When the first paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division hit the ground in Saudi Arabia, the first thing they noticed was the heat, the unrelenting 120-degree heat.
There was little or no shelter from the scorching sun, and the humidity didn’t feel much better in the shade – that is, for those who found a tree, tent or roof to hide under.
Then there was the sand, the fine, granular sand that would, in a light wind, blow into their eyes, ears and mouth and, if left unattended over time, start clogging or damaging almost every vehicle, weapon or piece of machinery they relied upon.
There was little or no running water, much less enough drinking water, and food was basically limited to bland Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs). Tents and cots were at a bare minimum.
Sleep didn’t come easy, because at least 360,000 heavily armed Iraqi soldiers were massing to the north, threatening to attack at any moment.
Eight days before Iraqi invaders had stormed into Kuwait, quickly overrunning the oil-rich emirate and sending panic waves throughout Saudi Arabia, which was so vulnerable Saudi King Fahd soon accepted President George Bush’s offer to send U.S. troops to help protect the Islamic holy land.
Such were the conditions on August 10, 1990, when Army Maj. Gen. William “Gus” Pagonis landed at King Abdul Aziz Airbase in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
With four hand-picked logisticians (18 more would arrive August 15), Pagonis aimed to create some semblance of order among the 4,000 soldiers and tons of equipment that began pouring out of C-5 and C-141 cargo jets and onto the stove-like tarmac each day.
“There were mobs of people everywhere, looking for someone to take charge… and I took charge,” said Pagonis of the first chaotic days in theater. “If the Iraqis attacked us, we were going to go to Bahrain and blow the causeway.”
The improvising that became the trademark of Gulf War logistics began immediately, as a matter of survival.
Sleeping and working out of the back of a Chevrolet Blazer the first couple weeks due to the lack of building space, Pagonis instructed a private to conduct the duties of a company commander to ensure everyone had enough water and desert uniforms, plus gas masks and chemical protection suits.
He pinned the gold oak leaves of a major on a warrant officer so the soldier could get better responses securing facilities, goods and manpower from status-minded Saudis.
And he began wheeling and dealing with local contractors to slowly but surely secure fresh food, housing, fuel, vehicles, forklifts – anything that would ease or speed the rapid deployment of the 82nd, the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), the First Marine Expeditionary Force and other early arrivals.
Pagonis had been hastily dispatched to Saudi to head an ad-hoc command, an outfit that by December was designated the 22nd Support Command. The 22nd not only shaped the massive U.S. buildup, it ultimately helped orchestrate the “left hook” that eventually expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm (including the withdrawal), the 22nd SUPCOM and its predecessors would oversee movements of mammoth amounts of troops and materials, processing at least 350,000 soldiers and 7 million tons of supplies.
Except for the Marines, Air Force and Navy, who took care of most of their own logistics, almost everything arriving in (and departing from) the theater went through Pagonis and his logistical staff.
They handled 170,000 vehicles, including 12,000 armored, and 12,575 aircraft, including 2,000 helicopters, with many of the tanks and armored vehicles having to be painted desert tan and outfitted with better equipment.
At least 52 million meals were served, including up to two hot meals a day for the more fortunate soldiers, Marines and airmen. And at least 32,000 tons of mail was delivered, with 31,000 more tons sent back home.
Because transportation was essential in the vast expanse of Saudi Arabia, which is roughly the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River, Pagonis and his command arranged to have 52 million miles driven and 1.3 billion gallons of fuel pumped.
The logistical feats were, in the words of Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of coalition forces, “an absolutely gigantic accomplishment.”
Photo credit: Guillaume Bolduc on Unsplash