Agency adjusted support, provided global capabilities during Vietnam War

By Colin Jay Williams, DLA Historian

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Vietnam was the first sustained test of the Defense Logistics Agency’s ability to support troops in combat. Beginning less than four years after the agency’s establishment and lasting for another eight, the conflict served as DLA’s foundational experience. By improving services and convincing Pentagon leadership to expand its authority, the agency grew from a continental provider of wholesale goods into a global organization with a reputation for warfighter support.  

Like others in the Defense Department, America’s intervention in Southeast Asia caught DLA by surprise. Shortages of warm weather uniforms and jungle boots dropped the agency’s stock availability from 91.5% in July 1965 to 82.7% in October 1966. Leadership responded by increasing material, work hours and employees. DLA’s Clothing & Textiles Directorate went from 1,500 to 2,600 employees in one year, for example.

Errors plagued DLA early in the war. In 1967, a clerk mistakenly converted an order from Army customers for 350,000 packages of dry cereal to cartons, resulting in the agency buying 35 million meals. The Army chief of staff also pushed the agency to provide more shipments of a new meal specially designed for long-range patrols. He misjudged need, however, leaving commands in Vietnam with an 11-month supply and agency warehouses with 9 million excess meals. And since the services rushed new equipment into theater before DLA could assign it stock numbers, maintainers didn’t know what to call replacement parts.

Not having representatives in Vietnam made it hard for the agency to educate commanders on how DLA could support the war. Issues that should have been handled in-country had to be elevated to the most senior levels possible. Air Force Lt. Gen. Earl Hedlund, DLA’s third director, once expressed his frustration at this arrangement, exclaiming, “Look! Let’s go back to MACV [Military Assistance Command, Vietnam] from here. I am the one that [sic] keeps getting the wires from [Army General W. Creighton] Abrams. I would like to either call Abrams on the phone or send him a message.”

Hedlund was also upset by MACV’s insistence that DLA accept equipment from Vietnam without first being able to send teams to determine if it really needed to be returned. This stance resonated with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which granted DLA disposition authority a few months later. In the last years of the war, the agency deployed teams to decide what to transfer to the host government, what to destroy and what to ship to the states.

The most difficult item to process was Agent Orange, an herbicide the military used to control vegetation. DLA ordered a study that convinced the Air Force to destroy its stockpile by ocean incineration. The arrangement highlighted the working relationship DLA had built with the service.

The agency gradually expanded its presence in Asia beyond disposal teams by establishing subsistence and petroleum offices that remained after the war. They became the first elements of DLA’s global footprint along with similar offices in Europe.

DLA also found ways to improve its support. For the first time, the agency transported fresh fruits and vegetables in refrigerated containers, allowing 95% of service members in Vietnam to eat produce straight from American farms. And when reports came back from the field that warm weather uniforms easily tore, DLA started using rip-stop poplin, a fabric that prevents tears from pulling across an entire garment.

While Vietnam was a defeat for the United States, it was a success for DLA. History records suggest the agency’s support established it as a respected part of DOD. And though once restricted to wholesale logistics in the continental United States, DLA proved it could supply warfighters in foreign lands.