by Colonel Wes Martin
with Sergeant Major of the Army (SMA) Bill Wooldridge

When what we came to know as the PUSH program was being introduced to the Army, the creators presented SMA Wooldridge with their plans. This new concept was designed to figure what a command in combat was going to expend and get the resupply sent forward before the shortages materialized. Great concept, but SMA Wooldridge immediately informed the presenters that something critical was missing. They went down the list and assured him that everything needed for periodic resupply in support of sustained combat operations was present. They knew they must be right for they had millions of dollars of Army funded research and development behind them to support their conclusions. What they lacked, was what SMA Wooldridge had in abundant supply - personal extensive combat experience.

SMA Wooldridge informed the rear echelon logistics planners that their program did not include ammunition. Having fought many battles on three continents, he understood the two most important things to a soldier are his firearm and its ammunition. SMA Wooldridge pointed out soldiers can go without everything else, but they cannot engage and destroy the enemy without those two essentials.

The inability of logistics planners to value the importance of weapons and ammunition over logistical supplies was experienced years earlier on June 6th, 1944 by the future Sergeant Major of the Army. As a young soldier, Bill Wooldridge walked onto Omaha beach during the 9 a.m. landing. The beachhead fighting was over. As he looked around he saw the war was also over for many non-battle-seasoned soldiers. Still in full backpacks, weighed down by water, their dead bodies were now washing onto the shore.

Reflecting back, he remarks that if seasoned soldiers had been sent in on the first wave, they would have thrown all the extra items over the side of the landing craft. It would have eventually washed itself ashore and soldiers would have hit the beach able to move much faster. The soldiers who had to jump into the water would not have been weighted down unnecessarily. It was an expensive lesson, paid by the soldiers doing the fighting, not by the logistical planners.

This costly experience at Normandy could have been avoided by paying attention to armies that had marched before. Even an application of the "Life of King Arthur" would have been beneficial. The dragon was finally defeated by the knight who shed all his armor, rode bareback into battle, and carried only his weapon. Understanding that the weapon and ammunition is a must, we are left with the question that has been handed down since the days of Alexander: how much equipment/materiel should be assigned to a soldier? More specifically, how much weight should a soldier be expected to carry on his back?

The Romans had figured out that while on a road march, a soldier could carry almost sixty pounds, movement to contact about forty-five, and once engagement commenced a little more than thirty. This lesson was not heeded by the British at Bunker Hill. After being repulsed twice, at great expense, they realized the assault stood a better chance of success if they left behind their eighty-pound packs.

The research and development types, as well as command staff always wish to plan for every contingency. In case of chemical/biological attack they need gas masks and Mission Oriented Protective Posture (MOPP) equipment, in case of rain soldiers need dry clothes, in case of sustained fire fights they need extra ammo, in case of severe heat they need extra water, in case of long term operations they need extra food, to sleep they need their bedroll, etc.

Just as the British forgot the lessons of the Romans, the Americans forgot the lessons of the British. The 1944 Normandy assault forces were issued extra clothing (to include chemical resistant underwear that became like cardboard once the seawater dried), camping gear, extra food, and extra fresh water. The planners physically prepared the soldiers for all contingencies except two. The first was that the landing craft wouldn't arrive at the shore. Soldiers who ended up in the water had the weight of their equipment, the resistance of moving in water, and the weight of the water absorbed by their equipment. The second was soldiers can't move fast when they are fully weighted down by a hundred extra pounds. Once on the beach they found German machine gunners making full use of the logistics planners' failures.

A field of fire is a place one needs to move very fast. Not only does the weight of the backpack slow soldiers down, but the exhaustion produced by stress itself is very difficult to overcome even for a strong individual. In a similar comparison, but from a different perspective than the Roman weight lesson, in "A Soldier's Load" Sam (S.L.A.) Marshall referenced soldiers in World War I. Marshall noted soldiers could march ten miles a day when they moving to the rear. The same soldiers could only accomplish two miles in the same period when marching to the frontline. They were not cowards. Even subconsciously, moving into battle had a wearing effect.

Normandy and a thousand other battles are behind us. Many more await our fighting forces. As leaders, we have the responsibility for ensuring soldiers are not used as pack mules. Mules were expected to carry only one-third of their own body weight. Yet, we load our soldiers down with eighty- to 100-pound packs, which sometimes equals two-thirds the soldiers weight. We have the best delivery systems and transport vehicles in place. Every generation of leaders need to relearn to let the soldiers go forward with only what they absolutely need and get resupplied as required.

Just as we need to protect soldiers' backs from loads determined by seniors and rear-echelon staff planners, we must protect them from themselves. Soldiers feel very strong at the beginning of a march. Many soldiers will want to carry store-bought cooking utensils, comfort items, Rambo equipment and everything else one can image. Neat toys produce extra weight and extra wear and tear on the back and legs. Conserve soliders' energy for the battlefield.

©2021 Wes Martin