Sunday, July 29, 2012

Without Firing A Shot: Occupation Duty As VFW Qualifier

Robert Widener

Occupation duty has a long and storied history as qualifying service for VFW eligibility. Here is a glimpse of the places that conferred membership on veterans who wore these little-known medals.

American military personnel who served on occupation duty in foreign lands have always been eligible for VFW membership. For 92 years, between 1898 and 1990, recipients of seven Army, Navy and Marine Corps occupation service medals were entitled to claim the Cross of Malta. And they did so by never seeing combat.


Soon after the Spanish-American War ended, U.S. forces began a new function on Cuba. The U.S. flag was hoisted over the island on Jan. 1, 1899, signifying the nation's first official overseas military occupation.

Troop strength on Cuba peaked at 45,000 that March. Soldiers disarmed insurgent forces and maintained law and order. Pacification was completed by the summer, and thereafter U.S. troops were gradually withdrawn until May 20, 1902, when the last men departed.

But American soldiers were back four years later. In the fall of 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched an expeditionary force to Havana. This Army of Cuban Pacification, consisting of 5,000 soldiers and 1,000 Marines, was restricted to garrison duty. At no time did U.S. servicemen engage in fighting.

With the revolt quelled, the last personnel left in the spring of 1909. They received the Cuban Pacification Medal.Perhaps the best-known recipient was "Colonel" Harland Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame.

The Army of Puerto Rico Occupation Medal went to troops stationed there between Aug. 14-Dec. 10, 1898. Some 16,253 regulars and volunteers (including poet-author Carl Sandberg, an active VFW member) served on that island.


In the wake of World War I, 240,000 Doughboys mounted a "watch on the Rhine." The newly created Third Army, made up of three corps comprising nine infantry divisions—1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 32nd, 42nd, 89th and 90th—was stationed in a dozen different cities.The 4th Marine Brigade—5th and 6th Marines—also was part of the American Army of Occupation.

By mid-1919, however, the Third Army was reduced to a mere 6,800 men and redesignated American Forces in Germany. The U.S. watch formally ended on Jan. 24, 1923, when the Stars and Stripes was lowered at Fort Ehrenbreitstein in Coblenz.

Three VFW commanders-in-chief— Eugene P. Carver (1928-29), Otis N. Brown (1939-40) and Joseph N. Stack (1945-46)—took part in the occupation of Germany after fighting in France in 1918.


After World War II, Gis saw service on two continents. In Asia, soldiers were posted to defeated Japan (including the RyuKyu Islands and Bonin-Volcano Islands), as well as its former colony, Korea. The Army's 6th, 7th and 40th Infantry divisions as part of the 24th Corps were stationed on the peninsula.

Troop strength there peaked at 72,360.One GI, Pvt. Charles Labita of E Co., 32nd IR, 7th ID, was KIA at an outpost near Kaesong on the Ongjin Peninsula On July 14, 1948.

The divisions were sent home, but the newly formed 5th Regimental Combat Team maintained a symbolic presence.The last Gis left on June 29, 1949 (the 5th went to Hawaii)—one year before the Korean War erupted. Only a 472- man Korean Military Advisory Group remained behind.

Japan was occupied by Gis beginning Aug. 30, 1945. Ultimately, 15 Army divisions, as well as the V Amphibious Corps (2nd and 5th Marine divisions), served on occupation duty there. U.S. Army troop strength in Japan peaked at 385,649 in December 1945.

By the time of South Korea's invasion in 1950, only the 1st Cavalry, 7th, 24th and 25th Infantry divisions were stationed in Japan. Also present was the 5th Air Force along with Naval Forces Far East.

When the occupation ended on April 27, 1952, with the restoration of Japanese sovereignty, Army forces there totaled 106,108. By then, of course, many of the troops were directly involved in the Korean War build-up.

Also, the Navy patrolled around many of the islands of Japan and off Korea, rating the Navy Occupation Service Medal.Some sailors served on shore in Asia.


Europe hosted by far the largest number of U.S. troops. They included the uniqueU. S. Constabulary. A million or more Gis rotated through Germany during the 10-year occupation period (1945-55).Among them were past VFW commanders- in-chief John Stang, Howard Vander Clute and Norman Staab.

Contrary to unsubstantiated claims circulated in 2003, only three American soldiers may have died from hostile causes in occupied Germany. On Dec. 23, 1945, two Gis of the 78th Infantry Division were killed near Templehof Airport by unidentified assailants. And on March 3, 1946, Lt. James Wilson of the 778th Ordnance Co., 78th Inf. Div., was shot to death by a Soviet sentry in Berlin while driving his car.

Austria, like Germany, was occupied for an entire decade. U.S. troops controlled one of four Allied zones there. The backbone of the Army's combat complement in Austria was the 350th Infantry Regiment, which was relieved from the 88th Infantry Division in May 1948. Also part of the early occupying force was the 4th Constabulary Regiment.

In mid-1952, Gis peaked at 17,490. The occupation closed with Austria's independence on July 27, 1955. During the occupation, on May 3, 1951, one GI, Cpl.Paul Gresens of the 796th MP Battalion, was shot and killed by two Soviet soldiers in Vienna.

Military government lasted in Italy proper until Sept. 15, 1947, date of the ratification of the Italian Peace Treaty. The 10th Mountain Division, and 34th, 85th, 88th and 91st Infantry divisions were there early on. The 5th Army's II Corps was gone by the end of September 1945, leaving behind one division. Eligibility for the Army of Occupation Medal (AOM) encompassed service within the compartment of Venezia Giulia E. Zara or province of Udine, or with a unit specifically designated.

One area of occupation in post-WWII Europe was unique because it witnessed actual firefights. Disputed Trieste, in the Province bordering Italy and Communist Yugoslavia, caused hostile action along the Morgan Line between members of the 88th Division and Tito's partisans during 1945-46.

On the ground, two 88th soldiers were KIA. And on July 12, 1946, a squad of L Co., 351st Inf., was ambushed by "Jugs" near Ursina. No Americans died in the firefight, but two Yugoslavian soldiers did. In the air over Bled, Yugoslavia, the communists shot down a plane of theU. S. European Air Transport Service, killing five Americans.

October 1946 saw the "Blue Devils" at 11,352 men—the only division in the entire U.S. Army then at full operational strength.

Cities in Crisis

Though Italy itself was not occupied after 1947, the 88th's 351st Regiment remained on duty in Trieste until Oct. 26, 1954, when the city was restored to Italy. Approximately 5,000 U.S. soldiers formed TRUST (Trieste U.S. Troops).

Soldiers who served on the Yugoslav border through mid-September 1947 earned the AOM, but those stationed in Trieste after that date were excluded.Tens of thousands of Gis rotated through Europe's "trigger city" over nearly 10 years.

The U.S. Navy, however, did recognize its personnel offshore in the Adriatic Sea up until October 1954, with the Navy Occupation Service Medal.

One remnant of the Army of Occupation remained on duty for another 36 years. Members of the Berlin Brigade and various Air Force units continued to qualify for the AOM, and thus VFW, until Oct. 2, 1990, when the Allied occupation formally ended. By the time the brigade was deactivated four years later, 100,000 Gis had served in the city.

As history shows, with only a handful of minor exceptions, hundreds of thousands of uniformed Americans qualified for VFW membership solely by virtue of overseas service recognized by the Army or Navy Occupation Medal. They have been welcome in the ranks for well over a century.

This article highlights the VFW's inclusion of Occupation Service as a qualifier to claim the Cross of Malta but it fails to explain why similar service in Europe and parts of Asia post 1955 is neglected. It seems to me to highlight the arbitrary nature of qualifying service especially in Europe.
My personal eligibility comes from service in S.W. Asia but I totally see why many Veteran's who served in Cold War Europe still feel out in the Cold. The VFW needs to adopt as inclusive as possible attitude on membership but maintain it's core values on what kind of service qualifies for membership. It is a fine line to walk. This article raises more questions then it answers on membership but it was informative
Sean P Eagan

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Former Chairman American Cold War Veterans
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