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News | Oct. 21, 2019

DSA supports Cuban Missile Crisis 1 year after founding

By Colin Williams DLA Historian

When the Defense Supply Agency started operations in 1961, then-director Army Lt. Gen. Andrew T. McNamara realized the new agency must do two things to succeed. First, it had to provide common supplies more efficiently than the services. Second, it had to help boost warfighter readiness. By its first anniversary in October 1962, DSA saved more money than the Defense Department secretary thought possible. It also proved its responsiveness by delivering timely logistics in support of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The 13-day crisis began when Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev, worried that the Soviet Union was falling behind in the arms race and fearing ideological competition from China, installed nuclear weapons on Cuba. Fidel Castro, who had recently risen to power on the island, welcomed the missiles as a way to solidify his rule and gain influence in the international arena. U.S. President John F. Kennedy, however, had promised Americans he would prevent the Soviets from expanding into the Western Hemisphere and learned of the missiles Oct. 15, 1961, one day after U-2 spy planes photographed their presence on the western side of the island. 

The president quickly put military forces across the globe at Defense Condition 2, the highest readiness level short of war. DoD immediately began assembling an invasion force, with the Army’s 101st Airborne, 82nd Airborne and 1st Calvary Divisions moving to staging positions in Florida and Georgia. The Navy gathered enough vessels to support an invasion and transported a California-based Marine Expeditionary Force through the Panama Canal to Puerto Rico and collected enough ships to blockade Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean. In all, more than 60 ships participated in the action.

Those ships needed fuel, and DSA helped provide it. The nearest refueling station in Key West, Florida, lacked the storage to service such a large fleet, but experts at the Defense Petroleum Supply Center, now DLA Energy, delivered fuel to Port Everglades on Florida’s East Coast, assembling a fleet of shallow-draft barges to transport fuel as the tanks at Key West ran dry. 

The agency supported mobilization in other ways, too. The Defense Traffic Management Service, then a DSA subordinate command, moved troops and equipment to points of embarkation by executing agreements with civilian carriers and supplying 6,000 of its own specially designed railcars. 

DSA supply centers also processed 73,463 priority requisitions, delivering 89% of them on time. Most pressing were maps of Cuba, which employees of the Defense Supply Center in Richmond, Virginia, - now DLA Aviation – worked around-the-clock to provide. 

A shortage of photographic film also plagued the Air Force. Before the crisis, the service had photographed only about 2% of Cuba. Discovery of missiles necessitated that coverage expand to 97%, dramatically increasing the Air Force’s need for film. To provide it, DSCR contracted with Eastman Kodak and flew a lieutenant colonel to Rochester, New York, to oversee production. By the end of the crisis, DSA provided the Air Force 1,516 miles of film.

The conclusion of the crisis didn’t end DSA’s support. America’s national security officials realized fallout shelters being built across the U.S. lacked food, radios and batteries. DSA stepped in to provide many of these items. In particular, the Defense Subsistence Supply Center, now DLA Troop Support, supplied thousands of orders of survival biscuits, a shelf-stable bread. 

By quickly responding during to the Cuban Missile Crisis, DSA proved it could not only save the government money but also improve support to warfighters. After October 1962, all elements of the federal government, from the military services to Congressional committees, thought of the DSA as the nation’s preeminent source of combat logistics.