On Memorial Day I honor two William Slyters: My great great grandfather who died near Memphis in the Civil War and my father who served in Hawaii in World War Two.
From reading the history of the senior William’s 28th Wisconsin Infantry, it appears that during the units 3 years of service they saw but a few days of combat. This is reflected in the dozen or so combat fatalities among the thousand odd 28th’s soldiers, while around 200 died by stupid accidents and disease as my great great grandfather did. I doubt this was by design- President Lincoln and his generals certainly wanted to engage and defeat the confederates as promptly as possible. But even the north’s railroads were still making there way across the Mississippi River, the south’s few railroads couldn’t even agree on a common gauge, and once away from the mighty Miss’, the rivers soon got too small to navigate. With scarce horses and wagons dedicated to hauling supplies, both union and confederate armies tended to move at a walking pace, with the union troops having to walk to the south before battle could even commence. Throw in days spent foraging for essentials and sitting out southern humidity and northern snows, and it’s no wonder the Civil War was a long and slow one.
Shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack the younger William gave up a job as recreation leader where he kept depression deprived kids busy and out of trouble in Minneapolis’ parks and enlisted. After basic training the Army gave him the same job in Hawaii, working to boost the morale of service members on R&R or injured in combat. Other than overly large servings of pineapple, my dad had no complaints about the plentiful food and supplies. Heck, the military even flew him home to Minnesota for his dad’s funeral. In less than a century, America’s military had become proficient at logistics, freeing soldiers to tend to the needs of others instead of fighting for mere survival.
So how did we get so good?
For America, the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, being fought on our home turf, presented only minor logistical challenges. For the British it was another matter, with supply and communication lines stretching for weeks across the Atlantic. For the union the Civil War presented a whole new set of challenges, the least of which was transporting and supplying a tenth of the country’s population hundreds of miles from home in an age when trains were stopped by teams of Brakemen running along the tops of cars to turn giant wheels to apply the brakes, and riverboats were routinely wrecked and burned even in peacetime. Add in state and even local militias that picked sides and came and left the war as they pleased, and the American military had to grow up fast.
That led to a national commitment to mobility, which took the form of transcontinental railroads and later a national highway system as well as deep water ports and the Panama Canal. Thus despite a late entry into World War One, America was able to ship enough troops and supplies across the Atlantic to provide the margin of victory.
Two decades later the Nazis had built a frighteningly efficient and brutal war machine that rapidly overran country after country. General Eisenhower, who had long worked to improve the military’s mobility, was amazed at the German autobahns while we were largely still a nation of two lane roads. But thanks to depression era jobs projects those were paved roads, our railroads were at peak strength. Hitler blew his logistical advantage by ordering his troops to march far beyond their supply lines in Russia while pursuing low value targets and fuel in north Africa. We invented the greatest military vehicle ever, the Jeep, and mass produced it and millions of trucks, planes, and ships. Black soldiers from the south, many of whom hadn’t even driven a car, were put on ‘dozers and built a road to Alaska, while women drivers wrestled twin engined Ford trucks hauling long bomber fuselages by night across the midwest between plants. No wonder we were able to pull off what is probably still the largest logistical exercise in history, the D-Day invasion,
After that the Korean War barely challenged our logistical skills, and in Vietnam the officer’s mess were infamously kept stocked with baked Alaska while wounded soldiers were whisked away to hospitals. But we were matched by an enemy whose supply line was a rugged trail not even ridable by bicycle that had so infiltrated the country that we were buying cement to build our airport runways from them.
With the porky Humvee replacing the svelte Jeep, we became a military that travelled too heavy and thirstily. No wonder that when the first Gulf War started, Mack workers labored through xmas vacation to build a rush order of trucks for the military, while trucking companies were running their drivers so ragged that they couldn’t move military vehicles to port quickly enough. Thankfully that little intervention into Iraq’s civil war was mercifully short.
Comes the 9/11 attack and Bush the junior had an excuse to double down on the stupid and return to Iraq. While the special forces rapidly counterattacked with air dropped ATVs, it took months for the rest of the military to get their Humvees packed up and back to Iraq. And like Vietnam, not knowing who was friend of foe, the military had to bring everything, kitchen sink and all, to Iraq. Then came the IEDs- improvised mines that would tear right through unarmored Humvees and the hordes of fuel trucks that fed them. Thus began the “uparmoring” of the Humvees, making them more thirstier and less durable. The enemy adapted with bigger IEDs, and the military answered with half million dollar MRAPs, a truck so heavily armored that it had to be built on a medium truck chassis. It says something of what the military thinks of these bloated poor excuses for a Jeep that most of them are being left in Iraq… To be captured and paraded by ISIS, at least until they figure out that they’re better off selling their stolen fuel supplies rather than waste them on these behemoths. When you’re an impromptu army that has no VA style lifelong healthcare commitment to it’s troops, a Super Duty pickup with a .50 in the bed works just as well… DOD, could you at least put a satellite activated kill switch on these things?
So America’s military mobility is at a crossroads… Clearly the age of 10 ton guzzlers with no more capacity than a crew cab pickup and relying on america’s trucking “industry” to move them are over. The military is clearly shopping for something Jeep/Land Rover size and even ATVs, and a few small contracts are even being let. But STRANET, the military’s plan for a “steel interstate system” of upgraded rail lines to speed military matter and every other form of freight and passengers is going nowhere in the current conservative congress. Too few of those congressmembers have served in the military or even have kids in the military, and too many are beholden to big military contractors… Thus they have little understanding of the military, and poor kids die in stupid trucks because of their stupidity.