History Highlights: Quartermaster at War - McNamara in North Africa

By Harold Raugh, DLA Chief Historian DLA Public Affairs

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In September 1961, Army Lt. Gen. Andrew T. McNamara was named the first director of the Defense Supply Agency, the forerunner to the Defense Logistics Agency. McNamara, then deputy commanding general of the Eighth U.S. Army in Korea, assumed command of the agency Oct. 1, 1961. By 1964, when he retired, DSA was managing 1.3 million supply items, had an inventory valued at $2.2 billion and an annual procurement of $3 billion.

A 1928 West Point graduate, McNamara was ideally qualified for this pivotal assignment. After eight years in the infantry, he transferred to the Army’s Quartermaster Corps in 1937, where he served in numerous logistics assignments. Most importantly, it was during this time that he learned how to support the warfighter. 

As a lieutenant colonel, McNamara was assigned to II Corps Headquarters in June 1942. Two months later, he was appointed the Corps’ quartermaster and became responsible for five classes of supply and transportation, including all aspects of fuel and food. McNamara’s first task was to plan logistics support for the unit’s amphibious assault to seize Oran in western Algeria as part of Operation Torch.

The allied operation began Nov. 8, 1942, with II Corps having been designated the Center Task Force for the mission. Commanded by Army Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall, the force initially included the 1st Infantry Division, the 1st Armored Division and the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment – almost 18,500 troops in a 54-ship convoy.

In his 1955 memoir, “Quartermaster Activities of II Corps through Algeria, Tunisia, and Sicily and First Army through Europe,” McNamara recalled that all units were expected to have 12 days’ worth of supplies. Each soldier was to carry two “C” rations, consisting of an individual canned, pre-cooked and prepared wet ration; and two “D” rations, consisting of an emergency chocolate bar. Each unit kitchen was also to carry one day’s “B” ration, or packaged, unprepared food, and seven days of cased rations were transported as cargo.

Each vehicle in the force was to carry enough petroleum, oil and lubricants for 12 days, with supplies being carried in the convoy and 5-gallon cans being carried on each vehicle. Consumption planning figures were 50 gallons of fuel per day per tracked vehicle and five gallons of fuel per day for a wheeled vehicle.

“All 5-gallon cans, whether on vehicles or shipped as cargo, were marked for identification with wire strands about the handles,” McNamara wrote in his memoir. “One strand meant 80 octane for wheeled vehicles; 2 strands, 87 octane for tracked vehicles; and 3 strands, 100 octane for airplanes.”

Once ashore, McNamara ensured the prompt off-loading and transport of supplies to newly-established warehouses and depots. He also had to plan support for newly arriving troops, which eventually brought the force’s total to 80,000 soldiers.

Shortly after, a ship carrying tons of frozen turkey arrived. The ship carried turkeys and white bread for the soldiers’ Thanksgiving Day meal, Nov. 26, 1942. Soldiers had not received white bread for several months. Algerian oranges, purchased locally for about 1 cent each, were added to the soldiers’ Thanksgiving feast. The items “well augmented our ration to the point where it was a strong morale factor among the troops,” McNamara reflected.

During that same month, shipments of almost 1.7 million fresh eggs were unexpectedly delivered to the cold-storage facility. With no room to store them, the eggs were issued to soldiers the next day.

“On the following morning,” McNamara later noted, “every American in the vicinity of Oran had a brace of fresh eggs for breakfast – a dish we had nearly forgotten about.”

In the meantime, North Africa remained a combat theater of operations. On Feb. 19, 1943, the first large battle between the U.S. Army and its German and Italian adversaries took place at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. The Germans attacked the Americans, mainly to capture much-needed supplies, and inflicted heavy casualties. It was widely considered a sound defeat of U.S forces, but not as a result of logistical shortcomings.

A few days earlier, McNamara and other senior leaders had been concerned about the possibility of a German breakthrough at Kasserine Pass and on Feb. 14, so they began evacuating troops and supplies from the probable path of a German advance. The result: enormous quantities of supplies were saved and consolidated at dumps in the rear, including more than 1 million rations and more than 500,000 gallons of gasoline.

A soldier who served as a radio-telephone operator for II Corps Headquarters at the time relayed information to and from McNamara during these events. Later, the soldier wrote a letter to his mother, who in turn wrote to McNamara’s wife Margaret, recounting her son’s story about the Battle of Kasserine Pass: “Col. Mac’s shrewd decisions saved vast quantities of quartermaster supplies, which included gasoline, from destruction or capture. To have such responsibilities placed upon him, and to have dealt with them so magnificently under intense pressure of an immediate move over uncertain damaged roads, must now, in reflection, give him great satisfaction and confidence, and the knowledge that he was in every sense contributing largely to the campaign and its ultimate success.”

The Sept. 12, 1943, letter concluded: “To resupply was physically impossible; and to be without supplies would mean failure. It was up to him [McNamara], and he did it!”

As a result of the defeat at Kasserine Pass, Fredendall was relieved from command of II Corps and replaced by Army Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr. in early March 1943. Patton had the chance to lead and observe McNamara as the Corps’ quartermaster throughout the rest of the North African campaign, which ended in Axis defeat May 13, 1943.

A month before the campaign ended, Patton wrote a letter of commendation to McNamara, stating, “The functioning of the Quartermaster Corps under your direction has been outstandingly superior. You have secured and provided supplies in proper quantities and categories at the place and time needed. I desire to highly commend you, and through you, the officers and men of the Quartermaster Corps for a most superior performance.”

From their initial assault landings in November 1942 to their hard-fought struggles on the battlefield, U.S. Army forces in the North African campaign of World War II encountered several setbacks on their path to eventual victory. Thanks to McNamara, none of these were attributable to quartermaster or supply deficiencies. Effective, efficient, innovative and responsive support to warfighters was always his primary concern and responsibility.

Army Maj. Gen. Robert M. Littlejohn, then chief quartermaster of the European Theater of Operations, echoed Patton’s praise when he referred to the outstanding job done by “that brilliant Col. McNamara” in North Africa.