History Highlight: World War II Logistics Lessons

By Chrissie Reilly, DLA Historian

PRINT  |  E-MAIL

Although the United States was not really ready for war when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the nation had for two years been supplying England and France in their fight against the Axis powers in Europe. This experience, combined with a growing capability and capacity as the nation emerged from the Great Depression, made the nation better prepared for the war than it would otherwise have been.

There are many parallels between the United States’ logistics needs during World War II and today. Standardization and management control — two areas where DLA can streamline the logistics process — trace their modern roots to the Second World War.

Early in the war, overload and lack of coordination made it difficult to ensure standardized parts and products. In June 1940, the Douglas Aircraft Company was manufacturing seven variations of one aircraft for seven different customers, each requiring frequent and specific modifications from the production model. Inventory-control problems and tailored production setups meant inefficient workflow and slow production. Costs increased and deliveries were delayed. Different technical manuals were required for each version of the aircraft and this, too, taxed relatively untrained workers.

What Douglas needed was some form of standardization of both components and the end products, along with a set schedule for production. Recognizing this, a joint American/British committee agreed on forms of standardization and delivery schedule so the root problem could be solved. Today, DLA has international and interservice agreements for a wide variety of goods and services — from agreements with Oman over fuel prices to agreements with U.S. Transportation Command to provide materials to troops stationed overseas, to agreements with U.S. Strategic Command for DLA to provide support to the nuclear enterprise.

The groundwork for increasing capacities while maintaining efficiencies began in 1922 with the Army-Navy Munitions Board, which allotted for the planning for strategic and critical materials, industrial capacity, and production priorities. Just as the Strategic Plans and Policy in DLA issues policy guidance and requires the Agency to update its policies to stay relevant, the Munitions Board did the same thing. It drafted an Industrial Mobilization Plan, issued in 1931 — a full decade before America’s entry into World War II — and revised it in 1933, 1936 and 1939.

In addition to this type of oversight, the Army Service Forces developed a series of internal controls that could be used to assist both government workers by establishing techniques for simplifying work and measuring efficiencies. The same concepts of best practices emerged during World War II in the Work Simplification Program.

The WSP reduced industrial engineering techniques to their fundamental aspects while providing clear instructional materials on how to accomplish these changes, at the same time training personnel on these practices. Over 10,000 people received instruction in the WSP, and the activities reviewed the efforts of over 800,000 people. The savings in manpower averaged 18 percent, or the equivalent of 144,000 people.

Today, the aircraft production problems of 1940 are largely preempted by planning, having agreements in place, and standardizations established. DLA accomplishes this by engaging with industry and government partners to have signed agreements even in peacetime, along with well-written contracts to define the scope of work. Even something that modern logistics employees might take for granted, such as the national stock number, helps ensure products are easily provided to customers for the right price and on time.

The United States was able to supply, fight and help win the Second World War, but not without overcoming significant logistics hurdles. There were a massive number of forces to move, multiple theatres of operation, and the responsibility to supply and equip Allied forces spread across the globe. These same responsibilities are part of warfighting today, and DLA is able to leverage the logistics lessons of history to meet the needs of its customers.

World War II is an example of a true logistics achievement, but it not owed only to foresight or advance planning but also to ingenuity of those in the service organizations. Advance planning played a large role in initiating activity and troops on the line in the services who made logistics work effectively during the war.