph Hess, were charged with committing or contributing to atrocities against civilians during the war. It was the first time that the accusation of "crimes against humanity," as opposed to crimes of war, was brought in a court of law.
The Spartans, who had been assigned to Nuremberg to conduct police operations as part of the occupation force, were given the task of providing security to the highly charged and highly publicized event. They protected the chief U.S. prosecutor, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, Spindler said. "As you can imagine, he was a bit of a target."
The famous courtroom photos from the trial show members of the 793rd in ceremonial white helmets and dress uniforms, standing at attention in a solemn line behind the defendants. In thanks to the soldiers, Jackson gave the desk he used during the trials to the unit. It was used at their headquarters for decades before going to a museum in New York, Spindler said.
During the Cold War the 793rd remained stationed in Germany, primarily charged with law enforcement and investigation activities, said Lt. Col. Kirt Boston, the battalion's commander.
In recent years it took part in the ground offensive during the first Gulf War, conducting prisoner of war operations and supervising the evacuation of refugees. In the 1990s, it had a wide range of missions during the Balkan conflicts and subsequent peace initiatives, from protecting VIPs to securing polling sites during elections. In Kosovo, it established the first military detention facility at Camp Bondsteel, named for Alaska Medal of Honor recipient James Bondsteel.
The battalion was transferred to JBER in 2010. Its final deployment, to Afghanistan, ended last year.
Spindler noted a "hint of melancholy" at the ceremony. Boston described how the shelves that held trophies and awards given to the unit over the years are now bare, their contents scattered to archives and collections.
Few were more nostalgic than Diane DeRosa, president of the 793rd Alumni Association, who traveled from Illinois to Alaska for the event. Her father, the late Frank DeRosa, was one of the first members of the battalion. She recalled his tales of keeping supply lines open with the Red Ball Express, including a time when his outfit stopped a speeding jeep carrying Gen. George Patton. The soldiers were nervous when they realized who they'd stopped, she said. But rules are rules.
The battalion's coat of arms includes two red balls recalling the unit's work with the Express.
Thursday's ceremony included the symbolic inactivation of the 164th and 472nd Military Police companies, which will be officially inactivated on Sept. 15. Personnel in the inactivated units are being transferred to other units in Alaska, Boston said.
Several military units have undergone similar dissolution or downsizing as part of a reduction of 80,000 soldiers in the ranks of the Army required by the Budget Control Act of 2011. But the inactivation of the 793rd has been scheduled for some time and is not part of the federal sequestration process, Spindler said.
A color guard stood at attention holding the American flag and other banners as the 793rd's battalion colors were slowly furled and covered with a camouflage case. They will be stored at the U.S. Army Institute of Heraldry and can be brought out if the unit is ever reactivated.
The encased colors were somberly marched away as the crowd stood at attention.
"We will miss you," said Spindler. "God bless you, 793rd.
"Your mission is complete."
Fallen military police from Alaska honored
Among the final actions of the 793rd Military Police Battalion, held Thursday morning, the day it was inactivated, was a ceremony to honor four of its recently-fallen soldiers who died on June 4, 2011, while deployed in Afghanistan. The three men and one woman are: Sgt. Devin Arielle Snyder, Spc. Robert Lee Voakes Jr., Spc. Christopher Roger Bell and Sgt. Joshua David Powell.
Also honored at the event were three members of the 545th Military Police Company, Arctic Police Battalion Fort Richardson, who died in Iraq on Sept. 8, 2009: Spc. Zachary Taylor Myers, Spc. Thomas Franklin Lyons and Staff Sgt. Shannon Michael Smith III.