Big Lift and the birth of Reforger

In 1963, to demonstrate to the world, and especially the USSR, that the US could reinforce its troops in Germany, the Army and Air Force airlifted the personnel of an entire armored division from Texas to Germany. When they arrived, they fell in on prepositioned equipment, and quickly took to the field for large scale maneuvers. This was Operation Big Lift.

In the early morning of October 22, 1963, soldiers of the 2nd Armored Division at Fort Hood, Texas, lumbered up with their gear and individual weapons to an assembly of large cargo aircraft from the Military Air Transportation Service. Their destination was the front-line of the Cold War’s Central Europe.
Over the next 64 hours, the division, two artillery battalions, and assorted transportation units from around the country made the day-long flight across the Atlantic. An air strike force went as well. Altogether, the planes made over 200 flights, ferrying some 15,000 personnel and nearly 500 tons of equipment, one quarter of which belonged to the Army. It was the largest movement of troops by air to that date.
The deployment had been ordered by the U.S. government in consultation with its NATO allies to stem a likely attack by Warsaw Pact forces into West Germany. The scenario, however, was entirely notional. Instead of being met by hundreds of enemy tanks, the incoming troops were greeted by a 250 pound cake in the shape of a tank. The operation was, in fact, a preplanned exercise, aptly named BIG LIFT. Its actual purpose, as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara announced in a September 23 press conference, was to “provide a dramatic illustration of the United States’ capability for rapid reinforcement of NATO force.”

Interestingly, the airlift was conducted by Air Force transports.

A few years later, especially as Army readiness in Europe suffered during the Vietnam War, the Army again decided to show its ability to reinforce Europe. And thus began an yearly exercise dubbed REFORGER, or Redeployment of Forces to Germany.

Moving the equipment of a division overseas is a lengthy process, needing a month or more under the best circumstances. NATO certainly wasn’t sure that the Warsaw Pact would be kind enough to give that much strategic warning of any invasion of the West. So the Army instituted POMCUS, Prepositioning of Materiel in Unit Sets. Basically, every single bit of an armored or mechanized division would be stored in warehouses in Germany, and if the Army needed to reinforce Europe, they simply had to fly the people from an existing stateside division to Germany.

Rather than taxing the transport assets of the Air Force, commercial jets would be chartered, or those in the Civil Reserve Air Fleet would be mobilized to move the troops.

REFORGER itself came to be something of the capstone exercise for much of the Army. Remember, at the height of the Cold War, there was a massive US presence in Germany, and plans to send massive reinforcements, with the US III Corps first in line, followed by other elements as needed. Almost every year, not only would a US division be sent to Germany, but a major exercise involving most NATO nations would be staged.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, REFORGER eventually faded away. No longer certain where it might be called upon to fight next, the Army has since struggled to become more expeditionary, able to move units and their equipment to any battlefield.

9 thoughts on “Big Lift and the birth of Reforger”

  1. I had dinner last night with one of the participants. He was in Transportation at the time. From his story there was not a lot of explanation given to the lower ranks, “just soldier on, soldier.”

    Other than that, he got a three day pass to visit a cousin in Germany, staying in his cousin’s Kaserne. He had a smile as he recollected the beer and fun. The rest of his unit camped out in the woods for the duration.

  2. I was in Germany for 3 REFORGER exercises. Although we trained mostly USAFE air wings, during the exercise, we also trained those strike forces that made the trip.


    Remember that a couple of years after 1963 saw upwards of 90% of the USAF’s transport assets commited to SEA. They were no longer available to move the US Army to Europe.


  4. When I was at Ft. Hood in early 1967, some ‘old-timers’ told the tale of how 1st Armored (2nd’s III Corps mate) almost got deployed to Cuba! During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 the 1st was sent on its way to southern Florida in prep for a 90 mile trip across the Caribbean. They got as far as Ft. Stewart in Georgia when they were ordered to hold up. They proceeded to practice for an invasion for a few weeks then were sent back home to Texas.

    One of the guys said that President Kennedy showed up one day at Stewart and shook some hands or so he was told. He said that he saw some black convertibles and guys in suits but not Kennedy’s white Continental.

  5. That it was called MATS dates it pretty well. When I made the first two hops over the pond it was still called MATS. By ’66 they’d changed the name to MAC. A couple pieces of my parents luggage still have MATS tags on them.

  6. The way things are going, REFORGER may become a thing again fairly soon. Except, instead of Return of Forces to Germany, it may be called REFORPOL (Poland), or REFORBAL (Baltics) or something similar.

  7. In any case, I think setting up POMCUS sites for a few heavy BCTs’ worth of equipment somewhere in Poland or the Baltic states would probably be a good idea, and a way to show resolve and shorten our crisis response times, without being too overtly provocative.

    1. After recently redeploying the last tanks from Germany to CONUS, the Army just started forward deploying a Combined Arms Battalion worth of tanks and Brads to Germany. Mind you, they’re going as an exercise set, as opposed to POMCUS. And one little battalion ain’t much.

      The plan is to regularly rotate battalions though Europe for various exercises.

      But yeah, I would love to see an ABCT set or two in Poland, both for exercises and contingencies.

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