BEAUMONT, Texas (April 29, 2015) -- As the USNS Mendonca skirted under the Martin Luther King Jr. Bridge near Port Arthur, Texas, with only four feet to spare, April 22, the 842nd Transportation Battalion was making final preparations for unloading the U.S. Navy's largest roll-on/roll-off ship at the Port of Beaumont.
The Mendonca departed Honolulu, Hawaii, nearly three weeks earlier with a handful of 25th Infantry Division Soldiers and more than 1,650 vehicles and rolling stock. Having travelled 6,233 miles, passing through the Panama Canal and navigating the final 40 miles up the narrow Neches River channel, it was time for the 842nd Trans Bn. to kick into high gear and do what it does best -- get Soldiers' cargo when and where it needs to be.
This mission was complex and required close coordination between the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, or SDDC, U.S. Transportation Command and the Military Sealift Command as well as the U.S. Coast Guard, Army Material Command and the Army Sustainment Command's Logistics Readiness Center at Fort Polk, La.
"Our team has done a lot of work behind the scenes in preparation for getting this mountain of equipment moved," said Lt. Col. Darrin Bowser, 842nd Trans. Bn. commander. "It is Army equipment, travelling on a Navy vessel, being unloaded at a civilian seaport, and will be moved to Louisiana via commercial truck and rail. That takes a lot of coordination with our strategic commercial partners at the Port of Beaumont, local police, two local stevedoring companies, our rail carrier and four primary truck providers."
The 25th Infantry Division's 3rd Battalion, 25th Brigade Combat Team is currently scheduled for a month-long training rotation at Fort Polk's Joint Readiness Training Center. JRTC is one of three Army stateside training sites which offer realistic field combat training to brigade-size units.
"We'll be working day and night for the next week taking everything off the ship and loading the cargo onto 400 trucks and four trains consisting of 240 rail cars before this mission is over," Bowser said. "The helicopters have already been unloaded and are being reassembled by 25th ID Soldiers to be flown out to Fort Polk."
There are 120-140 Soldiers and civilian stevedores -- workers who load and unload ships -- currently assigned to the operation. Of that number, only 20 are actually assigned to the battalion in charge of the port mission. A relatively small number considering the battalion is responsible for providing port management for seaports along the gulf coast from Alabama to the western tip of Texas for all military cargo coming into or going out of the continental U.S. and Alaska.
"Over the past 12 months, the 842nd has been responsible for over 68 percent of the cargo redeploying or being retrograded into the U.S.," said Bowser. "Our battalion, Soldiers and civilians play a very significant role here."
"There is more to port management than just getting the equipment off the ship and loading it onto railcars and trucks," said Capt. Shakiria Stephenson, port management team officer in charge. "There is also the documentation side of the house where we put equipment tracking information into systems which allow the cargo to be monitored globally in real time."
Stephenson is one of ten Army Reserve traffic management specialists who are permanently assigned to the 1190th Trans. Bde. in Baton Rouge, La.
"There is no room for error in dealing with cargo in our business," Stephenson said. "If it's not labeled correctly or the dimensional data is not correct at this location, it will have a snowball effect complicating all movement down the road."
Army Reservists are brought onto the year-long active duty tours to augment the 842nd Trans. Bn. and aid them in meeting their heavy schedule.
"CPT Stevenson and her team have been instrumental in integrating into our operations section to provide transportation management and terminal operations support to the battalion," Bowser said. "The Army Reservists provided us the flexibility and capability to accomplish our mission, but most importantly, they are able to take what they've learned from working at the most active port in the continental United States and share that training and lessons learned with their reserve units back home.
Even though the current Mendonca mission involves a lot of cargo, the 842nd has handled much more.
"We have worked more than 40 vessels over the past 12 months," Bowser stated. "In one single week alone, we unloaded over 2,300 pieces which were coming off of three different vessels. This is what we do -- we deliver trust to the war fighter that their equipment will be there for them when they need it."
Mendonca is a Bob Hope class roll-on/roll-off ship, and is the largest vehicle cargo ship in the Navy's inventory. With a length of 951 feet, it is nearly three times the length of a football field and comes in just 172 feet shorter than an aircraft carrier.
The ship has six huge cavernous decks which can pack an entire Army Brigade's worth of equipment inside. If needed, a seventh additional floor can be added by reconfiguring the internal decks.
The Port of Beaumont is the fourth busiest port in the United States in terms of tonnage processed and the busiest military port in the world processing U.S. military equipment.
The Port of Beaumont is maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at a constant, predictable width and depth, said Chris Fisher, Port Director and CEO of the Port of Beaumont. "We regularly handle ships the size of the Mendonca, which share the waterway with tankers, tug/barge combinations and cargo ships of all dimensions. Even with its 951 foot length, it is still able to be turned around in the 1,100-foot turning basin at the port."
The Mendonca's arrival to the Port of Beaumont provided military and civilian port authorities the opportunity to demonstrate that a ship of its size could be safely maneuvered and unloaded here. It also gave military planners an opportunity to test rail and truck transport capabilities once the vehicles were off the ship.
"We were able to demonstrate that our vendors, especially the rail industry, have sufficient capacity to support our major movements," said Army Maj. Gen. Susan A. Davidson, SDDC commanding general. "This is just one example of how we all play a critical role in the defense of our Nation."
Due to the complexity of this particular movement, it has garnered much attention from the various military commands.
"I'm proud of not only the planning and hard work that went into this move but, the communication and collaboration between the team that made it happen. It was the concerted effort by folks at the 597th Trans. Bde., the Military Sealift Command, the 599th Trans. Bde., including their subordinate units, the Port of Beaumont, and the division and installation transportation offices to get this large amount of equipment from origin to destination in the timeline required," Davidson said. "It was truly a team effort and a job well done!!"
The 842nd Trans. Bn. is part of the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command's 597th Transportation Brigade, headquartered at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia. The 597th and its subordinate units are responsible for meeting the surface deployment, redeployment, and distribution needs of the Warfighter and Defense Transportation System customers in the United States.