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    NAVSUP Weapon Systems Support: How WWII changed the supply picture in a small, central Pennsylvania town

    1944 Naval Supply Depot Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania Passageway Construction

    Courtesy Photo | Naval Supply Depot, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania progress of work on passageway on...... read more read more



    Courtesy Story

    Naval Supply Systems Command

    The history of Naval Supply Systems Command (NAVSUP) Weapon Systems Support (WSS) has roots dating back to the 1940s, when World War II brought outstanding changes to the Navy’s supply picture. One of the changes was the establishment of great inland depots, fully planned and developed as supply centers with standardized storage buildings to facilitate the best possible use of space, yet situated far enough inland to be safe from naval bombardment. Another was the establishment of the Aviation Supply Office at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, which will be detailed in a future article.

    On June 27, 1941, the Chief of the Bureau of Supplies and Accounts (BUSANDA) [BUSANDA later became NAVSUP in 1966.] Rear Adm. Ray Spear, SC, USN wrote to the Secretary of the Navy, recommending the establishment of a naval supply depot located inland in close proximity to, and with extensive rail connection with, the large naval ports on the northeastern coast of the United States, and with adequate transportation to the Middle and South Atlantic ports of Norfolk and Charleston.

    Such an inland depot would have, Spear pointed out, numerous advantages, including (1) more security from hostile attack than one located on the coast, (2) protection from sabotage and fire hazards, and (3) flexibility, which was a primary advantage. He called attention to the great burden being placed on the Charleston and the Narragansett Bay areas and declared that the establishment of an inland naval depot would permit the assembling of a large reservoir of dry provisions, general stores, clothing, and small stores. It could also provide storage for certain aeronautical material. This would mean that coast stations could be relieved of the excessive burden of slow-moving storage and would enable them to function efficiently as distribution centers.

    On July 23, 1941, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) recommended the project to the Shore Station Development Board for consideration and recommendation. The next day the board forwarded it to the Secretary of the Navy via CNO, recommending the project, at an estimated cost of $15 million. Two days later, CNO forwarded it to the Secretary of the Navy, recommending it. The Secretary approved the project that same day, instructing the Bureau of Yards and Docks to take action to obtain funds.

    A site-selection board, in September 1941, recommended an area adjacent to Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, as best suited to meet the needs. In addition to meeting the requirements previously stated, the site would satisfy railroad preference for a location near which the Army was already established in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, so that in the event of emergency demand the problem of Army and Navy distribution could be planned and handled jointly.

    The location was far enough east so that the principal Navy yards could be reached expeditiously, with a minimum back haul on material from eastern points of origin. It was far enough west so that deliveries to eastern ports could be made without serious interference with normal coastwise traffic.

    One of the largest railroad yards in the world in Enola, Pennsylvania, was situated about seven miles from the site, thus affording an ample supply of cars and a short direct routing to shipping points, saving much time in preparation for and the actual shipping of supplies. An excellent network of highways was available and adjacent to the site, as consideration secondary to rail facilities. Other utilities and water supplies were reasonably close and in ample quantities.

    When the war began, the House committee on naval appropriations was considering the Navy's request for the Mechanicsburg supply depot. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, moved planning into high gear. (*1) A third Supplemental National Defense Appropriation Act 1942 was passed December 17, 1941. It included $15 million for the Mechanicsburg depot. Nine days later, the Navy contracted for the construction, and field work was under way before 1941 ended. The contract provided for 15 general storehouses, five heavy materials storehouses, an administration building, quarters, railroads, roads, and all the other services needed to make the depot an independent unit.

    Contractor Brann & Stuart set up temporary quarters in an empty store in the center of Mechanicsburg. Construction began on Dec. 29, 1941.

    Two days later, the Chief of the Bureau of Supplies and Accounts addressed the Shore Station Development Board, asking for immediate and more than 100-percent expansion there. Fifteen general storehouses were in the initial project; now the need was set at an additional 20 general storehouses and three heavy materials storehouses.
    In forwarding the request to the Secretary of the Navy, the Board pointed out that the needs which had developed since the inception of the original project justified the request. On January 7, 1942 the Secretary forwarded the request to the Bureau of Yards and Docks, approving the expansion and requesting the Chief of the Bureau to obtain necessary authorization and funds at the earliest practicable date.

    Meanwhile, back in Mechanicsburg, mud and frost complicated construction. To move materials from the rail line to the construction site for use, it was necessary to hook “mud boats” or sleds to bulldozers to proceed with work. Automotive transportation was out of the question. The foremen and time checkers accomplished their duties by riding horseback. A few of the more timid souls used old time two-wheeled sulkies or sleighs, depending on the condition that day.

    Considerable difficulty was encountered in utilities excavation and foundation construction because of the many limestone outcrops. More than half of the excavation involved rock removal. The subsoil elsewhere was a heavy clay, which provided good support for foundations. In wet weather during the construction period, mud hampered work, and afterward the topsoil dried slowly.

    Two alternations in design enabled a satisfactory flow of materials during the early part of the job. A central heating system had been included in the original scope of the work, but it soon became evident that procurement of equipment for the system would be slow, so a change was made to provide individual heating systems in the buildings, as materials for these systems were more readily obtainable.

    By April, 1942, amidst a sea of mud and the hubbub of construction, the depot was receiving, storing, and dispatching naval stores. (*2)

    The requested expansion started the same month. Plans for the depot had been modified from 20 general storehouses and three heavy-materials storehouses to 17 general storehouses, six heavy materials storehouses, and an aviation materials storehouse, each of the 24 buildings to be 200 feet by 600 feet with a capacity of 300 carloads of palletized material using standardized pallets, which could easily and quickly be moved by a fork-lift truck and cargo sling from depot to ship to fighting lines without disassembling. Naval Depot Mechanicsburg was the first location to use standardized warehouses.

    Timber frames for the storehouses were prefabricated on the West Coast and shipped to the job at a rate sufficient to supply the construction of three storehouses a week. Toward the end of the main construction contract, deliveries slowed to about half speed because of the increasingly critical nature of the lumber supply.

    Although much work remained to be completed, formal commissioning ceremonies took place on Oct. 1, 1942. Two thousand people, including high ranking officers of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Army, attended the ceremony as a Navy blimp from Lakehurst hovered overhead. In command was Capt. E. H. Van Patten (SC) USN, who said in his speech, “The destruction of the beautiful farm lands, the sudden thrust of thousands of workers into this small community with the disturbing effect on the economy of the area, have not lessened the ardor of the citizens nor their local support to us.”

    From August 1942 through June 1943, obtaining and holding men became an increasingly difficult task. Women took jobs as laborers. WAVES also played an important part with as many as 600 stationed in Mechanicsburg, many trained as yeomen storekeepers. Four hundred German prisoners of war also worked eight to ten hours per day to relieve the labor shortage and perform heavy jobs wherever assistance was needed.
    Naval Supply Depot (NSD) Mechanicsburg developed unique and unexpected functions as it neared completion. Established originally to support only East Coast facilities, the Mechanicsburg depot found itself procuring, storing, and distributing material for the entire Navy, worldwide. (*3)

    During the latter part of World War II, every diesel and gasoline engine part used aboard every ship in the U. S. Fleet, and many allied vessels as well, came through Mechanicsburg. The pace grew so furious in 1944 that new parts or machinery would arrive from the manufacturer on one track, be unloaded and sorted on the spot, and loaded immediately on other box cars for shipment, without once having been stored in a warehouse. (*4)

    By June, 1944, the value of goods stored at Mechanicsburg had risen to $2 billion. The combined military and civilian staff stood at well over 4,000 persons. Incoming requisitions averaged 200 per day. In May 1944, the depot’s communications section handled 12,000 messages. By March, 1945 monthly freight traffic in and out of the depot involved over 2,000 railroad carloads and over 6,000 truck shipments. The development of NSD Mechanicsburg during the hectic war years reflects, in large measure, the development of the present Navy supply system. (*5)

    As finally constructed, NSD Mechanicsburg had 56 general storehouses, nine heavy-materials storehouses, five aircraft materials storehouses, one cable-storage building, and one diesel storehouse. Almost 50 miles of railroad track served the area.

    During the final years of construction, it became evident that wartime demands for parts could be more efficient with a central Spare Parts Distribution Control center. In July 1945, the Ships Part Control Center was commissioned as a tenet activity of the depot, maturing into today’s NAVSUP Weapon Systems Support.
    1. William V. Kennedy, “NSD Mechanicsburg” Proceedings: NSD, Mechanicsburg | Proceedings - June 1956 Vol. 82/6/640 (
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    Date Taken: 01.11.2023
    Date Posted: 01.11.2023 16:59
    Story ID: 436621
    Location: PA, US

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