By 1LT David H. Furses
Policemen are not a loved breed of men. Their job is always tedious, usually dangerous, absolutely necessary and generally misunderstood. The job of the military police in a combat zone is even more complicated.
“We are not traffic cops,” said Lieutenant Colonel Philip L. Ash, 36, of Madison, Wis., Provost Marshal for the 9th Division. “Division MP’s are different from post, camp or station MP’s. MP’s in the 9th have a tremendous loyalty to the division, and we accent service and help rather than hard-nosed policemanship.”
Detaining and classifying enemy suspects, convoy escort, traffic control, raids, criminal investigations and firearm registration are all duties of the 9th MP Company. Their mission encompasses the entire division area of operations in the Delta, particularly the highways and bridges. All division MP’s from the provost marshal to the desk sergeant are on call for emergency missions requiring their assistance.
A recent intelligence report indicated five members of the Viet Cong infrastructure were located at a village near Dong Tam. At 5 a.m. the next morning a party of eight MP’s, including Ash, his assistant provost marshal and two desk clerks, swooped down on the village, capturing the VC with their records and weapons.
“We had to get out on the road before the mine sweeper,” explained Captain Aubrey R. Merrill Jr., 25, of New York City, assistant provost marshal and leader of the raid. “Speeding down that road before it’s secured scares the hell out of me, but it’s the only way we could surprise the VC. Colonel Ash came along as an observer and the two clerks volunteered
because we needed them. The spirit is very high in the 9th MP Company. ”
Highways in the river-riddled delta are few and the many bridges make them extremely vulnerable to VC interdiction. With the mission to keep wheeled traffic moving, 9th Division MP’s are always invited to bridge downings. When the VC destroyed a 150-foot span of the Ben Luc bridge, 9th MP’s were there almost immediately helping their ARVN counterparts (QC’s) and national police direct traffic across a one-lane pontoon bridge constructed by the 15th Engineer Battalion.
Despite the attack
The MP’s kept the traffic moving despite VC mortar and small arms fire. The access road leading to the pontoon bridge south of the main bridge had to be constantly regraded by the engineers as rain eroded the slippery mud. That first day the MP’s moved 2,134 vehicles across the bridge, almost half again the normal daily load due to the backup.
“Despite the attack,” recalled Ash, “two MP’s stayed on the bridge to keep the traffic moving. Another five were on the access road pushing the small vehicles and getting the bigger ones out of the way.
“When the VC opened up with small arms fire, our men administered first aid, kept traffic moving and called in the dust-offs.”
The Ben Luc bridge is a critical point in the Highway 4 artery feeding Saigon. With the bridge down, food for the capital city was virtually cut off. The MP’s and QC’s kept over 2,200 vehicles a day moving across the tiny interim bridge for the two days following the destruction. Despite a command-detonated bomb found on the south access road on the third day, a record 2,963 vehicles cross this vital link
Over a dozen division MP’s were recommended for valor awards following the Ben Luc action. Ash, far from being desk soldier, was continually in the midst of the action himself. Ninth Division MP’s were there when the action began and are still there.
“I sometimes dream of an operation in the middle of a dry plain where there are no bridges,” Merrill said wistfully. “We’ve been involved with bridges since we’ve been here.”
Downed bridges are only part of the MP’s job in the 9th Division. Commanded by Captain Edwin L. Freeman, 32, of Portland, Ore., the 9th Military Police Company has detachments spread throughout the delta. The company’s 200 enlisted men and officers are organized into four line platoons and one security platoon, but none of them operate intact.
Tiny traffic count points are maintained along all main highways in the delta. MP’s escort division convoys and answer distress calls from vehicles lost or damaged on the highway.
“The traffic investigator who jumps into his jeep to investigate an accident report out on the highway is an example of the unsung heroics connected with this kind of job,” said Ash. “He’s just doing his job and no one ever hears much about it, but it takes a lot of guts to get out on the road day after day and sometime at night.”
Specialist our Harold R. Moran, 21 of Bronx, N.Y., and Private First Class James F. Kerr, 20 of Saugerties, N.Y., answered a call for help from a popular forces post several hundred yards from their traffic control point near My Tho at the junction of Highways 4 and 6A. They sped to the outpost and returned enemy fire with their M-60 machinegun from the road. When the VC fire ceased, they returned to their post at the highway junction to continue their real mission of traffic control.
200 mortar rounds
One mission peculiar to MP’s in a combat zone is the detention and processing of detainees. The detainee Collection Point at the division’s Dong Tam headquarters has been commended by Red Cross and USARV inspection teams. Detainees are provided bunker, shelter and latrine facilities in each of the six areas of the compound. They are interrogated, classified and sent to the proper detaining authority with minimum delay.
The addition of the Mobile Riverine Force to the 9th Division required the introduction of a floating jail for detainees taken during riverine operations. The unique detainee boat is run by the MP’s.
Sergeant Monte R. DeVere, 47, of Port Townsend, Wash., affectionately called ‘Pop’, was one of the first MP’s to come to Dong Tam. DeVere, a veteran of 26 years in the Army, remembers fondly the first MP headquarters here as a small general purpose tent full of water.
“The Collection Point was one roll of concertina wire,” recalled Pop DeVere. “One night we had 370 detainees, so we just strung the whole MP area with concertina wire. Eventually we were able to improve the area and make a real compound. Then one night the VC dropped 200 mortar rounds right on us and destroyed the whole area. Even with the improvements it was nothing like it is now.”
Security of the division headquarters is perhaps the most apparent area of MP operation. The MP at the main gate and at the entrance to the division tactical operations center is the same spit-and-polish MP to be found anywhere in Vietnam or the world.
First Lieutenant Phil E. Wolever, 22, of Portland, Ore., is the commanding officer of the security platoon. “In addition to our regular posts, the security platoon is responsible for all limited access and classified areas,” said Wolever.
Mission of service
In executing their combat support mission, the 9th MP Company always emphasizes service to the infantrymen, not handing out DR’s, explained Merril.
“We don’t prosecute 9th Division soldiers,” continued Ash. “We merely make reports to commanders. Our mission is service. Most of our cases are never even recorded against a man’s record.”
“The MP’s are here to help the men of this division, not to make life miserable for them.”
Photos by Furse