United States Navy Supply Corps, Looking Back, Looking Ahead

BY RETIRED REAR ADM. DANIEL W. McKINNON JR., SC, USN, COMMANDER NAVAL SUPPLY SYSTEMS COMMAND AND 36TH CHIEF OF SUPPLY CORPS

As I look back, they were called “supercargo” and theirs was the conduct of business at sea.

It was Christmas 1955 when a fraternity brother who was a Navy ensign returned to Columbia, Missouri, where I was a soon-tograduate Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps midshipman. The college friend told me about an officer on his destroyer who had an office with safes, paid and fed the crew, kept the budget, ordered the ship’s supplies, sold uniforms, ran a retail shop called a “Ships Store” that sold cigarettes for a dollar a carton, and did not stand midwatches on the bridge in the dead of night. In a foreign port, he would go ashore to obtain foreign currency, and with a pad of purchase orders negotiate for exotic merchandise to sell to the crew. He bought fresh fruit and vegetables, and paid bills to ship chandlers.

As a business major, there were no plans for remaining in the Navy beyond my threeyear obligation; but all I could think was, “Wow; what a resume booster when three years later I would launch a career into private industry.”

I found myself launched into a totally different industry. It was a unique business world, challenging, with responsibilities far beyond those being experienced by high school and college classmates. In a supply department of a World War II Essex class aircraft carrier, I held six different positions in 30 months, supervising men from a small team of 10 to divisions of 200. With diploma in hand and a small gold bar on my collar, I had at 22 years become old an instant leader, whether deserving or not. It was exhilarating. In all six assignments, I was the boss. I was not told what to do, rarely told how to do it, and when my moral compass said, “go do it,” I did. Innovation and imagination were welcomed, challenges cherished, and personal satisfaction instant. I was in the business of big business, just not on Wall Street or in a high-rise office in corporate America. It was a unique and remarkable experience.

It is the experience of every United States Navy Supply Corps officer.

Teddy Roosevelt called our Navy, “the surest guarantee of peace.” The Navy is a combat ready physical presence sailing far from our shores, helping to ensure that a nation on a continent protected by two vast oceans is both the arsenal of, and the sentinel for, democracy.

The Navy is also big business. Supply Corps officers and their predecessors have provided educated, experienced, innovative, effective, motivated, and successful leaders of that business.

Afloat today, they call us “SUPPO.” One hundred years ago, they called us “pay.” In a distant past, it was “supercargo.”

Over 200 years ago, the wooden sailing ship Eleanor was docked in Boston Harbor. This merchantman was owned and built in colonial America, and plied the ocean back and forth to England bringing important merchandise to the colonies. On a fateful day in December 1773, its cargo included 114 wooden chests of the East India Company. Someone probably yelled to a gentleman of consequence who was looking down at the water aghast and said, “Hey, supercargo. Look over the side; where is your tea now?”

On June 1, 1813, the frigate Chesapeake sailed from Boston during the War of 1812, and engaged the frigate HMS Shannon; there the Chesapeake’s mortally wounded captain, James Lawrence, famously called out, “Don’t give up the ship.” Three months later, the Brig USS Lawrence, named after Captain Lawrence and under the command of his friend, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, was engaged with HMS Detroit in the Battle of Lake Erie.

Purser Samuel Hambleton, a civilian and early ancestor of the Supply Corps, heroically manned the last gun on Lawrence with Perry and was severely wounded. It was Hambleton that suggested to Perry and had a blue battle flag sewn with the words, “Dont Give up the Ship.” It can be seen today as the flag is displayed at the U.S. Naval Academy inspiring midshipmen to prevail.

Honorable Josephus Daniels, secretary of the Navy, Rear Admiral Samuel McGowan, paymaster general, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, assistant secretary of the Navy.
–photo from Naval History and Heritage Command

Hambleton was one of the Navy’s first pursers, appointed December 6, 1806. He was older than Perry, and his closest confidant. When he returned home to Saint Michaels, Maryland, he named his home Perry Cabin. In 1941, the destroyer USS Hambleton (DD 455) was named for him. Today you can rest comfortably at the Inn at Perry Cabin at Saint Michaels.

In 1847, pursers moved from their civilian status and became ranked as lieutenants or commanders, depending on years of service. In 1860, just before commencement of the Civil War, “purser” gave way to “paymaster” and ashore supply support long concentrated in dockyards or “chandlery’s,” commercial merchant depots operated by “ship chandlers,” became the responsibility of paymasters.

When Commodore Perry entered Edo (modern Tokyo) Bay on February 13, 1854, as part of the East India Squadron during Perry’s “Opening of Japan,” the SUPPO would have been called purser. The ship that supported this early expedition to Asia was the USS Supply.

In 1842, the Navy created a system of bureaus to manage the shore establishment giving birth to the Bureau of Provisions and Clothing. The title changed again in 1892 to the Bureau of Supplies and Accounts to acknowledge the paymasters expanded responsibilities, which included being the Navy’s principal buyer in the military market place.

In 1901, individual shipboard berthing messes gave way to the general mess system and a year later the issuance of the first Navy cook book. Perhaps it was not as instructive as the Army cook book that admonished, “The presence of worm holes in coffee should not occasion its rejection unless it is of inferior quality or strength, since they generally indicate age, weight nothing and disappear when the coffees are ground.”

When the United States went to war in 1917, there had never been such a massive industrial mobilization of America. One of its most important leaders was Paymaster General Samuel McGowan. His Bureau of Provisions and Clothing was central to preparing the Navy to fight.

To organize American industry, the War Industries Board (WIB) was established under the American statesman, Bernard Baruch. The WIB set priorities and worked with the Army and Navy purchasing organizations. The Army had five. Baruch called McGowan “hard charging.” McGowan asked Senator Claude Swanson, chair of the Naval Affairs Committee, if the Navy needed to pay attention to the WIB. From an affirmative senatorial nod, McGowan said to Baruch, “Well, Chief, where are the orders?”

In his autobiography, “The Public Years,” Baruch wrote glowingly of McGowan because “… the Navy … procurement organization was superior to the Army’s … The Army’s supply service was poorly organized and inefficient…” Baruch recalled that the Army Chief of Staff’s policy was, “to get as many men as possible to France, and let others worry about supplying them.” The SUPPO of a ship heading on deployment far from home understands the commitment behind telling the skipper, “Ready for Sea.”

It was no surprise that in 1919 under McGowan’s leadership, the Navy Pay Corps became the Navy Supply Corps. His title was still paymaster general, as well as chief of Pay Corps, and we still did the accounting, handled the cash, and paid the crew. McGowan was one of two chiefs for whom a ship was named. The other was Gideon Welles, who was chief, Bureau of Provisions and Clothing from 1846 to 1849, and secretary of the Navy during the Civil War.

How many know that we had the same chief twice?

In 1920, Rear Adm. Christian J. Peoples was appointed acting chief, Bureau of Supplies and Accounts. In 1933 after first declining, he became chief again in the midst of the Great Depression. A few months later, because of his business acumen, he was appointed by President Roosevelt as director of Procurement for the Department of the Treasury, now responsible for supplying the entire government. I am sure Roosevelt remembered Peoples when he was McGowan’s assistant chief of the Bureau, and Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the Navy.

In 1935, Peoples stepped down as chief of the bureau. He remained with the Treasury, and in 1939 his agency became the Bureau of Federal Supply. In 1949, his legacy became the Federal Supply Service, today’s Federal Acquisition Service.

There were remarkable Supply Corps officers in World War II, when over 16,000 officers served their country and more than 90% were Reservists.

One well-known officer is Vice Adm. Kenneth R. Wheeler, because the Navy Supply Corps School building in Newport, Rhode Island, is named after him.

While on duty in Manila, Philippines, at the outbreak of World War II, he was taken captive on the island of Corregidor. His remarkable story of heroism, how he was a survivor of two “hell ships,” the Oryoku Maru and the Enora Maru, and saved the lives of fellow prisoners from drowning, is covered well in “Ready for Sea,” Rear Adm. Frank Allston’s landmark history of the Supply Corps.

Wheeler earned three Bronze Stars for his courage, and a Purple Heart, which he was reluctant to accept. Years later in retirement, he was persuaded into accepting it. It was an honor to pin it on him at a ceremony at the former Navy Supply Corps School, Athens, Georgia, with the student battalion.

When finally released in 1946 from a prisoner of war (POW) camp in Korea by arriving U.S. troops, little did he know that an underwater demolition team member named Gene Grinsted (our 33rd chief) had helped clear the beach for arrival of American forces.

Reluctant to tell his POW story while on active duty, Wheeler did write it for his family. Titled “For My Children” and scripted after the war, you can find a copy with the National American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Museum and Research Center in Wellsburg, West Virginia. It is worth the drive.

During World War II, Herschel J. Goldberg, then a lieutenant commander and later our 29th chief, was executive officer of a supply depot on the island of Noumea.

Believing racial discrimination an anathema, Goldberg devised a plan to end segregation in the mess hall and movies. Sailors liked it, officers were not so sure. Few will recall that the two best berthing compartments on the World War II Essex class aircraft carrier, each with their own private showers, face bowls, and heads, were on the port and starboard side of the ship, forward under officer’s country. One was for African American stewards, and one was for Filipino stewards.

World War II and its complexities of supporting ships on the other side of the world, and dealing with the mobilization of industry at home provided lessons that resulted in the 1947 Navy Integrated Supply System. It was our equivalent to the Army’s logistics job of supporting the massive movement of land armies. It was our assignment to help cast off the lines and get a combat ship underway so it could take care of itself. No logistics tail for us; just a trailing wake off the stern. It also gave us an understanding of the commodity nature of private industry.

We organized a face to industry by establishing commodity-oriented Supply Demand Control Points for aviation, ship’s parts, ordnance, clothing, subsistence, electronics, general, fuel, submarine, Ships Store and the Yards and Docks Supply Office to help our civil engineer and Seabee brethren.

The Army organized parts management around their technical services with supporting supply control agencies. Today the Ordnance, Transportation, and Quartermaster Corps are the Army’s logistics branches. The ties between the Supply Corps and Quartermaster Corps run deep, back to when Rear Adm. Joseph J. Cheatham was chief, the same time his brother, Maj. Gen. B. Frank Cheatham, was quartermaster general.

The first director of the Defense Supply Agency (DSA) was a quartermaster, Lt. Gen. Andrew McNamara, and his deputy was Rear Adm. Joseph M. Lyle. Lyle became a vice admiral and the first Supply Corps officer of what is today the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA).

I will leave it to the DLA historian to tell the story of the Quartermaster Corps and the Supply Corps resisting efforts after World War II to create a single service of supply, and how the new Department of Defense decided to organize supply management by commodity driven Inventory Control Points using the Supply Corps playbook.

When stationed in Tuscany and seconded to the United Nations Emerging Force, I took a course in Italian art and history. The final exam question from our University of Florence professor was, “The history of Italy is the history of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Yes? No? Defend!”

I have often wondered how one would answer the question on a military history final exam that was, “The history of DSA and DLA is the history of the United States Navy Supply Corps. Yes? No? Defend!”

Goldberg was the last paymaster general and the first chief of Supply Corps. A rarity, he had only one sea tour, SUPPO of an oiler at the beginning of World War II. The Bureau of Supplies and Accounts became Naval Supply Systems Command (NAVSUP) in 1967 when the bureaus gave way to the systems commands (SYSCOMs) reporting directly to the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). That ended the “bi-lineal Navy” where a bureau chief reported to both the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) and the CNO.

Rear Adm. Daniel W. McKinnon Jr., SC, USN, served as supply officer aboard USS Princeton from 1968 – 1970.

In 1990, I wondered about that when attending meetings of both the CNO and SEVNAV. Old habits die-hard. After all, a civilian secretary usually comes from the business sector, and the SYSCOMs conduct business. An assistant secretary once asked me why he had to talk to a Supply Corps officer when a program had a business problem. My answer: we wrote the contract.

Another unusual vignette of history was when our 32nd chief, Wallace R. Dowd Jr., was appointed Vice Chief of Naval Operations of the Vietnamese navy, so he had authority to kick-butt on anyone under-performing on the Joint American-Vietnam supply team.

Like Goldberg, Dowd wanted to break barriers. He placed our first AfricanAmerican officer, Wayne G. Caliman Jr. in command of the Navy Resale Systems Office, and Lois Harden as the first women in command of a NAVSUP field activity, the Navy Subsistence Office. It was not until after World War II that Supply Corps officers, as officers of the staff, could be titled commanding officer. The first were called, “Supply Officer in Command.”

To look ahead, is to acknowledge the discovery and beauty of looking back. Each Supply Corps birthday provides an opportunity to reflect.

Our Supply Corps is one of eight staff corps, four in the field of medicine, the Civil Engineer Corps, the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, and the Chaplin Corps. Each has their own rich history.

Today’s engineering duty officers (EDOs) were once members of the Engineer Corps disestablished in 1899, or the Construction Corps which was abolished in 1940, when the officers became part of the restricted line. There was even a Corps of Professors of Mathematics who taught at the Naval Academy, the Naval Observatory and aboard ship.

As a lieutenant commander I recall Rear Adm. Ed Batchelder, the Charleston Naval Shipyard commander, telling me that he regretted that the EDO community no longer had an identity as rich as the Supply Corps. I have thought about that often, and wondered why my staff corps and our special duties are still demanded and respected by the Navy.

War fighting needs logistics, in all of its historically elegant names, from “the train” of centuries ago, to “the supply chain” of today. Only the United States Navy Supply Corps offers a man or woman a Navy career totally committed to the ideal of effective and efficient combat support, and possess the interest, commitment, education, and business acumen that underpin it.

There are some wonderful quotations on logistics. A Navy favorite are the World War II words of Adm. Ernest King, “I don’t know what this ‘logistics’ is that Marshall is always talking about, but I want some of it.” In a curious way, King was complementing the Supply Corps. There was a time when a ship’s commanding officer could take everything for granted, thanks to the quiet professionalism of a supply officer.

Another great quote is “Behind every great leader was an even greater logistician.” My favorite is when Alexander the Great is alleged to have said, “logisticians are a humorless lot. They know if my campaign fails, they are the first ones I will slay.” That is career motivation.

King’s war in the Pacific was an eye opener. When ships needed to resupply and refurbish, they repaired to an island for support; this wasn’t the case for the Vietnam War. The Mobile Logistics Support Force (MLSF) took supply support straight to the combat operating area. Historically underway replenishment can be traced back to the War with Tripoli, or First Barbary War, and cross-ocean forward resupply to Commodore Dewey’s Asiatic Squadron during the Spanish-American War’s Battle of Manila Bay. In my study is a silk pennant showing flag of many nations, and a circle in the middle for a photograph of a Sailor, and one below for a picture of his ship. Embroidered in Japan for an Asiatic Squadron crewmember; the words on this early family souvenir say, “In remembrance of my cruise in the Philippines.”

When conducting amphibious operations off the course of Vietnam in 1968, my amphibious assault ship could expect fuel and ammunition every three days, and provisions and general stores every three weeks. Some Sailors humorously called the ships alongside, “fast-attack food ships.”

Today, the MLSF is with the stewardship of the Military Sealift Command. Also, more recent, is that logistics is as dependent on the visibility of information of supply as it once was its placement. What is not new is that the Supply Corps is still responsible for managing and guarding a supply pipeline that stretched from industrial America to storerooms and shops at sea. I sometimes think about life’s experience as being a “bunch of chunks.” That mental metaphor could be the product of 20 tours of duty, with over 25 separate opportunities to lead, in 35 years of service. The Navy makes one a philosopher. Philosophers select language that gives meaning to their experience. If I could take words and turn them into a credo of my adventure as a United States Supply Corps officer, these are the ones I would choose.

Retired Rear Adm. Daniel McKinnon Jr. shared his thoughts on the 225th Navy Supply Corps Birthday during an interview with the Navy Supply Corps Newsletter.
–photo by Jan Derk