The Army's distribution center on the banks of the Susquehanna River just south of Harrisburg is piled high with the goods of war: tank treads and sprockets stacked on pallets; wooden crates bound with steel straps, the boxes marked "multiple launch rocket system"; rotor blade covers for Apache and Blackhawk helicopters; metal cases containing turbines; even stacks of olive green burlap for sandbags.

This huge warehouse at the New Cumberland Army Depot has been straining in recent weeks to keep the supplies moving to troops in Persian Gulf. Its loading docks have been jammed with trailers bearing names such as Sea-Land, Crowley and Lykes -- U.S.-flag steamship lines ferrying the supplies to the Middle East.

Even in peacetime the New Cumberland Depot is a very busy place, cranking out supplies and spare parts for Army troops stationed in this country and abroad. So busy, in fact, that it will soon have its own interchange at the Pennsylvania Turnpike. On an average day in normal times, between 150 and 200 trucks pass through its gates.

Because of the war in the Persian Gulf, the number of trucks is "probably way the hell more than that," said Keith G. Beebe, the installation's public affairs officer.

About 10 miles west of New Cumberland, in Mechanicsburg, the Defense Department operates another huge military depot that is just as large and just as busy. It supplies all sorts of things, from food to field hospitals, to all the branches of the military.

New Cumberland and Mechanicsburg have long been big shippers of military cargo through the port of Baltimore. Since competing ports such as New York or Hampton Roads, Va., are twice as far away from the Harrisburg area, the cargo flowed in a steady steam to Baltimore, like water streaming downhill.

Of late the flow has all but dried up, despite the tremendous quantity of goods moving to the Persian Gulf. The reason: Most U.S.-flag steamship lines no longer provide direct service from the port of Baltimore.

Generally, the steamship company decides how to get the cargo from, say, New Cumberland to Saudi Arabia, and that includes great latitude over the choice of ports.

The Military Sealift Command, a branch of the Navy, contracts with U.S.-flag companies to move cargo on general routes at set prices.

The MSC's commander, Adm. Francis Donovan, explained, "We contract with them to get it out there. How they get it there once they've made the contract is their business."

Even though the Army is the shipper of the goods from New Cumberland, it doesn't exert any influence either on what route the cargo takes. Maj. Michael Southworth, a British officer assigned to New Cumberland as part of a military exchange, said, "We ship containers to where the ship is. We don't even look what color it [the container] is. As long as it's the right one, we fill it."

Consequently, when a port loses a U.S.-flag steamship line, the port also generally loses most of the military cargo the line had been carrying under contract.

United States Lines once handled large quantities of military cargo in Baltimore. Then it went bankrupt. Topgallant, a steamship line created mainly on the basis of government contracts to carry military cargo, filled the void for a while. Then it, too, went under in 1989. Late that same year, Farrell Lines announced it was ending direct ship calls to Baltimore.

Another blow come soon after the invasion of Kuwait, when two ships operated by American Transport Lines, a division of Crowley Maritime Corp., ceased calling at Baltimore because the government wanted them to transport heavy equipment to the gulf.

The AmTrans ships had been carrying both military and commercial cargo as part of regularly scheduled service between the East Coast and Northern Europe. Once the ships no longer called at Baltimore, the containers of military goods they had been carrying had to go by another U.S. steamship line. That would force most of the cargo to move by another line calling at a different port.

"Topgallant, Farrell, AmTrans, we lost every one," observed Brendan W. O'Malley, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration. "That left us not in a very good position."

Most of the containerized cargo is carried on commercial ships calling at various ports according to a fixed schedule. If a line's ships regularly call at New York or Norfolk, Va., that's where they will route the cargo to meet the ship. As a result, most of this cargo is flowing to New York and Hampton Roads, where most of the biggest U.S.-flag ships call, rather than Baltimore.

Just how much cargo that would have flowed through Baltimore in the past is going elsewhere?

It is difficult to say with precision, but the answer is probably in the hundreds of thousands of tons a year, or roughly the total cargo of all kinds a major line might handle in Baltimore in a year.

A spokesman for the Maryland Port Administration said the agency does not keep statistics for military cargo.

Major Southworth said the New Cumberland depot was shipping about 300 loaded containers a week. That would equal about 20,000 tons a month. Not all that tonnage would move through Baltimore even if more ship lines called. Some would still go to other ports.

Moreover, 300 containers a week is not a figure that will be sustained once the United States removes most of its forces from the Middle East. But even in peacetime very substantial quantities of goods are shipped from New Cumberland to Army installations around the world.

The same is true of Mechanicsburg, whose responsibilites include supplying military commissaries with brand-name products familiar to U.S. personnel. The facility also is the Defense Department's largest medical warehouse. And it supplies all the branches of the military with their uniforms. It even ships the pads, pencils and lab equipment used by schools on military bases.

"Cable, wire, pipe, anything that's consumed comes through here," said Patrick J. Bettinger, the facility's public affairs officer. "We're a closet. They call us, and we send it out to the unit."

The value of goods on hand is about $1 billion, he said.

In 1989 the depot shipped 532,000 tons of goods. Not all of that was shipped by sea; some went by truck or rail to bases in the United States, while some of the material was shipped overseas by air. But much of it does go by ship. Supplies for commissaries alone fill 600 to 700 containers a month, Mr. Bettinger said.

Thomas E. Huesman, a vice president of Zipp Enterprises Inc., a trucking and transportation services company, formerly worked for United States Lines and Topgallant when they were moving large quantities of cargo from the New Cumberland and Mechanicsburg depots. He estimates that Topgallant was handling about 100,000 tons a year from the two depots on an annual basis. Producers of other supplies for the military shipped an additional 100,000 tons by Topgallant. Since Topgallant operated only between the U.S. East Coast and northern Europe, other lines were handling whatever military cargo was moving from the depots through Baltimore on its way to the Mediterranean. That means the total military cargo handled by the port then must have been well in excess of 200,000 tons a year.

Economics would normally steer most of those containers through the port of Baltimore, according to the executive of one steamship line who asked to remain anonymous because of a company policy that prohibits him from speaking to the press.

"Baltimore is the natural place for that stuff to go," he said.

Because truck rates are closely related to distance, it costs considerably less to get a container from New Cumberland or Mechanicsburg to Baltimore than to deliver the same container to New York or Hampton Roads. "Baltimore is the cheapest line haul of any of those ports," the steamship line executive said.

That means that a line would be likely to route such cargo through Baltimore -- if its ships call here. But if they do not, the line might not be willing to take on the added time and expense of sending the ship here. "They book it over the port where they're calling their ship," he said. Even if the cost of getting the cargo to the ship is higher through another port, the line's total costs may be lower if it skips Baltimore.

Most lines operate on the principle that it's more efficient to have the cargo come to the ship instead of sending the ship to meet the cargo. That's the whole concept of containers -- going to as few ports as possible and having the cargo flow to the ships.

In late February, the port did receive some good news when Lykes Bros. Steamship Co. Inc. announced it would include Baltimore in its new service between the East Coast of the United States and Saudi Arabia. That should help the port gain some military cargo, but the service will be limited -- only once overy six weeks, since Lykes will have only one ship on the route.

Baltimore could recapture the military cargo from the Harrisburg-area deports someday, if the port can lure back more U.S. flag ships. "I think it will move to Baltimore the minute a carrier decides to call Baltimore," the executive said.

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