Transporting History Halfway Across the Globe: DLA Distribution repatriation project returns antique rifles from Philippines to U.S. despite obstacles

By DLA Distribution Business Development

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For over 25 years, DLA Distribution has prided itself as the leading provider of global distribution support to America's military and other federal agencies.  With a focus on the execution of its core competency- the receipt, storage and issuance of materiel in support of America’s warfighter- the organization is regularly seeking ways to increase warfighter readiness.

To that end, the Major Subordinate Command was called upon for a rather unique mission: accounting for and transporting nearly 90,000 small arms weapons from the Philippines to the United States.

The project was the result of a World War II era agreement between the U.S. and its ally, the Philippines, whereby M1 Garand rifles were provided to the Philippine government for military assistance purposes. 

The M1 Garand is a .30 caliber semi-automatic rifle that was the standard U.S. service rifle during World War II and the Korean War and which also saw limited service during the Vietnam War. Most M1 rifles were issued to U.S. forces, though hundreds of thousands were also provided as foreign aid to American allies, such as the Philippines.

The Department of the Army had inquired if foreign partners could support the Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP) by returning small arms assets which were no longer required.  The Armed Forces of the Philippines agreed to support this initiative and processed the required paperwork with the Department of State.  Upon approval, the Department of the Army requested that DLA Distribution facilitate the inventory and subsequent shipment of these weapons.

Background

In March 2017, a coalition was officially formed to tackle the task of returning the weapons to the U.S. Army.

Specifically, the Headquarters Department of the Army, Army Tank and Automotive Command, Defense Security Cooperation Command (DSCA), Joint U.S. Military Assistance Group – Philippines (JUSMAG), United States Transportation Command and Defense Logistics Agency joined forces to develop and execute a plan to return the WWII vintage M1 Garand rifles located just outside Manila, Philippines, to a non-DoD facility in Alabama. The rifles were to be returned under the authority of the Department of State, and in support of the CMP.

DLA’s involvement stemmed from its Foreign Military Sales Distribution Services Initiative (FMS DSI) with USTRANSCOM.  FMS DSI is freight forwarder-like service offered to partner nations by the Department of Defense and includes both the ability to move FMS cargo from within the Continental U.S. to areas beyond, as well as a Repair and Return capability for FMS customers.

DSCA felt that the Repair and Return component of the program would be a good solution for the repatriation of the M1 rifles, which would then be passed on to CMP.

Once the weapons are in its possession, CMP will refurbish the M1s and hopefully sell them to interested gun collectors and historians. Though initially purchased for about $94 each, when fully refurbished, the rifles can sell for upwards of $1,200.              

Mission Planning and Execution

DLA Distribution’s role in the effort included overall project management and the placement of personnel and equipment at Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City, Philippines, to inventory, pack, crate, and arrange transportation of the M1s. 

Inventory had to be done by each individual M1 serial number in conjunction with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). To accomplish its part of the mission, DLA Distribution leveraged its Global Distribution Expeditionary Contract (GDEC), directing its experienced and qualified service provider, Technica, to perform the work on behalf of DLA.

The GDEC provides DLA the ability to support new, or surge-related, storage and distribution missions around the world that fall outside of its existing capacity.

DLA Distribution also deployed a Technical Point of Contact, a DLA civilian trained in the area of contract oversight, to perform Quality Assurance duties and to serve as the DLA representative forward to directly interact with the JUSMAG and AFP at Camp Aguinaldo.

The DLA team arrived in the Philippines in mid-August and began joint inventory operations with the AFP team within days.

From day one, the collaboration and teamwork between the U.S. and the AFP was exceptional.

The “joint” inventory process was required to ensure the accounting for each of the M1s- done by serial number- was accurate so that both the transferring party (AFP) and receiving party (U.S.) would be confident in the results of the inventory and the subsequent physical transition of the materiel.

“This repatriation project was a giant task that involved close coordination with our Armed Forces of the Philippines partners. Their support and assistance on this project represents the continued friendship, unwavering alliance, and shared history of our two countries,” said Army Maj. Anthony Nelson, Ground Programs chief, JUSMAG-Philippines.

Overcoming Challenges

It goes almost without saying that accurately accounting for and transporting approximately 90,000 small arms from the other side of the globe is challenging under any circumstances.  Throw in termite infestation, monsoon season, and asbestos contamination, and you will have a recipe for disaster.

From the very beginning of this mission the entire team knew it would be a tremendous challenge, but it was confident it could achieve success if all worked closely together and kept the lines of communication open. 

Early in the planning phase it was brought to the attention of the M1 project team that many of the rifles appeared to have termite damage. This was subsequently validated during the team’s initial site visit to Camp Aguinaldo in April 2017.

As was often the case over the course of the project, the onsite JUSMAG office was critical to the coordination of the site visit and other forward coordination efforts required for project success. 

Although termite damage existed, it was also clear that the majority of the weapons were still in a condition that would not prohibit restoration. The mitigation strategy was to first determine if there was still an active termite infestation. If an active infestation existed, then termite treatment would be the next course of action. As “Murphy’s Law” would dictate, there were active infestations in the warehouses.  However, there were not active infestations observed on the M1 rifles themselves. As a preventative measure, since the rifles were to remain in these warehouses for about six more months, termite treatment was required and completed. 

Fortunately, as the issue was identified early in the planning process and addressed immediately, the team was able to resolve the issue without adversely impacting the project timeline.

However, there were more challenges to come.

During the first full week of operations, the team hit many unplanned obstacles on the ground.  Primarily, it had its first experience with the extreme weather that can occur in the Philippines during the monsoon season.  

After several productive days of inventorying and packing the M1s into tri-walls, the team encountered its first torrential downpour.  Though the work was being performed inside a warehouse, members quickly discovered roofing damaged, allowing significant amounts of rainfall to enter.  Fortunately, the area where the already inventoried M1s had been positioned inside the warehouse was spared any rain damage. The team immediately marked the locations within the warehouse where rain leakage occurred and subsequently reorganized operations and storage away from these areas. 

During the course of the project, there were at least six episodes of torrential rain, but the lessons learned from the first event ensured no adverse impact from subsequent storms.

The oppressive heat and humidity also proved challenging. The team worked inside WWII-era warehouses with no climate control or ventilation systems and very little lighting.  Temperatures often exceeded 90 degrees, with relative humidity in the mid-80’s.

Though each M1 weighs only about ten pounds, handling thousands a day under extreme conditions proved very taxing. With the temperatures, humidity, and working conditions as they were, frequent breaks and constant hydration were critical to the sustained success of the project over a four-month period.           

Finally, within weeks of starting the inventory process, it was brought to the attention of the Technical Point of Contact that three of the warehouses may contain asbestos contamination.  The project was stopped immediately and an environmental Subject Matter Expert and the DLA project manager arrived within days to conduct asbestos contamination testing.

It was determined that two of the three warehouses containing the M1s did have some level of asbestos contamination.  The joint inventory teams continued work inside the “clean” warehouse while an asbestos remediation firm contractor was identified and brought onboard.

The weapons were cleaned and tested. Only when the test results came back validating the cleaning process had removed all the asbestos could the weapons then be passed over to the personnel conducting the inventory.

Mission Success

After months of careful planning, four additional months of mission execution, and despite several significant operational challenges, success was ultimately achieved as a result of the tremendous teamwork, collaboration and communication across the entire M1 Return Project stakeholder community.

Ultimately, the shipment of the M1s consisted of 44 20-ft. equivalent unit sea vans.  The vessel carrying these containers set sail in early December and arrived at its final destination in time to meet the customer’s required delivery date.  

Lastly, in addition to ensuring these weapons were properly safeguarded until they arrived at their final destination in the U.S., the transportation solution also needed to be flexible enough to accommodate limited cargo handling capability at the original location.  This required a carefully orchestrated "container rotation plan" that stretched over a four-week period.  The carrier was required to schedule container deliveries and pick-ups to align to this plan. 

The transportation plan also required the carrier to find suitable secure storage until the designated vessel arrived to pick up the cargo, which was to be shipped aboard a single flagged vessel back to the U.S.  "DLA's close partnership with the USTRANSCOM was instrumental to ensuring the right transportation solution was available to meet the unique requirements of this mission," said Craig Beatty, DLA Distribution traffic manager. 

Ultimately, despite some unique obstacles, the collective team maneuvered through each “bump in the road” to successfully achieve the objective.