So, Instapundit had a link to a piece on the humble pallet, and the way it changed transportation and packaging of goods. One of the surprising things of this ubiquitous tool is just how recent it is. Invented shortly before World War II, it saw use in the war, but not as much as you might expect. In fact, most cargo was shipped in its individual box or carton, and was individually manhandled at each stage of movement.
Now, at the tactical level, this makes a great deal of sense. At the very front lines, loads need to be relatively easy for one man to move. Small arms ammunition, rations, water, and even fuel are fairly simple to package in this way. A case of C-Rations (or today, MREs) can easily be moved by one man. And at the user level, you don’t really need more than one or two cases at a time. So having these small size packages makes a great deal of sense. Just as the average shopper at Costco really only needs a 16oz jar of mayo, not a 5 gallon bucket.
The problem is, this “retail” packaging and shipment is horribly inefficient. Let’s take that notional case of C-rations in World War II. The after being assembled at the manufacturers, it would have been loaded (by hand, with another 10,000 or so) onto a box car for shipment to an Army depot or, if we’re lucky, it would have gone to the docks for direct shipment overseas. Loading it aboard ship was again a matter of placing individual cartons into a cargo net, slinging them aboard, then stacking the individual cartons in the hold. After shipment, they would be (again, individually, by hand) placed into a cargo net, slung off board, and loaded either onto a truck or boxcar for movement to the nearest depot. Another manpowered unloading and stacking would follow. From there, the ration case would be unstacked, loaded onto a truck, moved forward to either one of the field army depots, or on board assault shipping for an amphibious invasion. We can presume it would make at least two, and as many as four more transfers.
It took an insane amount of manpower at each transfer to load or unload the cases needed to keep an army fed. And that’s just C-Rats. Fuel in those days more often moved in 5 gallon cans than in bulk using tanker trucks. Look at pictures of World War II dumps and you’ll see mountains of thousands upon thousands of 5 gallon “jerrycans” of gas. Spare parts, small arms ammo, artillery ammunition (always the bane of logisticians) and a million other items all had to be moved, and at several stages along the way, most of it was moved by hand.
It wasn’t until after the war that palletization took off for military logistics. There was more to it than just slapping a load of stuff on a pallet, though. Careful thought had to be given to the flow of logistics, and ensuring that forklifts and other material handling equipment was provided (and in the proper numbers) at each stage of the pipeline. Today, virtually every item of supply is palletized (and usually containerized as well) from leaving the factory until just before issue to the using units. Indeed, some items, such as the rockets for Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, are built palletized, and stay that way from the factory to firing.
The adoption of materials handling equipment and palletization and containerization has made today’s logistics flow faster with far less manpower.
But at the end of the line, there’s still usually a grunt that ends up carrying that same man-sized load the last leg of the way.