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70 Years of the Transportation Corps

Transportation Corps Historian

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On 31 July 1942, the Department of War recognized the need for a single manager of Army transportation and created a new branch, the Transportation Corps. Since the Revolutionary War, Army transportation had evolved through two branches, the Quartermaster Corps and the Corps of Engineers. The demands of World War I made the Army first realize its need for a single manager for military transportation. So began an evolution over the next quarter century that culminated in the birth of the Transportation Corps during the opening months of World War II.

Transportation as a function has existed from the beginning of American military history. The Quartermaster Department was long responsible for wagon and boat transportation, except for harborcraft; responsibility for harborcraft resided with the Corps of Engineers since it had the mission of maintaining ports. When the Army adopted the use of military railroads during the Civil War, that function also fell to the Corps of Engineers since it was responsible for repairing tracks and building bridges.

During the 19th century, the Army was too small to require much specialization. So transportation requirements during peacetime could be managed by the Quartermaster Department. During war, however, the need for military transportation habitually expanded into organizations that managed the different modes, such as wagons, boats, and railroads. [The Quartermaster, Subsistence, and Pay Departments were consolidated in 1912 to create the Quartermaster Corps.]

Evolving Organization for Transportation

Starting with the invasion of Cuba in 1898, all subsequent wars of the United States were fought overseas. The debacle of uploading V Corps at Tampa, Florida, and offloading men, animals, and supplies at Daiquiri and Siboney, Cuba, taught the Army that it could not afford failure at ports and that it needed professionals who knew how to manage ports of embarkation and debarkation, deliver supplies over bare beaches, and manage the Army’s seagoing fleet of transports.

As a result, the War Department created the Army Transportation Service (ATS) under the Quartermaster Department on 18 August 1899. The ATS became the genesis of the future Transportation Corps and would evolve through a number of organizational name changes to become the current Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (SDDC).

On 11 July 1918, the American Expeditionary Forces, by General Orders No. 114, formed the Motor Transport Corps to manage the Army’s new fleet of trucks during World War I. So in this war, the Quartermaster Corps managed wheeled vehicles, stevedores, and the Army’s deep water fleet, while the Corps of Engineers had responsibility for railroads and harborcraft.

The Army soon realized that it needed one organization to manage the increasing modes of transportation. On 11 March 1919, the Secretary of War issued General Orders No. 54, creating the Transportation Service by merging the Embarkation Service and the Inland Traffic Service. On 9 April 1919, the Purchase, Storage, and Traffic Division of the General Staff subsequently directed (through Supply Circular No. 28) the consolidation of all transportation activities, except those of the Motor Transport Corps, into the Transportation Service. The Transportation Service, like the Motor Transport Corps, created its own branch insignia as one more step toward functional autonomy. It was becoming evident that the increasing size of the Army and the diverse modes of transportation would require the specialization of a separate branch to manage this function.

In 1919, the future Transportation Corps was off to a good start when the Secretary of War appointed Brigadier General Frank T. Hines as the first Chief of Transportation. He advocated the need for centralized control of all transportation matters in the War Department. The National Defense Act of 4 June 1920 placed all military transportation except rail under the Army Transportation Service as a separate service of the Quartermaster General, effective on 15 July 1920.

Congress, however, mandated a reduction of the military that same year. As a result, the Transportation Service was reduced to a Transportation Division in the Office of the Quartermaster General. Hines continued to serve as the Chief of Transportation until 1922.

World War II

Following the bombing of the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 December 1941, the United States entered its largest war ever. To mobilize its vast resources and deploy them simultaneously across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans created the greatest demands ever on military transportation assets. Consequently, transportation was a critical factor in dictating the Allies’ strategy. The magnitude of transportation demands required functional experts.

This time, there was no hesitation concerning the control of transportation. In March 1942, the Army created a Transportation Division under Colonel (later Major General) Charles P. Gross in the Services of Supply. On 31 July 1942, under the authority of Executive Order 9082, the Army established the Transportation Corps as a separate branch. The new branch acquired the deep-draft fleet, railroads, stevedores, and harborcraft units from the Quartermaster and Engineer Corps.

The Quartermaster Corps retained trucks and the newly created amphibious truck units, and the Engineers retained the assault landing craft in the engineer special brigades to conduct the Army’s amphibious landings. The Transportation Corps was created out of the lessons of World War I, primarily to manage traffic, or movement, control. It only received responsibility for those modes of transportation that the other two branches did not want.

During the war, the Transportation Corps was responsible for moving Soldiers from their training bases to the front and managing the ports of embarkation and debarkation in between. Because the Axis Powers knew the importance of denying the Allies the use of deep-draft ports, the Transportation Corps had to rely on landing craft and amphibious vehicles to deliver men and materiel across bare beaches until the ports were secure.

The military campaign in the Mediterranean theater was focused on securing the deep-draft port of Oran in Algeria and then pushing by rail across North Africa to Tunisia, where combat power could be loaded at the Port of Bizerte for landings in Sicily, Italy, and finally, southern France.

The Army conducted more amphibious operations than the Marine Corps during World War II, and the D-Day landing in Normandy would remain the largest amphibious operation of the war. The Normandy landing sites would sustain three armies until the First Army took the deep-draft port of Cherbourg and rehabilitated it a month later. This became the standard for over-the-beach operations.

However, the success of the Army port units was diminished by the U.S. Air Force’s destruction of railroads leading out of the Cotentin Peninsula. Innovative traffic management solutions, such as the Red Ball and later truck expresses, helped sustain the rapid breakout of the First and Third Armies from Normandy. Transportation assets became the lifeline of the advance into the very heart of Germany.

In the South Pacific, the Transportation Corps created a small ships section to provide General Douglas McArthur with the amphibious capability to begin taking back the island of New Guinea from the Japanese in the summer of 1942, a full year before the 2d Engineer Special Brigade arrived. Army freight ships and port and harborcraft units of the Transportation Corps sustained the Army from Guadalcanal, through small islands across the South and Central Pacific, and on to Okinawa. The 43d Amphibious Truck Battalion (Transportation Corps) even participated in the Marine landings on Iwo Jima.

During the war, the Transportation Corps moved over 30 million Soldiers in the United States and 7 million overseas, along with 126 million tons of cargo. Not only did the Transportation Corps have to support the Army on several fronts, but it also had to sustain its Allies in their fights, resulting in the two longest lines of communication during World War II: the Persian Corridor in Iran and the Ledo Road through Burma. The Persian Corridor was a 636-mile road and later railroad from Khorramshahr to Kazvin to the Baltic Sea that was used to supply Russia in its fight against Germany. The Ledo Road extended over 1,079 miles from Assam, India, through mountains and jungle to Kunming, China, to provide a lifeline to the Nationalist Chinese fighting against the Japanese.

The two greatest military powers on the earth at that time, Japan and Germany, marveled at the speed and volume with which the United States could produce, mobilize, and project its power around the globe. America’s enemies were literally overwhelmed by military might transported from the factory to the foxhole courtesy of the Transportation Corps.

Post War Developments

Riding on this success, the War Department directed the Quartermaster Corps to transfer the functions and responsibilities of truck and aviation units to the Transportation Corps by General Orders No. 77 on 24 July 1946. The same year, the Transportation School consolidated all training, except for drivers, at Fort Eustis, Virginia, because of its intermodal rail and sea capability. In 1950, the Army turned over its deep-draft ships to the Military Sealift Command, so the Army no longer had the largest navy in the United States military.

That same year, Brigadier General William B. Bunker convinced the Chief of Transportation, Major General Frank S. Besson, Jr., of the importance of helicopters in logistics. As a result, in May the Army approved the organization of five helicopter companies with the first, the 6th Transportation Company (Helicopter), activated in July 1952.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union had established control over Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain and detonated its first atomic bomb in 1949, and Communists had seized power in China. The first military showdown of the resulting Cold War between the Communists and the free world began when the Communists of North Korea invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950.

Korean War

The first objective of the American intervention in the Korean War was to stabilize the Pusan Perimeter, where retreating U.S. forces had been trapped at the southern tip of the Korean peninsula by the surging North Koreans. The deep-draft port of Pusan provided the critical link in the lifeline of men and materiel shipped from Japan. The Far East Command quickly established the Pusan Base Command, and the 8057th Provisional Port Company began operations immediately, discharging 309,000 tons of cargo in July 1950.

Later that year, the 7th Transportation Major Port (later redesignated the 7th Transportation Group) assumed control of Pusan and discharged over a million tons of cargo a month. By the end of 1952, the 7th Port celebrated its movement of 10 million tons of cargo through Pusan. By the time hostilities ended on 27 July 1953, the Port of Pusan had discharged three times the cargo of all the other Korean ports combined.

The Transportation Corps likewise supported the breakouts from the ports of Inchon and Wonsan that drove the North Koreans all the way back across the Chinese border. The subsequent Chinese intervention cut off United Nations forces, requiring the trucks of the 52d and 55th Transportation Battalions to rescue the 1st Marine Division and the 2d Infantry Division by fighting through gauntlets of enemy ambushes. This action resulted in the branch’s first Medal of Honor winner, Lieutenant Colonel John U. D. Page.

Cold War Growth

In 1954, the Engineer Corps turned its landing craft over to the Transportation Corps, making the Transportation Corps responsible for all modes of Army transportation. Coincidentally, the Navy lifted the size limit on Army watercraft, allowing the Army to build landing craft utility (LCUs). This led the Transportation Corps to activate the 159th Boat Battalion.

The Soviet threat against Europe provided the peacetime Army an enemy to plan against. In anticipation of the needs of the Army, the Chief of Transportation directed and championed the development of military transportation. Contingency planners assumed the worst-case scenario, in which the Soviet Union would use its bombers or, worse yet, its nuclear arsenal to destroy the fixed ports in France, thus severing the vital lines of communication at their European end. This contingency required the Army to rely heavily on over-the-beach operations.

The Transportation Corps began an annual New Offshore Discharge Exercise (NODEX), which was held from 1954 until French President Charles de Gaulle ordered the U.S. Army out of his country in 1964. The name of this type of operation was changed to supply-over-the-beach until Soldiers started referring to it by its acronym, the SOB. These operations then became known as logistics-over-the-shore (LOTS).

Because 90 percent of the world’s beaches had too shallow a gradient for Army landing craft to drop ramps on dry beach, the Transportation Corps at the direction of General Besson invested in a fleet of lighter amphibious resupply cargo (LARC) vessels with 5-, 15-, and 60-ton capacities. Besson would rise to become the Transportation Corps’ first four-star general. The investment in amphibians and watercraft paid big dividends in the next war.

Vietnam War

The Vietnam War began as an adviser war, with Transportation Corps helicopter companies arriving as the first intact units as early as December 1961. When the U.S. Army assumed a greater ground role in the war in the summer of 1965, Transportation units were among the first to deploy to Vietnam in order to bring in the massive buildup in troops.

To take the pressure off South Vietnam’s one commercial port at Saigon while also shortening the ground lines of communication, the Transportation Corps built several subports at Qui Nhon, Cam Rahn Bay, and Newport, along with numerous LOTS sites along the coast. Because of the long coastline of the country and its well-developed system of canals and rivers, Army watercraft delivered the vast majority of cargo. To provide self-protection against the threat of convoy ambushes, the truck companies built gun trucks. With truck drivers fighting the war, the Transportation Corps earned two more Medals of Honor, which were awarded to Specialist 4 Larry Dahl and Sergeant William Seay.

The first step toward the separation of aviation from the Transportation Corps came in 1965 with the creation of combat aviation units. During the war, the Transportation Corps retained aviation maintenance units until Aviation became its own branch in 1983.

Post-Vietnam Developments

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the Army refocused on holding back a possible Soviet attack through the Fulda Gap in Germany. However, the joint invasion of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983 required the Armed Forces to revamp their doctrine and organization. One lesson learned was the need for a single manager of strategic transportation. In response, the U.S. Transportation Command was created in 1987 to provide command and control for the Military Traffic Management Command (MTMC—later SDDC), the Military Sealift Command, and the Air Mobility Command.

At the same time, the Transportation Corps organized movement control battalions and transportation movement control agencies (TMCAs) to manage movements at the theater level. In another milestone, the Transportation Corps was inducted into the U.S. Army Regimental System on 31 July 1986.

During the invasion of Panama in 1989, the Transportation Corps operated the two airports vital to the flow of units into that theater. From that conflict onward, the Transportation Corps would have to open and operate ports in many contingencies.

Global Deployments

In 1990, the Army conducted the largest deployment (Third Army, VII Corps, and XVIII Airborne Corps) since World War II in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The 7th and 32d Transportation Groups played a critical role in opening up the seaports and building up sufficient forces and mountains of supplies in Saudi Arabia in time to stem any further Iraqi aggression. They then secretly moved the XVIII Airborne Corps laterally to the border of Iraq while still delivering supplies for the drive into Kuwait and Iraq.

Following the first Gulf War, the 7th Transportation Group opened ports in Somalia in 1992 and Haiti in 1994, and the 37th Transportation Group moved and sustained combat troops in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999. Transporters also supported disaster and humanitarian relief operations around the globe.

With the start of the Global War on Terrorism in 2001, the Transportation Corps operated the airports of debarkation in Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa. But the size of the ground invasion of Iraq that began in March 2003 required the 7th Transportation Group and the 1st TMCA to open the seaports and airports in Kuwait. After the quick fall of Baghdad, truck drivers once again became combat Soldiers and revived the gun truck concept abandoned after the Vietnam War to provide their own security along an 800-mile supply line.


While the war in Iraq clearly demonstrated the need for a transportation group headquarters to manage up to four transportation battalions clearing the ports and pushing materiel out of Kuwait, the Army underwent a transformation into a smaller, leaner, and more modular force. The brigade combat team became the focus of the new structure instead of divisions, and echelons-above-corps logistics organizations were replaced by multifunctional sustainment brigades. This began to reverse the progress made since World War II.

In 2004, MTMC (Military Traffic management Command) became the multifunctional SDDC (Surface Deployment and Distribution Command). In 2007, SDDC became responsible for end-to-end deployments and created deployment and distribution support teams in Bagram, Afghanistan, and Camp Anaconda in Balad, Iraq. SDDC began to look beyond the sea ports of embarkation.

The BRAC (base realignment and closure) 2005 decisions combined related Army schools. This resulted in moving part of the Transportation School to Fort Lee, Virginia, to join the Quartermaster and Ordnance Schools in 2010; this divided the school, with part remaining at Fort Eustis.

Upon returning from its second deployment to Kuwait, the 7th Transportation Group reorganized into a sustainment brigade. The Army thus lost its only theater port-opening brigade-level headquarters—a mistake that became evident in 2010 when the XVIII Airborne Corps had to conduct disaster relief operations after the earthquake in Haiti. SDDC was ready to step up to the challenge, racing the 7th Sustainment Brigade to see which organization could arrive in Haiti first and conduct the JLOTS operation. SDDC’s 832d Transportation Battalion beat the 7th Sustainment Brigade’s Fort Eustis-based 10th Transportation Battalion, but only because the former had a shorter sailing distance from Florida.

The next year, the Army offered SDDC’s parent organization responsibility for JLOTS and Army watercraft—the very same responsibility the ATS had before World War II. The Haiti experience also made the Army recognize the need for a brigade with a theater port-opening capability (essentially the old 7th Transportation Group). However, with the reduction of functional transportation units, the Army was turning back the clock.

In a period of competing resources, the Army desperately held on to brigade combat teams at the expense of logistics units. With the recent Total Army Analysis Review, all table of organization and equipment transportation battalion headquarters are slated for inactivation except for two terminal battalions (which provide the Army’s remaining JLOTS capability) and five movement control battalions. The Army has given up all of its truck battalion headquarters—a capability that each war demonstrates is greatly needed.

The Transportation Corps’ primary function is becoming movement control, which it was created to perform during World War II. SDDC will have responsibility for sea ports of debarkation and embarkation, JLOTS, and Army watercraft, as did its predecessor, the ATS, after it was created in 1899. The loss of functional Transportation Corps companies creates a greater reliance on civilian contractors and results in slowly civilianizing the logistics function, which was militarized in 1912.