By Capt. Matthew Cline
377th Theater Sustainment Command
On a rainy Louisiana morning, warrant officers of the 377th Theater Sustainment Command gathered at the National WWII Museum in downtown New Orleans before the museum opened its doors. The assembled team had specialists from every field of sustainment, from an ammunition acquisition and distribution expert to a seasoned petroleum supply supervisor. These subject matter experts convened here for one purpose — to learn together about the challenges, successes and failures of one of the most momentous combat logistics enterprises in history, World War II.
“Studying the past and previous wars and how we operated in them is key,” said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Dorian Bozza, the command’s Chief of Maintenance. “You can’t fight a war without logistics.”
Bozza, a professed lover of history, was also the senior warrant officer on hand and led the group throughout the tour of the museum for the command’s Warrant Officer Professional Development training. He focused on the “Road to Berlin” exhibit that mirrored the Allies’ invasion of Nazi Germany and the logistical challenges of the subsequent inland push towards Berlin.
After the unprecedented amphibious assault at Normandy on June 6, 1944, the Allies faced the daunting problem of sustaining a push through the interior defenses of what was known as ‘Fortress Europe.’ The fiercely fortified area was crawling with seasoned veterans of the German Wehrmacht (Army), Schutzstaffel (Protection Squadron, commonly known as SS), and supporting Panzer (Tank) divisions. The Allied offensive was made even more formidable by the unpredictable hedgerows that defined the countryside and provided optimal defensive positions for the Nazi occupiers.
In order to sustain the forward momentum, the front-line troops needed a reliable and uninterrupted supply chain from the point of debarkation on the coasts of northwest Europe to wherever the front line had extended to. The answer was a highly-coordinated trucking and transportation system along improved and unimproved roads nicknamed the “Red Ball Express.” The system marked transport vehicles with a red ball to identify their priority access to key roads, enabling an expedited and highly efficient push to the front line which at its longest was 600 miles away from its starting point.
Bozza drew on the experiences of the 377th Theater Sustainment Command to show how the principles of wartime sustainment, while constantly evolving, always have some parallel to the past.
“We did almost the same thing as a command when we supported Operation Desert Storm,” he explained to the group, referring to the quick and decisive actions of the Gulf War conflict that saw the Iraq army defeated within days of the initial assault. “The front line pushed almost faster than we could keep up with, but we did and the warfighter always had the tools needed to win the war.”
He also drew similarities to the challenges faced in the current COVID-19 pandemic response to those faced by the defending Soldiers of the crushing Nazi counter-offensive in the Ardennes forest in Belgium in the winter of 1944, known as the Battle of the Bulge. During this unexpected push from the previously retreating Germans, the Allied forces found themselves woefully underprepared and sustained heavy losses.
“A good logistician anticipates what the warfighter needs before he asks for it,” Bozza said. “We failed on that in the Battle of the Bulge, and Soldiers weren't prepared to fight in the conditions they were up against.”
The quick learning and adjustments of the World War II sustainers in the snowy Belgian forests, Bozza explained, taught many lessons for future logistical challenges like the ones the Army currently faces in COVID-19. A logistics enterprise that once only had to account for successful supply distribution now has to ensure safety procedures, personal protective equipment, and social distancing measures are accounted for during missions. Predictive analysis, he emphasized, was and remains an integral component of successful sustainment.
No point in the war emphasized the importance of logistics more than the critical North African campaign fought between the British Expeditionary Force under Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and Germany’s elite Desert Afrika Korps, commanded by the legendary “Desert Fox,” Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Rommel’s seasoned German troops quickly pushed through British defenses along the Libyan coast towards the critical port city of Alexandria, Egypt, potentially compromising the entire course of the war in the Mediterranean theater. Despite his masterful offensive, the Desert Fox was ultimately undone when his highly mechanized unit ran dry of the precious liquid due to a poorly managed supply chain from the Nazi High Command.
One of the Soldiers in attendance, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Lawrence Dailey, took particular interest in this outcome influenced by his military specialty, petroleum distribution.
“The way supplies move is different in this day and age because we have the capability to move millions of gallons of petroleum daily with the technology to track it from beginning to end user,” he said. “The other classes of supply are important but petroleum is priority for every commander. Nothing moves without fuel.”
As the Soldiers continued through the museum throughout the day, the discussions ranged from the impact of logistics in a modern theater to the evolution of sustainment and transportation vehicles.
Despite the Allies’ ultimate victory, the museum laid bare the human cost in striking visuals and statistics. Chief Warrant Officer 3 Tonya Gonzalez, a human resources technician at the 377th Theater Sustainment Command, was moved by the sacrifices of the logisticians that had gone before her.
“It’s very difficult to see the amount of Soldiers that lost their lives, but they died proudly for the United States,” she reflected. “We just have to carry on the traditions, honor them, and know that we’re doing it not only for ourselves but for our country as well.”