Feb 23

217th Birthday of the Navy Supply Corps

Thursday, February 23, 2012 1:00 AM

February 23rd, 1795

Establishment of Office of Purveyor of Supplies

 

A lone sailor watches as a transport takes on supplies in June, 1943.

The organization today known as the Navy Supply Corps was originally founded in 1795, as the U. S. Navy Office of Purveyor of Supplies. Since its establishment, the Supply Corps has undergone many changes in role and composition. However, as an article published in the February 1949 issue of Proceedings, written by Captain K. C. McIntosh (S. C.), notes, the Supply Corps has always been faced with an espescially daunting task: overseeing the needs of the entire Navy from ship to ship, interacting with outside industries to keep the Navy supplied at the lowest cost to taxpayers, and ensuring that every demand is met as efficiently as possible. McIntosh’s article, excerpted below, demonstrates how the Supply Corps has continued to meet the Navy’s needs from its very beginning, despite the many challenges at hand.

It was early in 1942 that the writers and orators first began to stress the phrase, “This is a war of Supply!”

 

Tremendous organizations arose for the sole purpose of finding raw materials, finding a plant to process them, finding transportation to haul them to the plant and from the plant to the waterfront, from the waterfront to the Service Force dumps, from the dumps to the fighting fronts. These organizations did a mighty job and did it thoroughly. The fact remains, however, that nine-tenths of the work they were called upon to do should have been unnecessary. Nine-tenths of the bottlenecks and delays arose mainly from the fact that these agencies had to be created in a hurry, had to start from scratch, and, most difficult of all, had no definite lines of authority. The final result was good. The process of arriving at that happy ending was tangled from beginning to end with disputes over jurisdiction, with lack of understanding of the real meaning of that much­bandied word “Logistics.”

. . .

The standard definitions of the word usually state that the “science”— (as yet it has hardly earned that resounding name) —”includes all details of supply and transport up to but not including actual battle.” If those definitions mean what they say, true Logistics must go even further back than the ploughing and planting of grain, the opening of a new mine or breaking ground for a new factory. Logistics cannot be content with stating, however truly, that any given campaign will require so many airplanes, so many pairs of socks, and so many million rounds of ammunition. It has to know how, where, and by whom these things must be found, processed, moved, inspected, and used. It must take into account that unless they are found, processed, moved, and used with the least possible dislocation of civilian economy, their use will weaken that economy and reduce our ability both to prosecute the war and to reconvert to peace far beyond the degree in which they should. It must take into account peacetime methods of planning, procurement, transportation, and issue that will actually strengthen the civilian economy instead of competing with it, and that will be able smoothly to expand without building a hasty and costly organization through vital months of delay.

It is easy to say the “Navy is now Big Business,” but it is not enough. It is time that the Navy really began to behave like Big Business and to realize that failure to do so can only result in a return to those dismal years when a tax-weary public regarded us as a dreary and expensive nuisance—and this time that opinion will be largely justified, for we have had experience enough to enable us increasingly and visibly to become an aid to civilian economy in such vital matters as the ironing out of seasonal industries, making for a reasonable guarantee of an “annual wage,” the development of new production, and increased production of established industries, thus aiding in the maintenance of a high employment level. Huge appropriations are not necessary to accomplish these good things. It needs only competent expenditure of the funds we have and will have.

. . .

In short, while a hundred and fifty-three years ago the Navy realized the need of a Supply Corps, it has now become apparent that that Corps must know considerably more than how to prepare a payroll or a public voucher. It must at any time be ready to answer the questions of Operations and the technical Bureaus as to where any material, new or standard, may be obtained, how long it will take, who can process it to the best advantage of the Navy and the taxpayer, and its approximate cost.

. . .

In the beginnings of the Navy these problems were well handled, and perhaps through a review of the past we can get an inkling of what most needs to be done now. Hull, Stewart, Truxton, Bainbridge, Rodgers, Preble—these were fighting mariners who made the Navy and molded its spirit from the beginning. They were not, however, business men; and to enable them to concentrate on their paramount duty, Command, each had on board a man then known as a Purser. These gentlemen were not picked haphazard but were drawn from the Counting Houses of the most successful mercantile firms of the American waterfront. Congress, realizing only that no commanding officer had either time or knowledge to haggle over the going price of cordage and blocks, rum kegs, round shot, clothing, tar, pitch and turpentine, salt junk and hard-tack, offered the men who did these things for stout men-­of-war the same emolument which then prevailed in commercial lines—two and one-­half per cent of expenditures.

With no previous experience to guide them, that arrangement seemed fair to the early Congressmen, and it was meant to approximate our present-day legislation covering wages in Naval Shipyards. However, a 54-gun frigate, in order to man the battery and maneuver the ship in battle, needed fifty officers and midshipmen, fifty Marines to shoot from the tops and spear­head the boarding party, and three hundred seamen, landsmen, and apprentice-boys. A merchant ship of exactly the same tonnage and rig could go to sea well manned by a captain, two mates, a boatswain, a carpenter, a steward, a cook, and twelve foremast hands. The difference is obvious. With delighted but incredulous eyes, the very best young men in the counting-houses volunteered for Naval service. They knew business and they knew the logistic needs of a sea­going vessel for the three years that in those days was the normal commission. They served the infant Navy well, and from such records as survive, they did it honestly and economically. But consider for a moment two and one-half per cent of the most legitimate expenses of a ship of war for three or four years!

Inevitably this magnet for efficient young business men had to be withdrawn, as seasoned captains at $100.00 a month and eight rations, and lieutenants at $50.00 and four rations, watched youngsters in their late twenties or early thirties go to sea for three years, serve the ship well, but resign at the end of the cruise to start their own lines of China-trade clipper ships with the proceeds. In 1812 the law was drastically changed. Pursers became commissioned officers instead of serving under appointments for one cruise at a time; and their pay was set at $40.00 and two rations.

By that time the counting houses had discovered that for that day, too, “Navy business was Big Business” and provided excellent training for young men. So, for many years the larger shipping firms sent younger sons into the Navy to learn the counting­house trade and to gain essential knowledge of foreign port facilities. Again, for a little while, the procurement of Supply officers was no problem; but keeping good ones after they had learned their job was another matter. Forty dollars and no future could not hold them, and as fast as they matured professionally, Business on the beach lured them out of the Navy just as Business raided the Supply Corps following World War I and took some of our best from us.

. . .

Procurement of Supply officers for a generation before 1912 was by competitive examination. Occasionally a graduate of Annapolis, by choice or by reason of some slight physical handicap, entered the Corps, but the total of such Academy graduates was seldom more than one or two percent of the current total. In those days it was considered undemocratic to insist upon a college degree before commission; but the preparation of the entrance examinations and the grading of the papers (including a mark in “Adaptability” imposed by the entrance board, which carried a weight of 49 out of 100) gave the leaven of enthusiastic and professionally educated officers some leeway in selection of candidates. Seventeen examinations had to be taken in six days, and their content made certain that unless an aspiring civilian youngster had done a fair job, with at least two years of college, his chances of success were very slim. The normal figures for examination about the turn of the century were that out of one thousand applicants, only eighty to one hundred were designated to take the tests, and less than twenty passed and received commissions. Among that handful there were always one or two who continued to study their profession and throw their energy into building up some branch of it, whether purchasing, transportation, commissary, warehousing, issue, property or fiscal accounting, marketing or inventory controls. There were also many, of course, who breathed more easily when once assured that the steward and the pay office yeomen were competent, and who thereafter devoted their time to less worrisome affairs.

Then for a time commission in the Supply Corps was restricted to enlisted men; and following World War I, large numbers were added on account of their enlisted experience. Many of the officers who came in that way have been real assets and today have gained high rank; but many who had grown middle-aged as the cautious advisors of enthusiastic young paymasters never learned that not all situations in business can be covered by the Navy Regulations, and so became that worst of all shipmates, “No­-Can-Do Paymasters.” Moreover most of these new officers were much older than their contemporaries in other branches–some of them too old to serve as D.O. of a destroyer or S.O. of a small gunboat without serious detriment to their health. For a number of years the mortality was high.

 Meanwhile as the years following World War I slipped by in a strange fog of what in retrospect can best be described as a sort of snarling optimism, various things happened. It seemed to be taken for granted that Armies and Navies were of no further use to anyone. They could not be abolished at once, for that implied too many political repercussions, both domestic and foreign; but it was apparently assumed that the men and equipment then in the Services would last out the brief time to be covered before such expensive excrescences could go by default, and that men, ships, planes, and guns would gradually eliminate themselves by the sheer march of time. Most of us now in the upper brackets remember all too distinctly the increasing decrepitude of our ships for lack of money to repair them; the steady attrition of the commissioned ranks without adequate replacements at the bottom; ships and Army posts with complements well below the healthy “cadre” limit; not enough money to put into the field for trial one experimental tank; field maneuvers with broomsticks and perhaps a dilapidated farm-tractor to represent planned but still non-existent equipment.

During this period of shrinkage and decay, the Supply corps (as noted above, topheavy in the elder age-brackets) shrank very fast indeed; and the dwindling PS and T appropriations were barely enough to cover the annual graduating class at Annapolis. At one time the Corps was less than sixty percent of its authorized strength, although that complement was set at a figure far below the one-to-eight ratio contemplated in all personnel studies of the past. As result, one after another of the traditional functions of Supplies and Accounts had either to be abandoned or surrendered to some technical Bureau or to the Secretary’s Office; one after another of the Bureau’s accounting duties had to be loaded on the shoulders of the already undermanned field. From each class graduating from the Naval Academy came one or two or perhaps five young men who were genuinely interested in business or who, in the words of one of them, “figured that some day soon they would abolish the Navy altogether, and I wanted to know something that would be of use in getting a job Outside!” But for every recruit the Corps thus gained, two or three elderly men retired for age, blood pressure, or a heart murmur.

By 1934 the shrunken figures of the Line were unable to make room for an entire Annapolis class year by year. Resignations were encouraged but did not appear in sufficient numbers to remove the problem. Then somebody remembered the vacancies in the Supply Corps, and the School of Finance and Supply–a branch of the Postgraduate School–was born at Philadelphia. The student body at first was restricted to Line graduates with at least two years at sea, and applications for transfer were requested.

The response, as might be expected, brought mixed results. In this way some of the best officers the Corps has had were recruited, although many outstanding applicants were not permitted to transfer. One young man asked permission to enter the first F and S class in 1934. He was not allowed to transfer until he was wearing three stripes in 1946. Failing eyes brought in several, and again some of them made excellent Supply officers. But also there were many who thought a year’s “leave” in Philadelphia would please the wife, or whose future in the Line did not seem too rosy, or who just plain disliked night watches.

The advent of the Vinson Bill and a Navy­minded President changed the general picture, and soon only such Line officers as had minor physical defects could be spared for the annual F and S classes, and the School began to fill up with NROTC graduates. During the seven years of its existence the School of Finance and Supply went far to fill the vacancies but did nothing to increase the inadequate complement. It did, however, provide the Corps with a growing body of young officers whose educational background made them eligible for post-graduate business training at Harvard, and as many as possible were sent there. By the time the emergency of 1939 came along, some sixty or seventy officers had been through that exacting course; and the value of it was apparent to anyone as World War II loomed large and larger. Those sixty or seventy carried much more than their proportionate weight during the war years. The value of sound business training was apparent.

When war became only a question of time, the School of Finance and Supply at Philadelphia, designed to train Regulars, and the school in Washington training Reserves were merged into one and moved to the Navy Supply Corps School, which was established at Harvard itself.

. . .

The extension of the Selective Service Act to lads of eighteen brought this matter of background to a head. Until that time candidates for Supply Corps commissions averaged 24-25 years in age, held from one to three degrees, and had had from one to five years actual business experience. Moreover they were among the more forward-­looking of the country’s young business men who had seen the looming future and volunteered where they were best prepared to serve. The 18-year draft changed all that, and the question arose at once: how to prepare a boy of nineteen or twenty to absorb the intricate tangle of laws and decisions, of special professional knowledge, which he must have to keep his ship and himself out of grave trouble?

. . .

This post-war problem, however, was not confined to the Supply Corps but took in the entire Navy. To enlarge the Naval Academy sufficiently to care for future officer require­ments would entail either the expensive absorption of most of the city of Annapolis and a tremendously costly building program, or finally to agree to the often-suggested but always undesirable device of having more than one Naval Academy in various sections of the country. With V-12 experience behind us and the realization that wars, while supervised by professional Regulars, must be fought and to a great extent planned by trained Reserves, the Navy Department came up with a hopeful solution. Formulated by Admiral Holloway and his staff, the legislation known to the Navy as the Holloway Plan was submitted to Congress and was quickly approved by that august body. The Holloway Plan is now in operation in over fifty universities and colleges across the nation, designed to provide not only a goodly number of qualified young officers annually but also to build up steadily a well-indoctrinated Reserve whose background is identical with that of the young men who elect the Navy as a career.

Some minor difficulties attended the first application of the Holloway Plan to the Supply Corps, as many officers, both Line and Staff, were misled by the efficiency of the many Academy graduates who have excelled as Supply officers and forgot the many others who became only rule-of-thumb record-keepers with no real understanding of the Supply Corps’ mission. So, for a time, the slogan of “Everybody with the same background” required candidates for Navy business commissions to take the entire four years of Line preparation. Much of that preparation is necessary. Aside from the basic indoctrination, every officer in the Navy should know something of communications, damage control, and practical gunnery. However, before a Supply officer is called upon to demonstrate his ability in theoretical gunnery, practical engineering, maneuvering by radar or the mooring board, it is safe to assume that only the Chaplain will have survived with him and that the ship will be in a highly damaged and unmaneuverable condition.

It soon proved to be a question of undergraduate time. There are only so many hours in the academic year, and academic requirements for a degree use up a considerable portion of them. Thirty-two purely Naval hours from the student’s normal one hundred and twenty left very slim opportunity for any flexibility or for the acquisition of anything resembling the liberal education which is the basic requirement of any worthwhile degree . . . The extreme case was one District where, in the fall of 1946, one hundred and sixty-two well qualified candidates applied, but the summer of 1947 saw only two of them who had been able to graduate with both a degree and a Supply Corps commission.

 . . . NROTC Bulletin 103 was issued August 25, 1947, reducing the Line-course demands upon Supply Corps candidates. Not as much reduction as has been granted the Marine Corps was allowed; but the preparation for a Supply Corps commission now needs only the standard 24 semester-hours of purely Naval undergraduate work, one-fourth of which is strictly Supply study and covers approximately the same ground formerly covered in 45 hours at Harvard. These courses are constantly under revision as research at Bayonne proves the need. Competent instructor officers are also trained at Bayonne before being assigned to college duty. Through long experience with the Navy through the war years the Commerce Deans involved understand our problem thoroughly and contribute mightily to the planning of each candidate’s four years. Moreover, many of the Supply courses so closely approximate standard civilian business that many civilian Commerce students, although not contemplating a naval career, apply for them, and the courses are accepted as full degree-credits in most institutions.

This program will eventually provide not only Supply officers well equipped to develop the Logistic side of the Navy, but will insure for the first time a truly ready Reserve who, in addition to their Naval knowledge, keep constantly abreast of national economic conditions.

It will be some years before the full results of this wide and thoughtful program became apparent; but it is already having its effect in bringing the Navy into the minds of the college-going public, of filling junior key­spots in Industry with knowledgeable Reserves, of spreading better civilian understanding of our place in the economy of the nation, and of eliminating in future emergencies many of the costly “quickie” schools needed in the past to give even the best Reserves an inkling of their real war duties. It will go far to dissipate the fog of misunderstanding which too often stands between the Navy and the Nation it serves. Thoughtful civilians will have something besides the rumbling of columnists upon which to base opionion of the Armed Services, and gradually the Services themselves will cease to puzzle over the mental processes of their civilian “opposite numbers.” We will understand each other at least. To an Oldtimer that spells the Millennium!

 
 
 
  • Gilbert L McCarthy

    I was attached to Naval Supply Depot Da Nang Vietnam,and assigned to Naval Security Camp Carter 1968 – 1969 I was wounded April 1969. I haven’t been able to find any info on the Naval Security unit.Can you help?
    Gil McCarthy

  • Jim Valle

    The ship in the picture is a Liberty Trooper. During WWII it could have belonged to the Navy proper, the Army Transportation Corps or the U.S. Maritime Commission, all different agencies doing basically the same job. Just adds another layer of complexity to the equasion, doesn’t it.