As Army Reserve unit faces closure, drill sergeant looks back on its history

January 07, 1995|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

During the early 1950s, the U.S. Army's 2053rd Reception Battalion processed nearly 600,000 soldiers.

"It'd been around for ages -- it gave these guys their first Army haircut and told them how to salute -- but nobody could tell me anything about it," said Keith Karas of Cockeysville, an Army Reserve drill sergeant and a veteran of the Baltimore-based 2053rd.

After five years of research, Sergeant Karas has boxes of documents about the history of the unit. Now, it's really history. Next week, the Department of Defense will put the Reserve unit on "inactive" status as the shrinking of America's military continues.

Nearly all of its 278 members have either retired or transferred to other units, and the 2053rd office at the Sheridan Army Reserve Center on Liberty Heights Avenue is being emptied.

"Before the Korean War, you just went into basic training and were assigned to a unit," said Sergeant Karas, who works for Lever Bros. in civilian life, but considers himself a soldier first and last. "The 2053rd began as a pilot unit for combat veterans to process people into the Army during peacetime. These were experienced soldiers seeing new soldiers coming in fresh. I guess they saw themselves in those faces."

Lt. Col. Clifton F. Knight, who commanded the unit from 1992 until last week, said: "We got them up in the morning and took it from there."

The unit's motto: "Soldiers Born Here."

A 1983 graduate of Calvert Hall High School, Sergeant Karas became obsessed with researching Army history one Christmas while making a scrapbook of the 534th Armored Field Artillery for his father.

"I even found a 1952 khaki overseas cap like the one Dad wore when he was with them in Germany," he remembered. "It was still in the plastic over at H&H Surplus downtown. It cost me $2. My father was overwhelmed. I thought, if he got such joy out of seeing this stuff, other people would feel that way too."

And so, when nominated for the Army Reserve drill sergeant of the year in 1992, Sergeant Karas began searching for details about the 2053rd.

The Center for Military History supplied him with a basic timeline of the unit -- from its start in 1949 through awards won for superior training in the late 1970s -- and Sergeant Karas began filling in the holes.

"I'd see a name in a newsletter and look them up in the phone book, hoping they were still alive," he said. "And they'd tell me about somebody else."

He has yet to connect with one name listed on a 2053rd roster: Spiro T. Agnew.

"They tell me it's really him," said Sergeant Karas of the former U.S. vice president.

Among his other discoveries: the 2053rd was one of the first Army units to have blacks and whites side by side after President Harry S. Truman ordered the integration of the military; its marching flag had been lost over the years, and he found the original pattern to replace it; and one of its former members, Fedon Nides, compiled a classification manual still in use by the Army.

Before Mr. Nides put together the "Numerical Index of Military Occupational Specialties and Related Civilian Occupations" in 1952, a soldier who worked as a baker in civilian life could be digging ditches in the Army.

After the manual was adopted, a civilian baker had a better chance of being an Army baker. Likewise for other occupations.

Now that the unit has been shelved, Sergeant Karas would like to see the information he has collected put on permanent display at the Fort Meade military museum.

"I'm not going to be around forever," he said. "If some curious soul wants to know this stuff in 30 years, they shouldn't have to go through all the stuff I did to find out."

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