The sounds of freedom will still ring at Joint Base Lewis-McChord but not quite as often.
Army downsizing on Wednesday cost the base one of its principal artillery units, the howitzer-firing 1st Battalion, 377th Field Artillery Regiment.
The battalion deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan out of Lewis-McChord, but the Army no longer needs so many cannons with one war over and the other nearing its end. Its 350 soldiers will join other units over the next few months.
“It’s difficult to say goodbye to these colors,” said Col. Timothy Kehoe, who leads Lewis-McChord’s 17th Fires Brigade and once commanded the deactivating howitzer battalion.
More cuts are on the way this year in an Army plan that aims to bring down the number of active-duty soldiers from an Iraq War peak of 570,000 to a total force of about 490,000. Lewis-McChord also will lose a 4,500-soldier Stryker brigade as part of that drawdown.
This week’s ceremony marked the sixth time that the Army formed a unit under the flag of the 1-377 only to deactivate it at a later date.
“Break glass in case of war,” its current commander, Lt. Col. Al Wagner, joked. “It’s only a matter of time before they call on this great battalion again to deliver devastating fires.”
Kehoe and Wagner drew on that legacy in a one-hour ceremony that connected the battalion’s latest service in Afghanistan to its forebears who parachuted on to the beaches of Normandy as part of World War II’s D-Day invasion 69 years ago.
The officers had a living tie to that battle. Courtnay Johnson, the daughter of the commander who led the 1-377 into France, attended the deactivation ceremony.
“It was kind of tough” to watch the battalion put away its flag, said Johnson, a Bellevue resident who graduated from Tacoma’s Wilson High School in 1966 after her dad retired from the Army.
Johnson’s father, the late Lt. Col. Benjamin Weisberg, lost a quarter of his soldiers in the Normandy invasion. They wound up fighting without their cannons for several days because a plan to airdrop parts of artillery batteries onto the beach did not work as intended.
Johnson’s parents named her after an officer who died in that attack. Her mom, the late Ruth Weisberg, served in the Women’s Army Corps and met the officer on the way to England at the start of the U.S. involvement in the war.
Weisberg’s time in the 1-377 “was real special of all the places he went” in the Army, Johnson said.
The battalion is fairly new to Lewis-McChord. The Army moved it to the base in 2007 from Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Kehoe was its commander at the time. Wagner was its first operations officer.
It deployed to Iraq in 2009-10, serving around the southern port city of Basra. Two of its batteries served in eastern Afghanistan in 2011-12.
The battalion had a peak strength of 525 soldiers. Kehoe had just 35 as he built it up in 2007.
The base has three other howitzer battalions, one each in Lewis-McChord’s three Stryker brigades. Lewis-McChord will have a total of two howitzer battalions once the Army completes its plan to inactivate the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
Howitzer cannons are among the more audible weapons fired on training grounds at Lewis-McChord. Their booming rounds are jokingly called the “sounds of freedom.”
“Our brothers in the Stryker brigades will still rattle our windows when the ever-present cloud cover is just right,” Kehoe said in remarks to the battalion.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646