My time as a logistician

Newer readers may not have seen this post originally written in the early days of the blog.

Late in 1991, after my triumphant return from Operation Desert Storm I was transferred from the 1st Armored Division in Germany with orders to Ft. Carson, Colorado, home of the 4th Infantry Division. After 44 days of leave spent lounging around my parents and getting underfoot, I hopped a flight to the beautiful city of Colorado Springs, nestled at the foot of the towering Front Range of the Rockies.  A quick shuttle bus ride and I was deposited into the care of the 4th IDs Adjudant General’s 4th Replacement Company. As a junior enlisted soldier, my orders only specified the 4th ID. The division itself would subsequently make my assignment to one of its subordinate battalions.

I spent a week with the replacement company, mostly listening to briefings about the division and its policies and doing make-work details. Quite a bit of time was spent sitting around just waiting. Finally, my name was called to recieve my assignment. The clerk handed my orders to the 104th Main Support Battalion, part of the Division Support Command. The MSB is the logistical backbone of the division, providing maintenance, supply and medical care to the division. I promptly protested to the clerk that the orders were in error. I was an 11B. I should have been sent to one of the divisions infantry battalions. He responded that right or wrong, I was going to the MSB, and better hurry down the street to check in.

Off I went, slightly bemused with the idiocy sometimes displayed by the Army. I checked in with the S-1(Personnel) office and dropped off a copy  of my orders. The clerk there showed me to the Battalion Command Sergeant Major (the senior NCO in the battalion). The CSM quickly read my orders, and ushered me in to his office. He was far more accomodating to me than any other CSM I’d ever met. The trouble, he explained, was that the battalion had a severe shortage of supply personnel. His boss wanted to shift some other support soldiers into the slots. The CSM had a better idea. As an old infantryman, he was convinced that soldiers from the combat arms were adaptable enough to come in and learn the job quickly, helping the battalion achieve its mission and just maybe setting a good example for the junior soldiers from other MOS’s. I was one of three soldiers he’d snagged from the replacement company. All three of us would go to Bravo Company, where we would work in the parts warehouse.

I explained to the CSM that I didn’t want to be in the battalion (“no offense, Sergeant Major, but if I’d wanted to be a REMF, I would have enlisted as one!”) and could he just send me down the line to one of the infantry battalions. He made is counteroffer (“You’ll do it and like it!”) but he did sweeten the pot just a bit. He said that if I did a good job, he’d let me go in six months, and that if I did a really good job, he’d let me choose which of the three battalions I went to. I bowed to inevitability and grabbed my bags, walked across the street, and checked into Company B, 104th Main Support Battalion.

The first day at work was a little odd. When you report to  an infantry unit, just about the first thing battalion does is assign you to a company, and the company assigns you to a platoon, who puts you in a squad. Usually, that happens even before you get down to the battalion. A good unit knows you are coming and is ready for you, with the supply sergeant ready to get you set up in the barracks. When I showed up at B Co., they weren’t entirely sure what to do with me. I had to track down the First Sergeant to get a room assigned and track down the supply sergeant to get some sheets and blankets. Then, when I went to the warehouse, instead of having a clue, they told me to “follow that guy over there.”  “That guy” turned out to be a Sergeant who was also reporting for his first day of work, but at least he was working in his specialty. They hadn’t really given him a job either, but he grabbed some paperwork and got to work, utilizing me as his gopher and to lift heavy stuff (grunts are always good for that).

Soon, I found myself working with  a small team of supply types working in the outdoor parts yard for repair parts too large to store convienently in the warehouse. Here’s the basic workflow- as mentioned below, when  a vehicle down in one of the battalions needed a repair part, they’d draw one from their stocks and submit an order to us to replace it.  Each day, each battalion would place all their parts orders on a floppy disk and drive it down to our warehouse. Once all the disks were uploaded to our computer, list would be generated. Each part would be released by an MRO, or Material Release Order. Basically, this was an invoice. Each MRO would list the part by name, national stock number, serial number if neccessarry, and by its location in the warehouse. We would print out the days list of MROs. Since we knew which MROs were for parts located outside, my team would segregate these orders. Our mission each day was to find the parts, stage them to each battalions pick up area (the line battalions were responsible for picking the parts up from us, we just didn’t have the transport to push the parts to them), mark the orders complete and recieve any parts that came in and place them in their proper storage area. We would also recieve the broken parts to be replaced and stage them for turn in for either recycling or repair by a higher echelon than us.

When I started working there, the yards (there were two of them because of space limitations) were a complete mess. Typical parts stored outside were tires, roadwheels for tracked vehicles, track shoes and sections of track, engines, transmissions, FUPPS (the “full up power pack” for the M-1 tank, with engine, transmission and accessories, in a container, weighing in at 14,000 pounds), truck body parts like doors, windshields, shock absorbers and springs and stuff like that. There were some minor issues with parts not being in the right place. That was pretty easy to fix. The real problem was that over time, the previous workers had gotten sloppy about making sure equipment returned to them had been turned in for repair or recycling. And over time, the tags and orders had fallen off or been misplaced. There was no way to tell what piece was what. And without that information, we couldn’t figure out which open orders went with which piece of surplus.

I pretty soon got into the swing of working the yard. Normally, the Army is very fastidious about the procedures for licensing someone to drive or operate any equipment. The only licensces I’d ever held had been for the Humvee and for what the Army called CUCVs, basically Chevy pickups and Blazers with a camo paintjob. I checked in to the battalion motor pool and found that with no training or test drives, I’d been licensed for those vehicles, the duece and a half, the 5-ton truck, 5-ton tractor trailer, and a variety of forklifts, from 1000lb capacity electrics used in the warehouse to 10k forklifts built on the chasis of a front end loader. Indeed, I was not only licensed to drive them, I was the assigned driver on four different vehicles. If we ever had to move into the field, I wasn’t quite clear how I was going to drive four vehicles simultaneously. Still, I quickly earned a reputation as the go-to guy for operating the 10k forklift. Each day, I’d pick up all the orders for the big stuff. I even managed to load the 14,000lb FUPPs with a 10,000lb capacity forklift. It wasn’t easy, and you had to show a gentle touch. But it was very popular with the armor battalions because previously they’d had to order the parts separately, then assemble them in the field, installing them with a tank recovery vehicle. I’d saved them hundreds of man-hours of work. The downside was that any time a tank went down on the weekend, I’d get the call to go pull the parts for them and load them. More than once I came back to the barracks at 2am after a hard night partying in Colorado Springs, only to find an MRO and a couple of irritated tankers waiting on me. Trust me, loading really heavy tank engines while drunk as a skunk is a challenge. The worst part though, was having to go inside and fire up the terminal and generate and print the MRO. What should have been a 20 minute job would take an hour.

Since I could get through the larger parts pretty quickly, and since the boss was on my tail about it, I started looking into what could be done to clean up the yards. There had to be some way of getting rid of all the roadwheels and other junk sitting around taking up space and generally looking bad. There was an additional problem. A lot of the parts were turned in for scrap. But we couldn’t get rid of them since we couldn’t tell what was scrap and what wasn’t. If we turned in a piece of equipment as scrap that shouldn’t have been, there was no way we could ever close the open work order on that piece. The longer the orders stayed open, the worse we looked. The key would be identifiying what was what, right down to the national stock number. I’ll give you an idea of what a typical problem was. There were two types of roadwheels made for the M-113, steel and aluminum. One was discarded for scrap and one was turned in for refurbishment. Seems simple. But the instructions listed which to turn in by stock number, without mentioning what it was made of. No one knew which was which.

One thing I had learned by this time was that there was always a regulation, manual or person that covered a situation. The trick was finding that repository of information. Inspiration came in a flash. I was visiting the on-post office of the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office (DRMO), the agency that handles all the suprlus sales for the DoD. I was looking for to see what interesting stuff they might have for the next auction, such as furniture or office equipment. Then I noticed they had a large section of scrap metal. I struck up a conversation with the civilian who worked there and explained my problem. I hit paydirt. The guy knew just about everything there was to know about what could be scrapped and what couldn’t. He also had the manuals to back his judgment up. Over the course of a couple of weeks, he came down to the yard and helped me sort through tons of scrap and even better, helped identify all sorts of arcane parts that none of us recognized. He even helped us find a streamlined way to generate the missing orders for scrap turn in. Once all the scrap was properly (and legally) disposed of, it was a fairly simple task to match work orders with the remaining surplus parts in the yard and clear all the overdue orders. Some of the orders had been open for years. By the time he and I finished, there wasn’t an order over 48 hours old.

It was an interesting and challenging job. But it wasn’t the infantry. And while I liked the work, I was deeply unhappy with the company itself. The commander was detached and she didn’t impress me in the least as a leader. The First Sergeant substituted bombast and abuse for standards and leadership. I wasn’t entirely clear on what it was they did all day, because we never saw them doing anything for the soldiers. As my six-month mark approached, I asked the CSM if he would let me go, and if possible, send me to the 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry. I didn’t know much about the infantry battalions on post, but the 1-12IN had a decent reputation, far better than the other two. The First Sergeant was being difficult. He couldn’t stand me, but didn’t want to let me go. Still, the CSM was a man of his word. He told me he would make it happen. I called down to the battalion and they told me I would be further assigned to Alpha Company. I stopped by and introduced myself to the 1SG at Alpha company. What a great first impression he gave. No nonsense, spelled out what he expected, introduced me to my platoon sergeant and told me he looked forward to me “joining the real Army again” just as soon as the orders had been cut. The orders were cut on a Thursday afternoon. My 1SG at B/104, always looking for a way to be a pain, insisted that I be completely vacated out of the barracks that day. If some friends with a pickup truck hadn’t been handy to help me move, my stuff would have been out on the street.

I’m glad that I had a chance to see how the rest of the Army works. It ain’t all guns and ammo. Some of the folks I worked with were as dedicated as any I’ve ever met. And karma is a bitch. The First Sergeant who failed on so many levels? A few months later he was courtmartialed for sexual harrasment and drummed out of the Army in disgrace. Safely tucked away in my new home with my fellow infantrymen, I laughed my ass off.

The Humble Shipping Container and Ending Third World Poverty

We’ve blogged from time to time on the wonderful revolution in logistics the simple metal box known as a shipping container. And Think Defence is the go-to resource for defense container blogging. gCaptain, of course, features container shipping news prominently.

And now The Atlantic is getting into it.

McLean understood that a transition to container shipping would require the complete redesign of the entire freight transport infrastructure: rail cars, ships, trucks, cranes, dockyards, everything. As a starting point, he commissioned the container engineer Keith Tantlinger to design a new aluminum container, and to reconfigure a decommissioned tanker vessel, the Ideal-X, to accommodate the new containers. Tantinger also developed a further piece of equipment, the container spreader bar, which enabled the container to be lifted without the need for stevedores to attach roping. As the economist and historian Marc Levinson has noted, the design of the spreader bar meant that “once the box had been lifted and moved, another flip of the switch would disengage the hooks, without a worker on the ground touching the container.” Container freight was all about increasing the speed of movement and reducing the cost of labor. Although the Ideal-X sailed for the first time as a container vessel in April 1956, it was not until 1970 that the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) agreed on the standardized sizes and certain fixings for containers (or ISO Containers as they are formally named).

From the nascent designs of the 1950s, through the roll-out phase of the 1960s, to the standardization of the 1970s, the container became central to the burgeoning growth of consumer capitalism, particularly the move of manufacturing to traditionally peripheral economies. The shipping container models the fundamentals of late capitalism even as it facilitates it: a standardized, reproducible structure that looks and functions the same everywhere.(emphasis mine-XBrad)

Cheaper labor is often cited as one reason why so many US manufacturing jobs have been sent overseas. That is, to be sure, a primary reason for such offshoring. But it wasn’t until the transportation costs of importing those goods fell that the combined costs of labor and transportation declined to a point that made economic sense.

And it was the reduced manpower needed to utilize intermodal containerized transportation, and the reduction in time spend handling goods between modes of transport,  that reduced those transportation costs.

It is those traditionally peripheral economies, those in the not at all distant past that were at best marginally industrialized, and at worst almost wholly subsistence level agrarian, that have benefited from the expansion of production from the First World to the Third.

So we’ve seen societies develop industry that allows their citizens to improve their quality of life.  When well meaning liberals deplore the sweatshop conditions in some foreign land, don’t forget that the real alternative isn’t conditions and salaries comparable to our society, but rather a regression to poverty and starvation. Sadly, it seems a period of substandard conditions are a necessary transition before an evolving society can further improve to the point where wages, workplace safety, and environmental considerations can take a more prominent place in those societies.

And many here will bemoan the loss of manufacturing jobs here in the United States.  But the fact is, in our every more industrialized and automated world, many of those jobs would have disappeared anyway, as domestic manufacturers decided to either reduce their workforce via robotic manufacturing, or simply abandon production.

Further, by virtue of those peripheral nations growing their economies through manufacturing, they actually serve to strengthen our own economy. These nations, formerly with little capital to purchase goods, were economic backwaters. But as they industrialize, they become markets for our own production- machine tools, construction equipment, steel and other processed metals, information and communications infrastructure, airplanes, and other high end manufactured goods that remain our productive strength. In many cases, the domestic and European markets are saturated, so finding new Third World markets for these products is critical to maintaining our levels of production, and thus wealth generation.

Quite often the first step for a nation on the path to prosperity is the exploitation of natural resources. Sadly, any number of nations have limited resources worth export or other exploitation. Further, in those  societies that do have resources, their lack of development also tends to mean they lack the civic, government, and legal institutions that prevent the exploitation of natural resources from being concentrated in the hands of a gentry with no  legitimate claim to the wealth beyond raw power. That wealth then tends to be hoarded, rather than reinvested entrepreneurially, strangling any further economic development. It is only when these developing nations turn to the processing of resources into goods that they become truly the fuel of trade, rather than mere export.

I fondly recall my time in the Republic of Korea for Team Spirit ‘87. ROK was just transitioning from a strong-arm authoritarian government to a genuinely representative government. Many of its people still lived in farming communities that looked more like the 1800s than the late 20th Century. But as they liberalized their government,  they were also  focused greatly on improving their industrial capacity, both in heavy industry such as shipbuilding, and in consumer goods such as electronics, and even into the cutthroat US auto market.  The country’s successful leverage of its human capital to add value through manufacturing allowed it to trade, and to continue to grow, improving the lives of its citizens. The shipping container made it profitable for nations to buy products from Korea where previously shipping costs would have been prohibitive.

That a simple metal box has had such an impact on the lives, however indirect, on the poor and downtrodden of so many millions around the world is stunning.

Think Defence- Your “go to” for all your defense container news

I was rumaging around in my referrals on the dashboard and saw a fair number of hits from Think Defence, an astonishingly good UK blog about UK defense matters. They were very kind to link my Falklands series a while ago.

I try to visit them from time to time. First, it’s just good blog. Second, the UK view on matters has a very different “flavor” than US based blogs. Translating from “English” to English can be a challenge, but it’s worth it. Finally, they tend to be more in-depth on matters than I am. Which, that’s fine. I view my mission here as presenting complex issues in a format a layman can easily grasp.

I wanted to highlight a couple posts on logistics and improvisation that TD has posted over the years. First, the humble ISO shipping container. You’ve seen gazillions of them on trucks and trains and ships. Have you given any real though to how they are used militarily?

The concept of intermodal transport is deceptively simple but without it, the global supply chain would be very different.

Goods leave the production line, loaded onto pallets, which are loaded into containers. The container is closed and transferred by road to a port, where it is stored with other containers until the ship is ready. The container joins the thousands of others and is loaded into the hold of a waiting container ship. To make things even quicker still, modern container ships don’t have hatch covers, just efficient bilge pump.

At the end of the sea journey the reverse happens.

It is an intricate and finely choreographed routine but underpinning it’s success is the concept of intermodalism; using several modes of transport to move a single load, without excessive handling. The container remains sealed and handled as one, whether it is being transported by road, rail or ship. The goods themselves are handled a minimum of times, more handling equals higher cost and lower speed.

The desire to minimise handling has resulted in ISO containers, pallets, shrink wrapping and palletised roll cages for example; modern logistics.

TD also goes on to discuss specialized containers tailored to the battlefield, both smaller, more manageable container sizes, and special purpose container systems for logistics.  Examples include tool sets and parts bins that can be prepackaged for shipping direct to the theater, and then used directly, rather than being unloaded into shop spaces.

In US service, the most commonly seen specialized container based system is the CHU, or Containerized Housing Unit:

Tens of thousands of US troops in Iraq and other theaters have been housed in CHUs, with far greater comfort and sanitation than if they’d been forced to live under canvas or in local buildings.

The other TD article I found fascinating was a discussion on the M/V Atlantic Conveyor, a merchant vessel inducted into service with the task force for the recapture of the Falklands. An interesting ship to begin with, she was a combination container ship-RO/RO vessel designed to load trucks and other vehicles.  When the Brits realized they had a desperate need to transport additional Harriers and helicopters to the Falklands, they quickly converted her to carry these aircraft. How quickly? About 10 days! You can’t even order Post-It notes that fast in the US military.

The AC wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was better than nothing. Sadly, the AC was lost to an Exocet missile strike against the task force.

 

I strongly encourage you to go poke around, and see what our friends across the pond think about military matters.

Logistics, Old School

It’s funny, I’ve had logistics on my mind quite a bit lately.  It’s funny, because I never gave a lot of thought to it when I was in the Army. I was usually on the receiving end of logistics. Other people had to make sure that I was fed and watered, had all the ammo, fuel and spare parts I needed. While I was vaguely aware of how most of it worked, I actually spent most of my time studying other topics, like leadership and maneuver. It wasn’t until after I left the Army I started giving a lot of in-depth thought to the topic. And now, it seems that every time I turn around, I see another lesson on the constraints that logistics impose on a force.

AW1 Tim, whom I normally think of as an Anti-Submarine Warfare guy, is also something of an expert on the Civil War. And he’s got  a great post that shows not only the rations for a soldier in that war, but if you read down to the bottom, shows just how that ration can impose very real constraints on the schemes of maneuver available to a commander.

My time as a logistician

Late in 1991, after my triumphant return from Operation Desert Storm I was transferred from the 1st Armored Division in Germany with orders to Ft. Carson, Colorado, home of the 4th Infantry Division. After 44 days of leave spent lounging around my parents and getting underfoot, I hopped a flight to the beautiful city of Colorado Springs, nestled at the foot of the towering Front Range of the Rockies.  A quick shuttle bus ride and I was deposited into the care of the 4th IDs Adjudant General’s 4th Replacement Company. As a junior enlisted soldier, my orders only specified the 4th ID. The division itself would subsequently make my assignment to one of its subordinate battalions.

I spent a week with the replacement company, mostly listening to briefings about the division and its policies and doing make-work details. Quite a bit of time was spent sitting around just waiting. Finally, my name was called to recieve my assignment. The clerk handed my orders to the 104th Main Support Battalion, part of the Division Support Command. The MSB is the logistical backbone of the division, providing maintenance, supply and medical care to the division. I promptly protested to the clerk that the orders were in error. I was an 11B. I should have been sent to one of the divisions infantry battalions. He responded that right or wrong, I was going to the MSB, and better hurry down the street to check in.

Off I went, slightly bemused with the idiocy sometimes displayed by the Army. I checked in with the S-1(Personnel) office and dropped off a copy  of my orders. The clerk there showed me to the Battalion Command Sergeant Major (the senior NCO in the battalion). The CSM quickly read my orders, and ushered me in to his office. He was far more accomodating to me than any other CSM I’d ever met. The trouble, he explained, was that the battalion had a severe shortage of supply personnel. His boss wanted to shift some other support soldiers into the slots. The CSM had a better idea. As an old infantryman, he was convinced that soldiers from the combat arms were adaptable enough to come in and learn the job quickly, helping the battalion achieve its mission and just maybe setting a good example for the junior soldiers from other MOS’s. I was one of three soldiers he’d snagged from the replacement company. All three of us would go to Bravo Company, where we would work in the parts warehouse.

I explained to the CSM that I didn’t want to be in the battalion (“no offense, Sergeant Major, but if I’d wanted to be a REMF, I would have enlisted as one!”) and could he just send me down the line to one of the infantry battalions. He made is counteroffer (“You’ll do it and like it!”) but he did sweeten the pot just a bit. He said that if I did a good job, he’d let me go in six months, and that if I did a really good job, he’d let me choose which of the three battalions I went to. I bowed to inevitability and grabbed my bags, walked across the street, and checked into Company B, 104th Main Support Battalion.

The first day at work was a little odd. When you report to  an infantry unit, just about the first thing battalion does is assign you to a company, and the company assigns you to a platoon, who puts you in a squad. Usually, that happens even before you get down to the battalion. A good unit knows you are coming and is ready for you, with the supply sergeant ready to get you set up in the barracks. When I showed up at B Co., they weren’t entirely sure what to do with me. I had to track down the First Sergeant to get a room assigned and track down the supply sergeant to get some sheets and blankets. Then, when I went to the warehouse, instead of having a clue, they told me to “follow that guy over there.”  “That guy” turned out to be a Sergeant who was also reporting for his first day of work, but at least he was working in his specialty. They hadn’t really given him a job either, but he grabbed some paperwork and got to work, utilizing me as his gopher and to lift heavy stuff (grunts are always good for that).

Soon, I found myself working with  a small team of supply types working in the outdoor parts yard for repair parts too large to store convienently in the warehouse. Here’s the basic workflow- as mentioned below, when  a vehicle down in one of the battalions needed a repair part, they’d draw one from their stocks and submit an order to us to replace it.  Each day, each battalion would place all their parts orders on a floppy disk and drive it down to our warehouse. Once all the disks were uploaded to our computer, list would be generated. Each part would be released by an MRO, or Material Release Order. Basically, this was an invoice. Each MRO would list the part by name, national stock number, serial number if neccessarry, and by its location in the warehouse. We would print out the days list of MROs. Since we knew which MROs were for parts located outside, my team would segregate these orders. Our mission each day was to find the parts, stage them to each battalions pick up area (the line battalions were responsible for picking the parts up from us, we just didn’t have the transport to push the parts to them), mark the orders complete and recieve any parts that came in and place them in their proper storage area. We would also recieve the broken parts to be replaced and stage them for turn in for either recycling or repair by a higher echelon than us.

When I started working there, the yards (there were two of them because of space limitations) were a complete mess. Typical parts stored outside were tires, roadwheels for tracked vehicles, track shoes and sections of track, engines, transmissions, FUPPS (the “full up power pack” for the M-1 tank, with engine, transmission and accessories, in a container, weighing in at 14,000 pounds), truck body parts like doors, windshields, shock absorbers and springs and stuff like that. There were some minor issues with parts not being in the right place. That was pretty easy to fix. The real problem was that over time, the previous workers had gotten sloppy about making sure equipment returned to them had been turned in for repair or recycling. And over time, the tags and orders had fallen off or been misplaced. There was no way to tell what piece was what. And without that information, we couldn’t figure out which open orders went with which piece of surplus.

I pretty soon got into the swing of working the yard. Normally, the Army is very fastidious about the procedures for licensing someone to drive or operate any equipment. The only licensces I’d ever held had been for the Humvee and for what the Army called CUCVs, basically Chevy pickups and Blazers with a camo paintjob. I checked in to the battalion motor pool and found that with no training or test drives, I’d been licensed for those vehicles, the duece and a half, the 5-ton truck, 5-ton tractor trailer, and a variety of forklifts, from 1000lb capacity electrics used in the warehouse to 10k forklifts built on the chasis of a front end loader. Indeed, I was not only licensed to drive them, I was the assigned driver on four different vehicles. If we ever had to move into the field, I wasn’t quite clear how I was going to drive four vehicles simultaneously. Still, I quickly earned a reputation as the go-to guy for operating the 10k forklift. Each day, I’d pick up all the orders for the big stuff. I even managed to load the 14,000lb FUPPs with a 10,000lb capacity forklift. It wasn’t easy, and you had to show a gentle touch. But it was very popular with the armor battalions because previously they’d had to order the parts separately, then assemble them in the field, installing them with a tank recovery vehicle. I’d saved them hundreds of man-hours of work. The downside was that any time a tank went down on the weekend, I’d get the call to go pull the parts for them and load them. More than once I came back to the barracks at 2am after a hard night partying in Colorado Springs, only to find an MRO and a couple of irritated tankers waiting on me. Trust me, loading really heavy tank engines while drunk as a skunk is a challenge. The worst part though, was having to go inside and fire up the terminal and generate and print the MRO. What should have been a 20 minute job would take an hour.

Since I could get through the larger parts pretty quickly, and since the boss was on my tail about it, I started looking into what could be done to clean up the yards. There had to be some way of getting rid of all the roadwheels and other junk sitting around taking up space and generally looking bad. There was an additional problem. A lot of the parts were turned in for scrap. But we couldn’t get rid of them since we couldn’t tell what was scrap and what wasn’t. If we turned in a piece of equipment as scrap that shouldn’t have been, there was no way we could ever close the open work order on that piece. The longer the orders stayed open, the worse we looked. The key would be identifiying what was what, right down to the national stock number. I’ll give you an idea of what a typical problem was. There were two types of roadwheels made for the M-113, steel and aluminum. One was discarded for scrap and one was turned in for refurbishment. Seems simple. But the instructions listed which to turn in by stock number, without mentioning what it was made of. No one knew which was which.

One thing I had learned by this time was that there was always a regulation, manual or person that covered a situation. The trick was finding that repository of information. Inspiration came in a flash. I was visiting the on-post office of the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office (DRMO), the agency that handles all the suprlus sales for the DoD. I was looking for to see what interesting stuff they might have for the next auction, such as furniture or office equipment. Then I noticed they had a large section of scrap metal. I struck up a conversation with the civilian who worked there and explained my problem. I hit paydirt. The guy knew just about everything there was to know about what could be scrapped and what couldn’t. He also had the manuals to back his judgment up. Over the course of a couple of weeks, he came down to the yard and helped me sort through tons of scrap and even better, helped identify all sorts of arcane parts that none of us recognized. He even helped us find a streamlined way to generate the missing orders for scrap turn in. Once all the scrap was properly (and legally) disposed of, it was a fairly simple task to match work orders with the remaining surplus parts in the yard and clear all the overdue orders. Some of the orders had been open for years. By the time he and I finished, there wasn’t an order over 48 hours old.

It was an interesting and challenging job. But it wasn’t the infantry. And while I liked the work, I was deeply unhappy with the company itself. The commander was detached and she didn’t impress me in the least as a leader. The First Sergeant substituted bombast and abuse for standards and leadership. I wasn’t entirely clear on what it was they did all day, because we never saw them doing anything for the soldiers. As my six-month mark approached, I asked the CSM if he would let me go, and if possible, send me to the 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry. I didn’t know much about the infantry battalions on post, but the 1-12IN had a decent reputation, far better than the other two. The First Sergeant was being difficult. He couldn’t stand me, but didn’t want to let me go. Still, the CSM was a man of his word. He told me he would make it happen. I called down to the battalion and they told me I would be further assigned to Alpha Company. I stopped by and introduced myself to the 1SG at Alpha company. What a great first impression he gave. No nonsense, spelled out what he expected, introduced me to my platoon sergeant and told me he looked forward to me “joining the real Army again” just as soon as the orders had been cut. The orders were cut on a Thursday afternoon. My 1SG at B/104, always looking for a way to be a pain, insisted that I be completely vacated out of the barracks that day. If some friends with a pickup truck hadn’t been handy to help me move, my stuff would have been out on the street.

I’m glad that I had a chance to see how the rest of the Army works. It ain’t all guns and ammo. Some of the folks I worked with were as dedicated as any I’ve ever met. And karma is a bitch. The First Sergeant who failed on so many levels? A few months later he was courtmartialed for sexual harrasment and drummed out of the Army in disgrace. Safely tucked away in my new home with my fellow infantrymen, I laughed my ass off.

Why are we here?

More than one US Army soldier in the Cold War looked at his map of Western Europe and wondered why the US Army, the anchor of the Nato Alliance, was stationed at one of the least likely invasion routes. The geography in the north of Germany is generally flat or low rolling hills, quite suitable to armored forces attacking from Poland and East Germany, where the bulk of the Soviet army was stationed.

In the south, the terrain was far more mountainous, with numerous chokepoints where attacking forces could be blocked, trapped, and destroyed. The primary Warsaw Pact Forces there were the Czech Army.

Given the importance of this terrain, why was the vast majority of the US Army in Europe stationed in the south, rather than in the north where the heaviest attack could be expected? The answer is a historical accident from 1940, and shows the tyranny of logistics over tactics.

In the summer of 1940, Nazi Germany was triumpant. They had conquered all of Western Europe from the Baltic to the Mediterrenian Sea. The only countries not under the Nazi thumb were a compliant Spain and tiny Portugal, both neutral countries, and that defiant lion, The United Kingdom. Following the fall of France in June 1940, the British Army was forced to retreat at Dunkirk and return to England. The British evacuation there will long live in the annals of history as a magnificent feat, but it was still a defeat.

The remains of the British Army were in bad shape. Most of their equipment had been abandoned in France. Just twenty miles away lay the victorious Wehrmacht. Already the German Army was laying plans for an autumn invasion of England. The British Army quickly moved to the southeast of England to defend against this planned invasion.

The Battle of Britain, where the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force fought a desparate struggle for command of the skies, took place over that summer and fall of 1940. The Germans knew that air superiortiy was needed for a successful invasion. They failed to achieve it. Still, the British were obliged to maintain a defense in southeast England lest the Germans try. While here, they began the process of re-equipping and rebuilding.

After the entry of the United States into the war in December 1941, Churchill and Franklin (and more importantly, their military staffs) both agreed that eventually, there would have to be an invasion of France across the English Channel. The US began moving forces into England. Since the southeast of England was full of British troops, most US forces were based in the west.

When the time for the invasion came, the decision was made to land in Normandy. Here is where the tyranny of logistics raised its ugly head.  Looking at the map below, we see that the US forces, stationed in the west, would be forced to land on the western side of the Cotentin Peninsula. The size of the invasion fleet was just too large to swap positions while at sea. The British would land in the east and the US to the west. When they broke out of the beachhead and wheeled to head east, that would place the British to the north and the US to the south.

After the invasion of Normandy, further US and French forces would invade southern France near Marseille, reinforcing the US position in the south.

While military planners would have preferred the heavier, larger, and more mobile US forces to attack across the north of Europe, while the smaller, less mobile British Armies made a supporting attack in the south, the delay, cost and confusion of trying to switch their positions made this impossible. Moving the forces might have been just barely possible, but there was no way to even attempt to move their huge logistical tails. The die was cast and the stage was set in stone. The disposition of forces would remain all the way across Europe to the defeat of Nazi Germany in May of 1945.

With the defeat of the Nazis, the vast majority of the Allied armies were demobilized and went home. Because so much of the German society had collapsed, however, significant occupation forces had to remain. Germany was divided into zones of occupation, with zones for the Russians, British, Americans, and French. Mostly these zones were where the forces had halted at the end of the war.

When the Iron Curtain fell across Europe in 1947, the Western Allies began to reinforce their positions in Europe, eventually forming NATO in 1949 (the Warsaw Pact wasn’t formed until 1955). By this time, it was too late to shift major forces to better suit the terrain, again primarily because of logistics. There was a political factor here though. If the US had tried to reposition major forces outside the US zone, the Soviets would have been able to protest that we were not abiding by the terms of the agreement. In fact, they could have argued that they should be able to move outside their zone as well, perhaps into the British or US zones. We certainly didn’t want that. Even after West Germany regained its sovereignity in 1955, it was logistically impossible to switch the positions of the major forces.

It is a fair guess that more than one US general, looking at the defense of Western Europe during the Cold War, cursed the fates that places the Allies in the positions they held. In fact, a large part of the development of AirLand Battle Doctrine was about flipping this geographical disadvantage on its head, and finding a way to use manuever to hide behind the terrain of southern Germany and strike into the flank of any Soviet attack to the north.