Contracting in the Persian Corridor
December 19, 2013
Many people are familiar with World War II and the different theaters the U.S. Army fought and contracted in around the globe. Africa, Italy, France, Germany, Australia, the South-Pacific, the Philippines all felt the presence of the U.S. Army.
But, lesser known is the U.S. Army's expeditionary contracting efforts in the Persian Corridor to Russia.
Set down in a strange land, the Army engineers and specialists found many problems in addition to those encountered in building wharves and roads and assembling knocked-down barges. Methods of local procurement had to be devised and carried out. Arrangements had to be tactfully agreed upon with local sheiks, khans, tribal leaders, and representatives of the British and Russian governments. Security for the American operations and personnel had to be contrived in an area where the Westerners' business was not always welcomed or understood.
Additionally, problems connected with the health, status, and discipline of the American employees recurred regularly. Doing business in the Persian Corridor produced numerous financial riddles to be solved only by the final Anglo-American lend-lease settlement of 1948.
From 1942 until 1945, the Army worked to open and operate a supply line of lend-lease trucks and war munitions to Russia through the Persian Gulf. The British government ruled over the region at the time, necessitating the Army learn to work with the British colonial government, the Iranian government, Iraqis, Kuwaitis and the Russian army and government.
One challenge to conducting operations in the region came from the British mandate that the local economy not be unduly altered. This meant the Army must agree to pay wages set by the British colonial government. This amounted to $0.01 (yes a penny) a day for laborers and up to $0.10 (a dime) a day for foremen and technicians. Under these conditions native labor turnover, malingering and pilferage rates were shockingly high.
Despite numerous and sometimes clever attempts to circumvent the policy and raise wages or offer bonuses, the Army was consistently stopped by the British. Adding to the difficulty, the Russians began preventing the exportation of wheat and foodstuffs from Azerbaijan into the region, creating a dire food shortage.
Enterprising Army contracting officers seized this opportunity and successfully implemented a food, sugar and tea ration to accompany wages. The British colonial government accepted this incentive and allowed the Army to purchase sugar and tea from British supplies. Once the new food ration program started, native labor turnover and malingering rates dropped dramatically.
The same food shortages effectively froze rail transportation in Iran. Iranian engineers and crew could not secure food along the rail lines and abandoned their trains to search for enough food for themselves and their families. Army contractors implemented a food ration and constructed five combination bread bakeries and stores at the rail depots. With an adequate supply of food, the trains began running regularly and on schedule.
The roughly 1,700 mile route passed through harsh desert and rugged mountain terrain as well as snaked its way through numerous tribal lands and areas controlled by armed bandits. Army contracting officers secured most of the southern (Iranian) portion of the route by contracting with the tribal chiefs to assume responsibility for convoy security. The chiefs, already rich by local standards, accepted a paltry $30 a month each that made them honor bound to protect the American convoys.
Eventually, the Army provided weapons and training in their use to the tribes, and surprisingly nearly all of the weapons were retuned when the operation shut down in 1944. By then a shorter route through the Dardanelles and Black Sea made the Persian Corridor expensive and unnecessary.
Initially, the Army contracted General Motors to build and run truck assembly plants near the ports. As the operation grew, up to more than 10,000 long tons unloaded each day at its peak, the Army negotiated the turnover and operation of the plants to local Iranian companies.
The Army contracted with the Kuwaiti chief of the native boat builders guild to build and operate barge building plants outside Kuwait city to utilize river transportation through Iraq. This operation produced several hundred barges with 60-ton capacity.
I was surprised to uncover this slice of expeditionary contracting history and had not been aware of the Persian Corridor operation. Seventy years ago Army contracting officers recruited local labor and industry in many of the same places Army contracting has recruited local labor and industry over the last 10 years.