The Quartermaster Corps traces its origins to 16 June 1775. Two days after Congress authorized the Continental Army it also authorized a Quartermaster General and his deputy, in recognition of the need for logistical support to the new Army. Major General Thomas Mifflin, the first Quartermaster General, had virtually no money and authority and was dependent upon the several states for supplies. Major General Nathanael Greene, the third Quartermaster General, reorganized the supply system after Valley Forge and established the first depot system to support the Army. While his fame as a battle leader is well known, his outstanding service as the Quartermaster General during the darkest period of the Revolution is equally important.
From 1818 to 1860, Brigadier General Thomas Sidney Jessup brought his leadership and administrative skills to the role of Quartermaster General. During his 42-year tenure as head of the Quartermaster Department, he instituted an improved system of property accountability and experimented with new modes of transportation, including canal boats in the east, camel caravans in the desert southwest, and early railroads. Because many of his policies remained in effect well into the 20th century, Jesup is traditionally regarded as the “Father of the Quartermaster Corps.”
During the Civil War, Major General Montgomery C. Meigs lead the Quartermaster Department as it expanded to support an Army over 900,000 strong. Quartermasters purchased clothing, equipment, animals, and services at an unprecedented pace. They operated a system of field depots and a transportation network to deliver the goods to the Soldiers. Also in 1862, the Quartermaster Department assumed responsibility for burial of war dead and care of national cemeteries.
Throughout the nineteenth century the Quartermaster Department functioned differently than today’s Quartermaster Corps. It did not have specialized military units. Instead Quartermasters relied upon contracted workers or detailed Soldiers. The Quartermaster Department did not purchase subsistence, although it did store and transport the provisions.
All this changed in 1912, when Congress consolidated the former Subsistence, Pay, and Quartermaster Departments in order to create the Quartermaster Corps much as we know it today. It became a fully militarized organization with its own units trained to perform a host of supply and service functions on the battlefield. With this consolidation came the missions of subsistence and food service. When the Army began purchasing motorized vehicles, as early as 1903, the Quartermaster Corps assumed the new petroleum supply mission.
World War I showed the increased importance of logistics in the modern era and witnessed the first use of specialized Quartermaster units in France, including laundry, bath, salvage depots, and port operations. Quartermasters learned valuable lessons in supporting a large, modern Army overseas that would be carried into the next conflict.
During World War II, the Quartermaster Corps operated on a scale unparalleled in history, with theaters of operation in the Mediterranean, northern Europe, the Pacific, and even the China-Burma-India Theater. Thousands of Soldiers were trained to fill specialized roles; and they performed heroically in far off places such as Bataan, Leyte, Salerno, Normandy, and Bastogne. At the height of the war, Quartermasters were providing over 70,000 different supply items and more than 24 million meals each day. When it was over, they had recovered and buried nearly a quarter of a million Soldiers in temporary cemeteries around the world.
In 1950, the Quartermaster Corps moved swiftly to support the United States and its UN allies sent to defend South Korea from the Communist North. That same year the Corps assumed a new mission-supply by air-which often proved crucial to the sustainment of troops on the Korean peninsula.
With the creation of the Army Materiel Command in 1962 the Quartermaster Corps transferred responsibility for wholesale logistics to this new organization. Quartermaster Soldiers continued to support Army operations in cooperation with Soldiers from the other logistical disciplines.
The decision to commit major United States combat forces to the Republic of Vietnam during the 1960s led to a massive logistics buildup. Quartermaster personnel were deeply involved in meeting this challenge. They could be found operating in every area of Vietnam, furnishing vital supplies and services, often under the most adverse and dangerous conditions.
After Vietnam, Quartermaster Soldiers upheld the long tradition of service by being among the first deployed in operations Urgent Fury (Grenada) and Just Cause (Panama). The role of Quartermaster logisticians was especially noteworthy in supporting the rapidly moving strike against Iraqi forces during Operation Desert Storm. More recently Quartermasters have provided humanitarian relief to victims at home and abroad. In Haiti (Uphold Democracy) they supported the military operations while simultaneously providing humanitarian assistance to the population.
Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the United States entered into prolonged conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, in addition to smaller operations. Quartermaster Soldiers supported the coalition forces in these difficult environments. In Iraq, Quartermaster logisticians performed their traditional duties of delivering supplies and services to Soldiers throughout the theater, including operation of an Inland Petroleum Distribution System. In Afghanistan, where the rugged terrain often precluded ground delivery of supplies, aerial delivery became the only resupply option for some locations. The Quartermaster community developed new low cost disposable parachutes as a means to reach isolated outposts on a routine basis. Mortuary Affairs achieved impressive results for returning the remains of US service members within the shortest timeframe possible. These operations were also noteworthy for the unparalleled cooperation between the Active, Reserve, and Guard components.
Over the years, 33 Quartermaster Soldiers received the Medal of Honor—15 during the Civil War, 16 during the Indian Wars, and 2 during World War II. The story of George Watson is particularly inspiring. After abandoning a sinking ship in the South Pacific during World War II, Watson used his swimming skills to save numerous comrades rather than to secure a position in a life boat, until he was too exhausted to resist the pull of the sinking ship.
Since June 1775 Quartermaster Soldiers have provided the logistical capability to enable success in combat and non-combat operations. No other branch of the service can begin to rival the Quartermaster Corps for its diversity of tasks and the many functions provided. Despite all the changes, the fundamental mission of supporting the individual combat Soldier in the field has remained constant. We can expect that in the future Quartermaster Soldiers will continue to uphold the regimental motto of “Supporting Victory.”