Stories of the Highway Patrol
So what were you doing fifty years ago on Memorial Day, 1958?
First a little background. I was recently remembering back to a period of time (eons ago, or so it now seems) at least several careers ago (and to some – a lifetime, back to the period of Memorial Day 1958. A period shortly before I shipped overseas to Germany and before I began my all-to-short tour with the best military unit that I had the pleasure to serve in – the 62nd MP Highway Patrol.
Right after graduating from MP school at Fort Gordon, GA, in the Fall of 1957 I was flown (DC 3, remember those) into Washington National Airport [now Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA). There I was met by a couple of sharp looking Military Policemen from the Military District of Washington (MDW) and transported to what was to become my first duty station at Fort Myer, [Now Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall] Virginia. Note, it is Fort MYER (never Fort Myers or Fort Meyers as it is occasionally misspelled).
Fort Myer is a relatively small, but a very important and historic*1 post located in Arlington, Virginia. It is adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery. At the time I was stationed there, Fort Myer actually consisted of two areas; the North Post and the South Post. The two areas were separated at that time by Arlington National Cemetery. They were connected by a public road that ran between the two posts and which also connected the U. S. Marine Corps Iwo Jima Memorial, the Netherlands Carillion, to the then main Arlington Cemetery main entrance.
The roadway grid also connected to Arlington Memorial Bridge and with several other connecting roads which joined Henderson Hall, a small Marine enclave and the Navy Annex, both of which were both located in very close proximity to the South Post. The public road connecting road was also part of our patrol area and was a favorite trysting place for locals. From the South Post you could walk directly via tunnel directly into the Pentagon enclave. The South Post and various roadways have disappeared over the years. They were slowly demolished and assimilated by necessity into additional burial sites during the years of the Vietnam Conflict.
Fort Myer is home to many distinguished individuals. There were thirty-three General Officers, two star and above that made their home on the North Post of Fort Myer while I was there. Quarters One, is the residence of the Army's chief of staff. The Air Force chief of staff also resided at Fort Myer at the time along with numerous other dignitaries.
The U.S. Army Band, "Pershing's Own," is stationed at Fort Myer. The Honor Guard for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, actually a battalion of the 3rd Infantry Regiment, the oldest regular Army regiment, known as the Old Guard is assigned to Fort Myer. A second, similar battalion of the Old Guard is also assigned to Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. These units assumed responsibility as the Army's official ceremonial and security force.
Even the Military Police reassigned to duty on that post received an extra allowance of special uniforms while so assigned. I entered the army at a time when the OD uniform with the “Ike” jacket was in use, and while the “Army Greens” were just being issued. As a result, I was given a basic issue of two sets of OD uniforms, one set of the new “greens”, three sets of khakis, and two sets of short sleeve khaki shirts and two pair of khaki Bermuda shorts (which we never ever wore as far as I can remember). I was also issued brown boots which two or three weeks later I was told to dye black. Once I arrived at Fort Myer I was issued extra Army Greens, Tropical Worsteds, Dress Blues, and extra khakis. Our leather gear and the visors of our hats were all covered with a black plastic (patent leather looking) material and we were expected to get cleats mounted to the heels and sides of our duty boots which we also spent hours spit shining. White hat covers, white gloves, pistol lanyards, and MP brassard were washed daily.
We were always expected to look sharp on duty. With the “Old Guard” constantly being held up as a model we did our best. So, maybe it was more ceremonial duty than police work, but we took pride in the unit and in our appearance, as well as in our performance. We directed traffic and threw salutes with perfection. As far as I recollect we kept the post and the people safe as well.
During my duty time at Fort Myer, I spent numerous tours on patrol throughout the two post areas, also standing many long tours at the various entrances to the two posts, as well as taking part in the many ceremonies that were always taking place. During the daytime, many visitors and tourists were in attendance (along with many, many officers. They all expected you to remain sharp, and to render the proper military courtesies.
Midnight shifts were usually silent and somewhat eerie. Especially true if you were standing duty alone (and it was always alone) at one of the manned gate post entrances that were located near to the cemetery (the south entrance to the north post which ran alongside the cemetery); or the main entrance to the south post (which was located just across the road from the cemetery). It would grow very quiet, lonely, and a bit spooky in the very early morning hours, especially when there was a bit of fog. Time seemed to march by very slowly.
Fifty years ago, on Memorial Day 1958; I, along with the rest of the MP’s in my company were scheduled to take part in a special Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. We were to be joined in our duties later that day by hundreds of MP’s bussed in from throughout the Military District of Washington*2.
As usual, we had worked on preparing our uniforms and gear ahead of time. This was going to be one of the last few tours of duty that I was scheduled to pull at Fort Myer. I was shortly to begin leave prior to overseas deployment and a PCS (permenant change of station). This would lead to my coming to the 62nd. Highway patrol (although I did not know this at the time).
I arose a bit earlier than usual, dressed, geared up, drew a weapon from the arms room, checked in at the nearby MP station, and the desk sergeant suggested that I take one of the ready vehicles, drive over to the south post and catch an early breakfast. He also suggested that I might want to bring back a couple of bacon and egg sandwiches for him The south post mess hall usually served an earlier breakfast than the north post as it served several transient units. With no one else around at the time I went alone. It was a fairly short drive of a only few minutes as few people were yet up and about.
I went through the very short chow line filling my tray, and entered the main dining hall. I was greeted by a sight of several tables pulled together near the front, with a gathering of what I first just considered to be a group of lifers, “old timers”, or veterans wearing an assortment of uniforms. Even with just a glance in their direction, one could easily see that these guys had many accumulated stripes, hash marks (service and combat), and campaign and service ribbons galore. I was moving towards another empty table to sit, when one of them invited me to sit down and join them, and another thrust out a chair.
While I certainly thought it was a bit unusual I thought it was a bit unusual for a bunch of seasoned veterans to be so friendly to a young low ranking individual, but I sat.
I was a young Pfc, certainly not accustomed to seeing so many grizzled NCOs together in a bunch (nor in so many mixed uniforms), and especially being friendly to a young Pfc, but I sat. Fifty year later, I would like to think that I at least thanked the one who asked me to sit. I really do not remember. I started eating, and answered a few questions that were asked of me about some accommodations around the post. I really don’t, remember asking any questions myself.
As I looked around noting that there were OD’s Greens, khakis, Tropical Worsted, Blues, and maybe even some other uniform shades represented. What suddenly did dawn upon me were a couple of things. First, the fact that these guys were here for the same thing that I was there for that day. The ceremony! But while I was to work it, they were guests. Not only guests, but honored guests.
You see, on the day, some fifty years ago in 1958, our nation interred two additional soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. An Unknown Soldier from WW II, and one from Korea. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was now to become the Tomb of the Unknowns. On this Memorial Day in 1958, I was sitting at a table with individuals that had been invited back to attend and participate in the ceremonies. I do not know who they were. I do not know their histories. I expect some may still have been active duty, but others were likely retired, or discharged.
All of them, however, were wearing a variety of service ribbons. And all of them at that table wore one special distinguished ribbon, one that I recognized shortly after I sat down. That fact has humbled me for many years. You see, although every one of them were wearing several or more rows of campaign ribbons, each of them, was also wearing on that top row, that special ribbon, the sky blue field with the white stars, the Congressional Medal Of Honor. While none of them mentioned it, I found out later that all living holders of the MOH had been invited back as special guests to take part in the ceromonies. These guys had gotten up early, made their way to the chow hall and were enjoying some time together. I realized that I was in very distinguished company that morning.
Now-a-days, as I look back upon my time in the military, or as I even think of my tours of duty as I occasionally traversed through the cemetery, I realize that I was always in distinguished company. HoRah, and soldier on!
The land now occupied by Ft. Myer traces its original ownership to George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington. The land was later owned by Custis' daughter, Mary Ann Randolph, when she married a young Army Lieutenant, Robert E. Lee. Lee rescued the estate from financial ruin in 1858, but left the area to lead the Confederate Army in April 1861, when the Civil War began. He never returned.
Within a few months, the land was confiscated by the government for military purposes, and three years later it was offered for sale at public auction and bought by the government because the Lees were unable to pay their property taxes in person.
Part of the Arlington Estate became a cemetery for the war dead and the remainder became Fort Whipple. Forerunner of the current installation, it was named in honor of Brevet Major General Amiel Weeks Whipple, a division commander at both the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Whipple was mortally wounded at Chancellorsville and died in 1863.
Overlooking Washington, D.C., and Georgetown to the north and the Virginia countryside to the south, Fort Whipple was considered one of the strongest fortifications built to defend the Union's capital. Its first occupants were artillery and infantry units housed in tents and other temporary frame structures. The Signal Corps took over the post by the late 1860s because high elevation made it ideal for visual communications.
In 1881, Fort Whipple was redesignated Fort Myer in honor of Brigadier General Albert J. Myer. During his career he served as commanding officer of Fort Whipple and was appointed the Army's first chief signal officer in 1866, a position he held until his death in 1880. The post was renamed, primarily to honor him, but also to eliminate confusion raised by the existence of a second Fort Whipple in Arizona.
For the next five years, Signal Corps troops continued to man the post. Then in 1887, General Philip H. Sheridan, the Army's commanding general, decided to transform the post into the cavalry showplace of the nation. He transferred the communications unit and assigned horsemen to the post. During the next 22 years, U.S. Army horsemanship became an important part of the official and social life in Washington. As many as 1,500 horses were stabled at Fort Myer during this time.
From its beginning, Fort Myer played a special role in national and military history. The first military test flight of an aircraft was made from the present-day parade grounds in September 1908. Orville Wright succeeded in keeping the plane aloft for one minute and 11 seconds. After more than four minutes in the air, the second test flight ended with a tragic crash. Orville Wright was severely cut and bruised and his passenger, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, became the first powered-aviation fatality. Selfridge is buried in Section 3, Lot 2158, Grid QR-13/14 of Arlington National Cemetery.
Many of the buildings constructed during that period still stand and have been designated historic landmarks by either the Department of the Interior or by the State of Virginia.
No history of Fort Myer would be complete without mentioning Quarters One, the residence of the Army's senior uniformed officer. Completed in 1899, it was originally designated to serve as the post commander's house, but has been home to the U.S. Army chief of staff since 1908. Since that time it has been home to many famous Americans -- Douglas MacArthur, George C. Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar N. Bradley -- to name a few.
During World War II, Fort Myer served as a military in-processing and out-processing station. Defense troops were also stationed there throughout the war.
The U.S. Army Band, "Pershing's Own," moved to Fort Myer in 1942. Six years later, two battalions of the 3rd Infantry Regiment, the oldest regular Army regiment, were reactivated and assigned to Fort Myer and Fort McNair. Known as the Old Guard, this infantry unit assumed responsibility as the Army's official ceremonial and security force in Washington, D.C.
Fort McNair [http://www.fmmc.army.mil/sites/about/history-mcnair.asp], Washington, DC; Arlington Hall Station [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arlington_Hall], Arlington, VA; Fort Belvoir, VA, Armed Forces Police – Washington, DC - MDW, Air Police from Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, DC, and Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland also assisted.
Web Links on this page updated 11-11-2016.
This story previously appeared in Volume # 11, Issue # 3, July-August-September 2008 edition of "The White Mice"