Tour of Duty (1955-1958)

In 1955, the world scene was deceptively quiet. American’s who, by nature, like to get a job

John Malch Camp Irwin 1955

John Malch
Camp Irwin 1955

done and go home were settling in to the post-war life as they wanted to live it. It was a short decade after WWII’s hostilities cooled. Unfortunately, the Cold War (1947-1991) was a lot hotter than most U.S. citizens realized. This is what greeted John Malch, a nineteen year old, bright, fresh-faced Army recruit in training to become a MP. Over the next three years, John captured a photographic record of his experiences as he lived and learned about the world around him. He’s captured those three years in Tour of Duty, an insightful twenty-eight minute video, Photo essay of a Soldiers’ ‘Tour of Duty’  (1955 – 1958)

A MP assignment was a perfect fit for young John Malch’s inquiring mind, need for order and drive for an underlying truth.  His photography reflects the soul of both the U.S. and Europe’s recovery from a devastating war. An interesting and surprising maturity is reflected in his photographic record. John may have left the Army in 1955 but he did not leave the military arena; he went on to serve in Vietnam. The qualities that drove the photographic excellence between 1955 and 1958 stayed with him. His drive for the truth did too.

Some of the photographs in John’s photo essay are from Fort Irwin, California, his first duty

station. “I arrived at Camp Irwin 6 September 1955 (Day after Labor Day).  My unit was Military

Fort Irwin

Fort Irwin

Police Detachment #2 of 6019th Service Unit.  The MP detachment was way under-staffed and current personnel were delighted to see newbies.”  In fact there were just twenty-three MP personnel on site including; a colorful Provost Marshal, James Petty, Captain Dalto the Detachment Commanding Officer, the Executive Officer, Chris Sprotte the Detachment Clerk, a couple of spooks, a couple of Town Patrol, some desk sergeants, stockade turnkeys, three NCO’s, a corporal who loved to play poker, a German National, a newbie Filipino, a guy from Pennsylvania, a specialist whose father was in copper mining and one from Orange county who drove a blue 1954 Ford. 

John reflects on that time, “Including myself, there was a total of just twenty-three MP personnel.  The manning status drastically increased after October 1955 when US Army occupational forces began withdrawal from Austria.  The MP rank & file at Camp Irwin were to be outnumbered three to one by ‘RIF’ Non-Com’s returning from US Zone in Austria.  We were so top-heavy with surplus NCOs; that they were assigned menial tasks normally performed by E-2 & E-3’s., like  Tower Guard-duty in Post Stockade, TCP (Traffic Control Point),  Main Gate guard-duty, etc, etc.  We in the lower ranks loved it.  These NCO’s were all WW II retreads and hated it.  And, they despised draftees and barely tolerated those of us who were RA (Regular Army).  There was a lot of tension, especially from those who were nearing retirement.

My first duty assignment as patrolman, (in September) was Post Familiarization.  TCP, and learning inner post streets and post layout, street patrols with vehicle, checking incident ‘hot spots’, including EM, Beer Hall, Post Theater, PX and Snack Bar.  By the middle of September I was patrolling all roads, in all directions, entering and leaving Post area.

I recall a near disastrous incident (for me) which occurred while on patrol; driving south on

Practice for astronauts on Langford Wells Dry Lake where John Malch just about met his Waterloo.

Practice for astronauts on Langford Wells Dry Lake where John Malch just about met his Waterloo.

Langford Lake Road.  As I neared the edge of Langford Dry Lake, I saw a flashing reflection across the lake bed at higher elevation.  I radioed the desk sergeant, asking if any maneuvers were scheduled in that area.  He reported, negative.  I said the reflection appeared to be coming from an automobile windshield and requested approval to cross the dry lake and investigate. He gave the okay.  (Note:  This area was off limits to all personnel (Military & Civilian) regardless whether maneuvers were taking place).  I drove across the lake and continued upward on a narrow road to where the emitting reflection was located. It turned out to be windshield previously removed from an abandoned automobile.  I attempted to radio the desk sergeant and report, but, was out of signal range.  Well, here’s where it got hairy.  While attempting to turn around on that narrow road, I got stuck in the sand that was up to the rear axle.  No way was I going to drive back to post.  With no jack in the trunk to lift the rear end and place something under the tires to get traction and a dead radio, I had only one option, I had to walk back across a dry lake bed via Langford Lake Road.  The distance back to post didn’t frighten me, as was approximate 6 miles.   What scared the crap out me was I didn’t have any water and it was really hot.

 The incident happened mid-day and I probably hung around the site for another hour trying to drive out of the sand.  Anyway, I began my trek back to post, walking slowly and arriving at the MP station around 1700 hours.  The desk sergeant chewed me another rear-end for not reporting my dilemma.  After I wrote my detailed report and then verbally explained what I had encountered, he apologized and told me I was officially recognized as a desert survivor.  I didn’t see anything funny about it at the time.”  

Right after learning all about desert survival, John learned about the wild rides of September and desert cloudbursts. “There had been numerous complaints from both military and civilians who drove the daily round-trip route between Barstow and Camp Irwin.  Their gripe was mostly about speeders and reckless drivers.  Provost Marshal, Major Petty requested Captain Dalto to set up a sort of highway patrol for the Camp Irwin roadway.  The operation was quite simple.  Using a marked MP sedan with one patrolman and scheduling 2 four hour weekday shifts.  The morning shift was from 0600 hours to 1000 hours and afternoon shift from 1500 hours to 1900 hours.  Rather than use two patrolmen, Dalto decided one man would work this split shift.  It was not too well received by any of us, until we learned it would be on a rotational basis.  In other words, each patrolman would pull one shift and rotate it to the next patrolman. (At the time there were only five available patrolmen)  So, we had this duty once a week.

The day of the viscous thunderstorm, I was on duty and driving westbound on Camp Irwin Road.  As I neared Barstow, I received a radio message from desk sergeant alerting me of an incoming storm and to immediately return to post.  About halfway back, it started to rain.  Never before had I seen such a heavy downpour.  As the pouring rain hit the granite mountain sides; hundreds of waterfalls appeared along downward slopes. The downpour became torrents of water flowing into dry washes and immediately becoming a flash flood.  (This was the first and only one that I have ever witnessed)  I made it back safely, but shaken.  The storm had passed-by and flooding within a very short time receded to a trickle of water.  Just another awesome experience and I will never forget it.

Several weeks later Bicycle Lake was still filled with over 18 inches of water and the phenomenal

Douglas RB-23 of the USAAF photographed at Bicycle Lake (assigned to Muroc Lake Army Air Base)

Douglas RB-23 of the USAAF photographed at Bicycle Lake (assigned to Muroc Lake Army Air Base)

hatching of dormant spiny tail fairy shrimp-eggs began.

Post Script:  Needless to say, because of these unusual circumstances, the highway patrol duty ended.”

John soon learned that one of his duties was to protect the payroll, just like in the wild-west. Fort Irwin, formerly Camp Irwin, is located about thirty-five miles from Barstow, California, which is in the middle of the harsh and forbidding Mojave Desert. The drive between Fort Irwin and Barstow is isolated and exposed. John writes:

Riding ‘shotgun’ on the monthly payroll convoys between Barstow and Camp Irwin, or, as my good buddy, George ‘Chris’ Sprotte* use to call it:  “Follies of the Keystone “MP’s” at Camp Irwin.

You may have heard of Major James Petty.  He was a product of the old army (pre-WW II).  I believe that he most likely read too many westerns thrillers by writer Louis L’Amour.   Because, he was paranoid about protecting the monthly payroll run between Barstow and Camp Irwin; thinking that there was an outlaw at each bend in the road or hiding above in a hidden escarpment.

In the ‘old Army‘, payday was made once a month and usually on the last duty day of that month.  Probably, because of customs going back to the really olden days, when payroll was made in US coin & currency. 

The monthly payroll at Camp Irwin was about $3,000,000.  The transfer of this cash began at Bank of America in Barstow.  It was the responsibility of the Provost Marshal to assure safe passage via highway to Finance Office on post.

The PM (Provost Marshal) was Major Petty.  He assigned Captain Dalto, who was his MP detachment commanding officer, the task of providing vehicles and air support with a contingent of heavily armed patrolman to protect the payroll while in transit.  The land transportation included three vehicles:  Lead vehicle was an open Jeep with armed (standard issued .45) driver and one patrolman holding a M-3 weapon (.45-caliber sub-machine gun, “the Greaser”). The middle unit was an unmarked civilian automobile owned and driven by unarmed Bank of America personnel.  Passengers were one unarmed NCO from Finance Office and one armed patrolman holding “the Greaser”. The following vehicle was a Military Police sedan, with an armed driver, his right side passenger, a patrolman holding a 12 gauge shotgun loaded with ‘double-aught buckshot‘.  Passengers seated in rear:  left side, patrolman holding “the Greaser”, middle was OIC, Captain Dalto and armed with a .45; right side, patrolman holding “the Greaser”. Air support was L-19/O-1 observation aircraft, with armed pilot and MP-NCO armed with a BAR (Browning automatic rifle). I was the one who carried the shotgun.  I had this duty three times without incident. With all the firepower we carried, plus an aerial spotter equipped with a BAR, we would have done some serious damage to the bad guys; unless, of course, they used an IED. ” The fear of ambush was reasonable given that the highway provided great cover for an ambush with its many curves and passes.

No wild-west or ‘Keystone MPs’ story is complete without fighting a winning against a band of ruthless rustlers and they did just that; the ‘Brass Rustlers’. “Camp Irwin has a perimeter in all directions of about 30 miles covering flat and mountainous areas of approximately 1000 square miles, slightly smaller in area then the state of Rhode Island.  There is only one authorized entrance, an unmarked paved highway starting near Barstow and running northeast to Main Gate and entrance to CDP or main post. In 1955, however, there were several other ways of ingress and not known to the general public: 1.  Driving east on US 91 past Yermo, proceeding north and  crossing Coyote Dry Lake turning east on to an unimproved trail (4-WD only) that paralleled south of main road and entered CDP via Langford Lake; 2.  Near Afton on US 91 enter north on open desert (via a wash) proceed through Alvord Pass, also via Langford Lake to CDP; 3. A few mile north of Baker via State Route 127, turn west and cross Silver Dry Lake, drive over Soda Mountain pass to the live-fire range; 4. Driving south from Death Valley over Avawatz Mountain pass to the live-fire range; and 5. West from Goldstone Dry Lake (previously a WW II  bombing target) to the live-fire range.

Normally, after live-fire exercises with M-48 tanks discharging 90mm projectiles, the expended brass shell casings were gathered or ‘policed’ by an after-action team. Once policed, they were

Policing Brass!

Policing Brass!

moved to a secure storage area within the main post compound.  But, sometimes a late Friday exercise caused the team not to remove expended brass. This is when the Brass Rustlers covertly entered the post and pilfered the empty shells.  The CID spook’s suspected that an insider (either civilian or military) tipped the rustlers to this unguarded cache.

The ever innovative PM, James Petty, decided to set-up a range patrol.  He delegated this mission to SFC Sherlock whose all volunteer team used off-duty MP patrolmen who were willing to work two twelve hour shifts on weekends.

When the spooks had hard evidence of a possible brass raid, they would request aerial support to assist in spotting the brass thieves.  My only involvement was that after capture of the crooks, I would transport them to MP station, where they were held for integration by civilian or federal authorities.

Indeed, it was an insider that tipped the crooks.  He was an enlisted man assigned to 723rd Tank Battalion, as permanent party.”  He was court-martialed, found guilty, and taken by the ear to the stockade at Fort Ord.

Life’s paths are rich for each individual. The paths are paved with the stories we place one upon another in our memories. The tales are filled with the color of people and places and things, the scent of events recalled unexpectedly, the feel of the air and the stirrings in our soul. It is a rare privilege to listen to the accounts of a life well-lived from friends and family and even more extraordinary to be able to look at life through the eyes of a young person as they lived it fifty-eight years ago.


[Editor’s Note: John Malch’s Photo essay of a Soldiers’ ‘Tour of Duty’  (1955 – 1958) only hints at the stories he told today. His video will take you from Camp Irwin to the Troop Transport ship to Europe during reconstruction. Enjoy!]

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