Army MP and homeland defense in World War II

Army MP and homeland defense in World War II

Ronald Craig

On 1 September 1939, the Nazi armies initiated the beginning of World War II by invading Poland. One week later, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the President of the United States, declared a limited national emergency, and a massive military build-up began. The fear of attack was heightened after the German invasion of France in June 1940.

In early 1941, the War Department created defense commands to administer defensive strategy across the United States. The threats were realistic due to the advance in technology that allowed nations to strike long distances by sea or air. By November of that year, America’s defenses stretched along the Pacific from the Aleutian Islands through the Hawaiian Islands to the Panama Canal. The Atlantic defenses ranged from Newfoundland, Canada, through Bermuda and Puerto Rico to the Windward Islands east of the Panama Canal.

German submarines (called U-boats) began patrolling the East Coast of the United States as early as September 1939 and, by March 1940, had developed a blockade to prevent war material from reaching Great Britain. Germany and Italy declared war on the United States on 11 December 1941. During that month, only three U-boats operated off the East and Gulf coasts, preying on merchant ships and posing a threat of a secret invasion. Between January and September 1942, German U-boats sank 185 of these ships along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

While U-boats were searching for merchant ships in June 1942, a new threat emerged. On 13 June, a German submarine off-loaded four enemy agents on the beach at Amagansett, Long Island, New York. Four days later, four more agents were put ashore on Ponte Vedra Beach near Jacksonville, Florida. The saboteurs were ordered to destroy the dams at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, seriously damage the railways from New York to Chicago to St. Louis, and poison the New York City water supply. While the agents on Long Island were discovered quickly, the ones in Florida evaded discovery for over 24 hours–all eight were eventually captured.

Although a full-scale attack by German troops on the East Coast was never considered a possibility, a limited strike by paratroopers, small combat teams, and more saboteurs was a probability. It was this threat that kept the Army busy in that region.

The West Coast was also extremely valuable to the war effort. Half of all American military aircraft were produced in Los Angeles-area factories. In addition, naval yards, harbor shipping terminals, and the oil industry were vital for prosecuting a war. The vague threats made against the United States before 7 December 1941 became real after that day and took on a darker character.

Between December 1941 and August 1942, nine Japanese submarines prowled the waters off the West Coast, stationed at strategic locations. In one 6-day period, the submarines sank two American merchant ships and damaged two others.

On 23 February 1942, a Japanese submarine shelled the Ellwood oil refinery near Santa Barbara, California. These were the first enemy shells to strike the continental United States since 1814. The second attack came on the night of 21 June 1942 when a submarine surfaced and fired on Fort Stevens along Oregon’s Columbia River. The third attack came on 9 September 1942 when a floatplane from a submarine dropped an incendiary bomb on a mountain near Brookings, Oregon.

In November 1944, the Japanese began releasing balloons equipped with antipersonnel and incendiary bombs. Although a total of 9,000 were sent toward the United States between November 1944 and April 1945, only 285 are known to have landed. Seven people were killed, and a number of balloon-related forest fires started in the Pacific Northwest.

Soon after the 1939 national emergency declaration, the continental United States was designated as the Zone of Interior (ZI). The War Department specified the formation of 56 military police battalions for duty in that sector. They were to prevent sabotage and guard essential geographic locations and critical military installations.

In November 1941, Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall rejected the formation of 56 MP battalions and ordered that one infantry regiment out of every eight National Guard divisions be trained as MP. That training soon ended with the Pearl Harbor attack. The War Department then authorized the formation of 51 ZI MP battalions.

The ZI units were to be mobile defense forces that would respond to civil disturbances (such as riots and labor strikes) which would hamper the war industry. These battalions were to protect–

* Telegraph and telephone lines.

* Wharves and docks.

* Important bridges.

* Government plants.

* Storage depots.

* Terminals.

* Government agencies.

They also supervised and controlled civilian population evacuations during disasters/ emergencies, rode trains, and patrolled railroad stations.

The first nondivisional Army MP unit formed during the national crisis (before the attack on Pearl Harbor) was the 702d Battalion. This unit was activated on 5 January 1941 at Fort Brady just outside of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Its primary duty was to provide security for the Sault Ste. Marie Canals.

Coast Guard and Army infantry troops had been patrolling the canals area since September 1939. By 1941, about nine-tenths of the iron ore used in the United States traveled through the canals. The ore supplied factories throughout the country’s heartland. Coal, logs, wheat, fish, produce, and other raw products also passed through. Keeping these canals functioning was crucial to American manufacturing.

Following the completion of its initial training in May 1941, the 702d MP Battalion relieved the infantry troops. The 702d was sent to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, for intensive training and by the end of April, was sent to Maryland and Pennsylvania. The men in Maryland provided security for the Glen L. Martin Aircraft Plant, steel mills, and factories. The troops in Pennsylvania protected electrical installations that furnished power to war industry plants.

Less than a month after the 702d MP Battalion activated in Michigan, the 701st Battalion was formed at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, on 1 February 1941. It was formed by a group of soldiers from the 1st Infantry Regiment of Wyoming and recruits from the Fort Snelling induction center. Following a brief training period, the soldiers were dispatched to various parts of the Midwest. Some were sent to the U. S. Recreational Camp (USRC) at St. Louis, Missouri, while others went to the USRC at Kansas City, Missouri, and became the first MP to operate in railroad stations. On 14 December 1941, a detachment of the battalion was transferred to the U. S. Monitor Station at Grand Island, Nebraska. The rest of the battalion remained in the Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, area and provided security for numerous factories.

The pace of activation increased following the formation of those first ZI MP battalions. By the end of January 1942, 16 more battalions were activated. Then on 26 December 1942, another five battalions were formed–a total of 64. While the great majority of those battalions were assigned security duties throughout the United States, at least a dozen were alert-response units (or “flying squadrons,” as they were known). These units were trained to respond to emergencies, threats of invasion, or acts of sabotage.

At least half-a-dozen battalions performed both security and emergency response duties. One of these battalions was the 704th. It was activated on 22 January 1942 at Camp Edwards, Massachusetts. Its equipment included the high-speed M3 tank, with a 38-millimeter cannon on the front and machine guns on the rear, and the M8 armored scout-car with .50- and .30-caliber machine guns.

In January 1942, the 715th MP Battalion was formed. The original cadre was from the enlisted reserves who had been released from duty and recalled after Pearl Harbor. The officers came from Army Reserve and National Guard units. By April 1942, the battalion was guarding New York City’s primary water supply. After this duty ended in July, the 715th went to the Army’s New York port of embarkation where it received enemy prisoners of war and escorted them to various locations across the United States.

While in New York, the 714th MP Battalion had a unique assignment at Pier Number 90–guarding the Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, and three other civilian cruise ships. These ships were being used to transport military personnel to the war zones in Europe, North Africa, and the Mediterranean. Each ship could carry 15,000 troops.

The cruise ship sentries averted disaster a number of times. They discovered two bombs in the Queen Elizabeth’s troop section in April 1943. Another incident involved an alert officer who double-checked the lifeboats and discovered that 19 were unseaworthy–gunfire from the last voyage had riddled them.

The 739th Battalion, stationed at Mount Vernon, Illinois, also performed a variety of tasks, such as–

* Training state troops, plant guards, and other battalion’s officers.

* Responding to regional labor troubles.

* Guarding trains and prison camps.

* Escorting military prisoners and convoys of war materials.

An interesting point is that the MP-trained plant guards were actually auxiliary MP. Although these men and women were federal or civilian plant workers, they were subject to the rules of war and, therefore, court-martial.

Of all the battalions, the 740th from Camp Skokie, Illinois, had the most unique duties. In 1943 and 1944, it escorted American submarines from Chicago (where they were manufactured), down the Illinois River to St. Louis, where they entered the Mississippi River. They also escorted truck convoys that were moving tanks from Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois, to Chicago and various places in Pennsylvania and Michigan.

These are merely examples of what some ZI MP units did in World War II. These soldiers contributed greatly to America’s defeat of the Axis forces and helped keep the United States safe from attack. A large number of these ZI units were sent overseas after 1943 and were involved in combat in the various war zones, serving valorously in campaigns in the Pacific, Europe, and other theaters. While most of these activities took place almost 60 years ago, they are relevant to the United States today.

COPYRIGHT 2002 U.S. Army Maneuver Support Center

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group