By Captain Robert D. ConnollyAugust 27, 2007
Combing the far reaches of the Pacific from sun-baked atolls to the main islands of Japan, a vast mop-up operation is reclaiming millions of dollars in vehicular equipment for use for Far East Command troops. Conducted since 1948 by the U.S. Eighth Army Ordnance Section's Industrial Group, Fifth Echelon, commonly called BIG-5, the automotive salvage program is not only saving millions of dollars for American taxpayers; it is also bolstering the Japanese economy by teaching modern industrial methods to about 10,000 Japanese workers, thus paving the way for a rejuvenated Japanese automotive industry.
Dollar wise, the BIG-5 program produces an estimated $27,000,000 saving a year. In reclaiming jeep engines alone, BIG-5 saves $6,840,000 annually. Since 1948 more than 28,000 long tons of spare parts, tools and equipment have been reclaimed at a saving of $41,000,000, and 100,000 tons remain to be processed.
In the wake of our island-hopping victories in the Pacific war, considerable quantities of damaged automotive equipment, spare parts and tools were left marooned at widely dispersed points en route to Japan. To salvage this debris, a roll-up operation was launched. With gathering momentum, equipment was moved from isolated beaches and landing strips to large dumps for reshipment to reclamation depots in Japan.
Meanwhile, to handle this rising tide, the BIG-5 operation was organized in Japan. Surprisingly few industrial plants were found in the principal cities and those that were usable were widely scattered without regard to main transportation routes. It was therefore necessary to rearrange plant facilities for quality and volume production. BIG-5 first took over a few plants in the Kobe-Osaka-Kyoto area but soon moved nearer Tokyo. At both places it was necessary to build up a transportation system, supplementing rail and water routes with overland trucking. A railhead was established at Kawasaki, where rolled-up equipment could be taken by water.
Today BIG-5 has two rebuilding plants at Nagoya, one for sedans and one for buses, operated under contract by Japanese manufacturers. At both plants BIG-5 engineers set up the assembly lines and instructed workmen in assembly line methods. Other plants are located at Sugita, where engines and power trains are rebuilt; at Akabane, where a tire plant was constructed to replace the tire barge which had come up from the islands as part of the combat forces; and at Oppama, which served originally as a storage space for thousands of vehicles.
To provide essential spare parts, about 25 Japanese manufacturers were placed under contract to supply batteries, safety glass and similar type supplies not salvageable in sufficient quantities. Even here, BIG-5 engineers found that they had to supply detailed plans, specifications and drawings for each item desired. In many instances, because progress in Japanese manufacturing had been stalemated for years, it was also necessary to teach the Japanese industrialists the latest production methods.
This backwardness in technological development was due largely to the Imperial Edict of 1939 prohibiting Japanese industrialists from participating in ideas and developments of other countries. The war did the rest. In order to get quality and quantity production from Japanese contractors who were still operating on a 1939 basis, Stateside methods had to be introduced.
In the early days of its operation, BIG-5 encountered antipathy toward mass production methods by both Japanese manufacturers and workmen. Much time and effort was required to dispel misunderstanding and ignorance. Ultimately, the problems were worked out with the Japanese workmen, technicians and engineers in the hops, in the laboratories and at the drawing boards.
Working for BIG-5 were some of the best engineering minds in Japan, including such men as Shiro Shimizu, who designed the Mitsubishi heavy tank used during World War II. Yet in the beginning, Japanese engineers showed a lack of initiative. Testers in the BIG-5 Research and Engineering Branch, for example, would do a given job but would not question the results or the purpose. Now, however, they take the initiative, even seeking to improve test equipment. Today they expertly conduct tests on the many parts manufactured by Japanese industrial firms, using among their testing equipment foreign machines renovated by Japanese and BIG-5 engineers.
A new spirit of give-and-take is evident in the laboratory and on the assembly line. No longer must Japanese technicians be set to a task with each step in the process outlined. In their eagerness to cooperate, many conduct voluntary research. This spirit is reflected in other operations. In the Stock Records Division, where almost 100 Japanese girls are employed, the clerks are not content merely to do their jobs. They hurry thorough their lunches and even remain after quitting time in order to practice typing.
Mass-production methods and safety measures are slowly gaining acceptance among supply workmen. Used to thinking in terms of one- and two-ton loads, they find it hard to think in terms of hundreds of tons. Indicative of the methods used, it was not unusual for six Japanese workmen to attempt to move material by shoving separate wagons while a tractor that could tow all six stood idly by. BIG-5 supervisors had the additional problem of making the foremen understand that the use of tractors was a normal procedure. The Japanese propensity to disregard safety regulations and fire precautions has added gray hairs to many a BIG-5 head. A group of workmen would often overload a platform, place pieces of pipe under it for support, signal for a crane and then, with utter disregard for their own safety, would stand beneath the crane, watching it lift the load. In other ways, too, the Japanese resisted improved methods and safer procedures, sometimes for reasons of job security. As the advantages were demonstrated, however, they began to accept change.
The BIG-5 system of inspection and piecework payment was a further inducement shaping Japanese technology. Substandard products that failed to pass inspection had to be reprocessed by the contractor until satisfactory before he could be paid. Systems of cost accounting were introduced as another step in the education of Japanese in the modern business and industrial techniques.
During a typical month's operation, BIG-5 plants can process 4000 engines and power trains, 3000 transmissions, 2800 transfer cases, 5875 axles, 11,500 steering gears and miscellaneous parts. They can put into condition 1900 trucks, 100 sedans, 5000 batteries and 20,000 tires. At Kawasaki 10,000 long tons of material are reclassified, reclaimed and salvaged monthly.
By 1951 the greatest part of BIG-5's reclamation work will be done. The backlog of tons of spare parts and equipment will have been sorted and repaired, the 20,000 vehicles which are now lined up on the Oppama air strip will have been processed, and the Far East Command will have its own replacement factory for parts and vehicles.
Many BIG-5 products are exported to other parts of the Far East Command and for these the Japanese government is reimbursed in dollars. By this method, the Japanese government is acquiring much-needed dollar exchange for the procurement of raw materials on the world market.
Benefits also accrue to the United States economy. Two-thirds of the parts required by the BIG-5 are reclaimed from material salvaged in the theater. Of the remaining one-third, 75 per cent are manufactured locally and 25 per cent are brought from the United States. If, on the other hand, all the parts had to be brought from the United States, the added transportation costs alone would total more than $600,000.
Besides saving millions of dollars for American taxpayers, the BIG-5 program is aiding in the rehabilitation of Japanese industry. This means ultimate savings, too, for it brings closer the day when Japanese contractors and laborers, using modern American tools, equipment and production methods, can begin to rebuild Japan's shattered industry, reconstructing that nation's economy on a more nearly self-sustaining basis.