Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Story of the 731st

My life as the program coordinator for Chamorro Studies means that my life boils down to one exciting project after the next. One thing that I love about Chamorro Studies here at UOG is that while it is an academic program in an academic institution, it is also community driven. So many of the projects that I have taken on over the past year were initiated by people in the community who wanted to have their stories recorded, wanted to have something documented, wanted to see something that is very necessary be created in the community. One project that I am hoping to expand upon in the coming year is the story of the 731st MP Company, which was a National Guard reserve component unit that served in the First Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm. They were the only unit of their type from the Pacific region to be deployed and they served with great distinction. I have been working with their command officer when they were deployed Joseph Hara Salas about telling this story and interviewing some of its members. The first stage of the process was to publish a short column in the Marianas Variety that gave an overview of their accomplishments and introduce the project to the community. This past week the article "The Story of the 731st MP Company" was published in the Variety. I've pasted a copy of it below:

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The Story of the 731st MP Company

People often think of Guam as a small place, and assume that small places and those who come from them are incapable of great deeds.  However, the work of the 731st MP (EPW-Proc) Company, begun on July 31, 1981, demonstrates that the Chamorro people are truly capable of greatness.  Formed soon after the Guam National Guard was created, the Company’s major mission was to process enemy prisoners of war (EPW), in addition to acting as military police (MP).

The Company’s training was tested when it was activated and deployed during the Persian Gulf War (First Gulf War).  It was the only reserve component unit from the entire Asia-Pacific region to be deployed during this war.  Some might assume that since these soldiers were mostly Chamorro, with some Filipinos and other Micronesian islanders, they were ill-prepared for desert warfare.  However, their training was to prove worthy of their task. 

A party was held on January 2, 1991, at Andersen South to honor these brave soldiers of the 731st MP (EPW-Proc) Company who were about to be sent to the other side of the world.  There were many salutations, many tears, and many prayers for these soldiers to return home safely.

The soldiers traveled from Guam to Schofield Base, Hawaii, for training, re-grouping, and processing, where they were joined by a contingent of volunteers from Guam and Hawaii.  These soldiers were naturally anxious since about 95% of them were not experienced in combat situations.  At Schofield Base, they had physical examinations, training in weapons qualification, and a course in Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical (NBC) weapons.  The dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, had used chemical weapons against the Kurds before, and the Americans were not taking any chances.  Iraq had the fourth biggest army in the world at that time.  The 731st MP Company was issued suits and gas masks for additional protection.  While the soldiers remained stoic, not wanting to show fear, their officers were anxious that many would not return home alive.

The 731st MP Company flew from Hawaii to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, via New Jersey and Germany.  They arrived a few hours after midnight, with the air quiet and cold, the ground covered with snow.  Soldiers felt the eeriness of their surroundings, instinctively sensing unknown dangers on the horizon.

The war had not gone well for the Iraqis: thousands of their troops on the front line had been cut off and abandoned by their command after the U.S. began to bomb and invade.  Most, if not all, of the Iraqi troops were poorly trained conscripts.  Tens of thousands of them began to surrender, desperate for food.  It was at this point that the 731st MP Company proved its skills and set a record for the highest number of EPW processed in a very short period of time.

Enemy prisoners of war were taken from the battlefields to the prison-camp processing station.  High-value targets, such as members of Hussein’s Republic Guard, would be processed and then immediately taken elsewhere for further interrogation.  Other EPW would be given wristbands and recorded in computers, then transported to other prison camps.  New EPW would then be brought in for processing. The Persian Gulf War was the first time that the U.S. military utilized computers to process EPW.  It quickly became clear that sand was one of the army’s worst enemies in the war as it got into helicopters, vehicles, and even the computers used for EPW processing. 

In the prison camp, there were more EPW than military police.  Each day, as crowds of hungry and sometimes desperate Iraqis were processed, the platoon commander worried about potential outbreak.  MP guards were armed; however, MP processors were not authorized to carry weapons in the processing stations. 

During the height of the war, the 731st MP Company performed exceptionally well.  In one twelve-hour shift, the unit processed more than a thousand EPW.  This was especially impressive considering that the handbooks they were using were not applicable to their situation, and the 731st MP Company and other MP units had to design their own systems to fill the void.  Over a four0month deployment, the 731st MP Company processed about 20,000 EPWs out of a total of 120,000 EPWs for that war.

The soldiers maintained high morale through their Guam pride and connections to home and Chamorro culture.  General Edward G. Perez, Adjutant General of Guam Army National Guard, delivered care packages and letters to many of the soldiers while they were training in Hawaii.   In the 731st MP Company compound at the desert of Saudi Arabia, the Guam flag was proudly flown.  The flag display attracted many Chamorro or Guamanians visitors from other units to see and talk to the soldiers in the Chamorro language.  At one gathering, camel kelaguen was offered as a dish.  Many of the soldiers said it tasted like deer, and they imagined they were eating kelaguen binadu instead.

On May 10, 1991, the 731st MP Company returned home to Guam.  They were driven from the Won Pat International Airport to a special reception at Adelup.  Their return coincided with Mother’s Day, which increased their natural feelings of relief and joy in family reunions.  Local leaders spoke of their appreciation.  For some, if not all, this day was the first time in months that they could taste alcohol or beer.  Islamic custom, which the unit had respected during its deployment, prohibited alcohol, although Saudi Arabia offered a “near beer” in place of the real thing.

One year after the 731st MP (EPW-Proc) Company returned from Operation Desert Shield/Storm, the unit was decommissioned on March 8, 1992 at Fort Juan Muna.  First Lieutenant Joseph Hara Salas, the last commander of the unit, lowered the Guidon flag in the presence of Lieutenant Governor Frank Blas, Sr. The Chamorro Studies program at UOG is currently working with Commander Salas to interview members of the 731st MP Company who were part of this exciting moment in Chamorro military history, to ensure that this story is preserved for our people.

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