By Joshua Cline
Bill Mauldin, the famous Army cartoonist of World War II fame, said of the military police (MP): “For the doubtful privilege of maintaining law and order in the armed forces and being able to put the cuff on just about everything in uniform, the MP has to take a lot of ribbing, some of it funny and some of it nasty, but the MP is a handy guy to have around.” This is certainly a good way to describe the 716th Military Police Battalion, the most decorated MP battalion in the U.S. Army. Activated during World War II in 1942, the unit is currently assigned to the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).
One of the first military police battalions in the Army, the origins of the 716th date to 10 January 1942 when it was constituted in the Army of the United States and activated five days later on 15 January. For its service at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, New York, providing security for dignitaries and guarding prisoners of war, the battalion was awarded the first of nine Meritorious Unit Commendations (MUCs). After the war ended, the unit was assigned to Fort Dix, New Jersey, which would be its home for the next nineteen years. While there, the battalion served as President Harry S. Truman’s honor guard at the dedication of the United Nations building in New York City in 1949. In 1956, following the Hungarian Revolution, the 716th assisted with the arrival of 22,000 Hungarian refugees in Operation MERCY at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey.
The 716th was heavily involved in the Ole Miss Riot of 1962 and the effort to protect James Meredith, the University of Mississippi’s first black student, following the unrest that resulted from his enrollment. By then, the 716th was a Strategic Army Corps (STRAC) unit assigned to XVIII Airborne Corps. The riot erupted on 30 September 1962 when Meredith arrived on the campus. A segregationist mob soon descended on the university and clashed with the federal marshals assigned to protect Meredith.
At the height of Army presence, the 716th MP Battalion was among the 30,000 National Guardsmen and Regular Army troops deployed to the Oxford campus. By the end of October, the Army presence was reduced to Companies A and B of the 716th. This was further reduced by 19 December to one company, rotated on a monthly basis. The squad that provided long-term protection to James Meredith was nicknamed the “Peanut Patrol” after the comic strip Peanuts. On 23 July 1963, Company A redeployed to Fort Dix, ending the Army’s presence at Ole Miss. The following year, 1964, the 716th guarded Joseph Valachi, the mobster credited with popularizing the term cosa nostra and revealing the existence of the Sicilian Mafia.
Soon, new orders pulled the 716th away from Fort Dix permanently. The 716th MP Battalion was one of the first Army units to deploy to South Vietnam, arriving on 19 March 1965, nearly two months before the Army’s first major combat unit, the 173d Airborne Brigade, reached Vietnam. Initially, the battalion had the whole of the Republic of Vietnam as its area of operations, serving in this capacity until September. The arrival of the 504th MP Battalion and the 89th MP Brigade saw the 716th’s area reduced to Saigon and the III and IV Corps areas; this was eventually reduced to Saigon and Tan Son Nhut Airport, the location of the headquarters of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). This was still an area of fifty square miles, within which were 450 American installations.
The most significant event in the 716th’s history occurred early on the morning of 31 January 1968 during the opening of the Tet Offensive by Communist forces. Saigon was seemingly defenseless during Tet. No American combat units were posted within the city due to General William Westmoreland’s decision to hand over security to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) the previous month. ARVN units were severely understrength due to troops going home to celebrate Tet with family. During the opening night of the Tet Offensive, the 716th was the only fully operational unit of both U.S. and South Vietnamese forces on the streets of Saigon.
The 716th, the largest military police battalion in the U.S. Army with a strength of approximately 1,100, was under the operational command of Brigadier General Albin F. Irzyk, commander of Headquarters Area Command (HAC). Speaking of HAC, of which the 716th was attached, Irzyk described HAC and the 716th’s situation as such: “A relatively unnoticed, unheralded element, just minding its own business, is suddenly confronted with an extremely grave and totally unexpected emergency. A catastrophe apparently far beyond its capability to avert is unfolding. Something must instantly be done to avoid disaster. And it is the only element available to do any ‘doing.’”
Irzyk considered the 716th as “powerful, appropriate, perfectly and expertly honed for the task [of providing law and order and security to Saigon].” At the time the 716th consisted of the Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment (HHD); Companies A,B, and C; 527th MP Company; 907th MP Detachment; Company C, 52d Infantry; and 200 men of Irzyk’s HAC Security Guard Company, swelling the battalion’s ranks to 1,300 MPs and riflemen.
Before the battle began, Westmoreland, at MACV headquarters, ordered Irzyk to maximum alert against possible sapper attacks that night. According to Irzyk, the “MPs traded in…their neat, starched, crisp uniforms for fatigues; and their night sticks for automatic weapons…then they thrust their arms through flak jackets…What a tremendous turnabout, what an instant change in image—one that would forever be remembered.” The Viet Cong (VC) had expected little ARVN opposition and did not expect an effective American military presence in the South Vietnamese capital. It took the 716th less than three hours to transform itself from a police element to one resembling an infantry battalion. The 716th and the noncombat personnel of HAC, now armed and ready to respond, proved to be an unexpected surprise to the enemy.
The soldiers who engaged the VC sappers on the grounds of the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon, an event broadcast on the televised news back in America, were the troops of the 716th MP Battalion, along with Marine Corps embassy guards. Two MPs of the 716th were on guard at the U.S. Embassy at the time of the VC attack: Specialist 4 Charles L. Daniel and Private First Class William E. Sebast. Their distress call at 0247 when VC sappers blew a hole in the embassy’s perimeter wall alerted the battalion. The MPs killed the two leaders of the sapper team before being overwhelmed and killed. MP quick reaction forces (QRFs) worked closely with the embassy’s Marine guards; at 0645, the American force assaulted and secured the embassy by 0900. Captured VC would later say that everywhere they turned, the MPs were there. Specialist 4 Paul V. Healey was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during the battle. Five Americans—four MPs and one marine—were killed and fifteen wounded.
When the offensive began, the 716th had forty-one jeeps on patrol in the city, and every company had stood up QRFs with jeeps and trucks to respond to requests for support. None expected how frenetic that night would be. The majority of the 716th’s casualties that night occurred in an ambush near Bachelor Officers’ Quarters No. 3. A VC company attacked a QRF from Company C in an alleyway, destroying a truck with explosives and killing or wounding several MPs in it. Reinforcing QRFs of both the 716th and HAC secured the truck after twelve hours of combat, but the battle would only end after the first tactical troops to enter Saigon—Troop A, 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment—provided armored support, securing the alleyway at 1700 hours after fourteen hours of nonstop combat. In this event, sixteen MPs were killed and four wounded in the truck ambush; twenty-four more were wounded between the two QRFs. In the opening battle for the Phu Tho Racetrack nearby, five more MPs were killed and twelve wounded.
Despite not having advanced infantry training, the MPs’ secondary mission was “to fight as infantry when required,” and they did so in Saigon that night. Of the 130 facilities under the 716th’s protection, not one of them was captured during Tet, with ten major engagements fought across the city. In all, the 716th lost twenty-seven killed and forty-four wounded during the Tet Offensive, having suffered no casualties in the entire previous year. Individual awards included one DSC, two Silver Stars, eighty-nine Bronze Stars, and sixty-four Army Commendation Medals. Brigadier General Irzyk had this to say of the MPs: “Our frontline troops were the MPs. They were magnificent, superb…that battalion was like a rubber band that was stretched to the limit…The MPs were engaged in tactical skirmishes doing tactical jobs that were far beyond their mission, simply because there wasn’t anyone else to do them. The result: we had no installations lost or damaged, no key individuals lost. As far as Saigon is concerned, we accomplished our mission.”
The Tet Offensive did not let up, and most MPs remained functioning as infantry as long as Saigon remained under direct enemy threat. For its actions between 31 January and 10 February 1968, the 716th was awarded the Army Presidential Unit Citation. Signed by President Richard M. Nixon on 4 February 1969, it states in part: “Although not organized for a tactical combat mission, [the 716th] were instrumental in the defense of Saigon…Within six hours after the initial enemy attack, over 800 members of the Battalion had been committed to action throughout the city…Even though the effort of the Battalion was fragmented, it did not lose control of the situation.” Additionally, the 716th received the special designation “Saigon Warriors.” During the second phase of the 1968 Tet Offensive (also known as the May Offensive or Mini-Tet) and the 1969 Tet Offensive, the battalion would once more take to Saigon’s streets to defend the capital.
As part of Vietnamization and the reduction of American forces in Southeast Asia, Company C, 52d Infantry, was inactivated on 7 August 1972. On 29 March 1973, with the inactivation of MACV, the Army inactivated the 716th’s Companies A, B, and C. The 716th MP Battalion was redeployed from Vietnam to Fort Riley, Kansas, leaving the same day as the last American combat troops. For their service in Vietnam, the 716th earned campaign streamers for nearly every campaign of the Vietnam War—Defense through Cease-Fire, missing only Advisory, the war’s first campaign. In addition to a Presidential Unit Citation, the 716th was awarded two Republic of Vietnam Crosses of Gallantry with Palm, the Navy Unit Commendation, and three MUCs. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, includes the names of forty-eight soldiers from the 716th and attached units.
The 716th was assigned to the 1st Infantry Division for the next twenty-four years. On 2 April 1973, the 508th MP Battalion cased its colors and was reflagged as the 716th. Subsequently, the previously alphabetical units were redesignated the 890th, 977th, and 978th MP Companies. The 1st and 207th MP Companies were also attached to the battalion.
In October 1990, the 716th deployed to Saudi Arabia in support of Operation DESERT SHIELD. During the subsequent Operation DESERT STORM, the battalion supported VII Corps, XVIII Airborne Corps, 22d Corps Support Command, and the 1st Infantry Division. For its service during this conflict, the 716th was awarded a fifth MUC. On 8 August 1993, while supporting United Nations Operations in Somalia II, four MPs were killed in Mogadishu when their patrol vehicle drove over a mine; three of those killed were assigned to the 977th MP Company: Specialists Mark Gutting and Keith Pearson, and Sergeant Christopher Hilgert, along with Staff Sergeant Ronald Richerson of the 300th MP Company. All four names are on the 716th’s memorial at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
In early 1994, the 716th deployed to Guantanamo Naval Base, Cuba, to support Joint Task Force 160 (JTF-160) and Operation SEA SIGNAL, assisting tens of thousands of Cuban and Haitian refugees. In September 1994, a future subordinate unit of the 716th, the 101st Military Police Company (Air Assault), deployed to support XVIII Corps and JTF-180 in Operation UPHOLD DEMOCRACY in Haiti, receiving the Joint Meritorious Unit Award. Two years later in June 1996, the 716th was reassigned from the 1st Infantry Division to the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) at Fort Campbell. The Fort Campbell Law Enforcement Command “Eagle Standards” cased battalion colors and joined the 716th. The 716th’s previous subordinate units were inactivated or detached, and the battalion assumed command and control of the 101st, 194th, and 551st MP Companies.
In 2001, the 716th deployed elements to Kosovo in support of Task Force Falcon, and changed its nickname from “Saigon Warriors” to “Peacekeepers.” On 1 June, during this peacekeeping mission, Specialist James T. Sakofsky died after his vehicle overturned; his name is etched on the 716th’s memorial at Fort Campbell. Three months later, after the 11 September 2001 attacks, the 716th was poised to participate in the Global War on Terror. In early 2002, the 716th deployed the 194th MP Company and 3d Platoon, 101st MP Company, in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM in Afghanistan. In September, the 551st deployed to Djibouti to provide protection for U.S. Special Operations Command forces, transitioning from there to Iraq.
In March, 2003, the 716th deployed in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM as a supporting unit of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), with the 101st MP Company deploying separately with the 101st Airborne Division. For their actions in this deployment, the 716th was included in the Navy Presidential Unit Citation awarded to the 1st MEF. Other awards included a sixth MUC, twenty-three Bronze Stars for Valor, forty-five Bronze Stars for Meritorious Service, thirty-one Army Commendation Medals for Valor, and twenty-seven Purple Hearts, four posthumously. Tragically, the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Kim S. Orlando, was killed in action along with Staff Sergeant Joseph P. Bellavia and Corporal Sean R. Grilley in Karbala, Iraq, on 16 October 2003. Seven other soldiers were wounded in the engagement. Orlando was the highest-ranking Army officer killed in action in 2003.
Returning from Iraq in March 2004, the 101st MP Company was inactivated in August, and subsequently, the 561st MP Company was activated. In December 2005, the 716th deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. Serving as command and control for Shindand Army Airfield until it was transferred to NATO control, the battalion relocated to Bagram Airfield, assuming responsibility for security and theater response among other duties, and earning a seventh MUC.
The 716th deployed to Iraq once again in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM starting in December 2007 for a fifteen-month deployment, functioning as command and control for eight MP companies and one Air Force Security Forces Squadron. For this deployment, the 716th earned its eighth MUC. From early 2009 to mid-2010, the 218th and 551st MP Companies deployed for IRAQI FREEDOM. In Early 2011, the 194th MP Company deployed to Ramadi for Operation NEW DAWN supporting the Iraqi military, while the 561st MP Company deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan. Early in 2012, the 716th Headquarters again deployed to Afghanistan. When the unit returned to Fort Campbell in December 2012, the 716th’s participation in the war in Afghanistan ended. For this deployment, the 716th earned its ninth MUC. In recognition of the battalion’s sacrifices in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, eight names were inscribed on the 716th’s memorial at Fort Campbell for unit members killed in action during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, and five more were added for those lost in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM.
Since the end of their combat operations, the 716th has not been quiet, repeatedly deploying individual companies and detachments overseas. Between October 2014 and March 2015, the 194th MP Company was deployed to Liberia, supporting Operation UNITED ASSISTANCE to combat the spread of the Ebola virus. In 2015, with the 101st Sustainment Brigade becoming part of the 101st Airborne Division, the 716th was assigned to the brigade. In 2017, the 163d MP Detachment deployed with the 550th Firefighter Detachment to Romania and Bulgaria; the 887th Engineer Support Company was attached to the battalion; and the 561st MP Company deployed to Germany in support of Operation ATLANTIC RESOLVE, with the 551st doing so as well in mid-2018. Upon the 551st MP Company’s return from Europe, the company was awarded the Brigadier General Jeremiah P. Holland Award, marking them as the best military police company for 2018.
In 2020, the 194th MP Company deployed to Germany to support Operation DETERRENCE INITIATIVE. In mid-2021, the 551st MP Company deployed to Africa to train and work with allied forces. Upon their return, the 561st and 551st deployed to Fort Pickett (now Fort Barfoot), Virginia, in support of Operation ALLIES WELCOME and evacuees from Afghanistan. In January 2022, the 551st MP Company deployed to Poland. The Peacekeepers of the 716th remain active today. The battalion is currently comprised of the 716th Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 163d MP Detachment, 510th MP Detachment, 194th MP Company, 218th MP Company, 551st MP Company, and the 561st MP Company.