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Another Sneak Attack, War Heralded Pallet in Industry
World War II Spurred Use of Pallet in Material Handling

By Rick LeBlanc
Date Posted: 5/3/2002

The events of September 11, 2001 bring to mind another sneak attack -- the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941.

As America’s role in the war unfolded, particularly in the Pacific Ocean region, the pallet emerged as a key component of efficient material handling systems.

Pallets were in limited use by industry prior to World War II. "Before Word War Two, there were no -- or relatively few -- pallets in use," said Bill Sardo, who became the first administrator of the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association in 1946 and retains the title of NWPCA vice president-emeritus. "There was no equipment to handle pallets," noted Bill, who was a Navy officer during the war." The forklift truck, hand jack and hand truck all were developed about the same time -- not until about the late 1930s, according to Bill.

Prior to the war, skids were used primarily in the paper industry, according to Bill, and to a lesser degree by the military and the U.S. Postal Service. The auto industry used skids mainly for internal purposes.

One history of the forklift puts the beginning of the pallet jack as early as 1897 and the vertical lift truck innovation in 1915-1919. The basics of the forklift truck were pretty much in place by the mid-1920s. However, their use was extremely limited. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, with ample labor and little cash for capital improvements, there was little urgency to invest in innovative material handling approaches, such as palletization. In addition, prior to the war, barrels were a popular means of shipping goods; they could be rolled between freight vehicles and buildings.

The U.S. military was quick to see the advantages of palletized material handling, however. "They had learned from the lessons of others that goods had to move rapidly and in large quantities," Bill noted. said. "The forklift truck, hand jack and the pallet all developed at the same time. There was the skid, which could only be used horizontally, and the pallet, which could be used horizontally and vertically."

Lack of Equipment

The U.S. government began a major pallet procurement program in 1937, and the military continued to develop its palletization capabilities from1940 onward. It started in their supply depot operations and eventually explored the concept of unitized shipments from domestic suppliers and for delivery overseas. Palletization still was hampered, however, by the lack of suitable handling equipment and facilities at many locations. This situation improved in England and the Pacific as the war progressed as facilities were modernized and production of pallets and forklifts increased.

"The real, real beginning of the pallet was...in World War Two," said Bill. With the U.S. engaged in the war, the military required large volumes of pallets in order to efficiently and quickly store and move vast quantities of material and supplies.

It was in the Pacific that palletization was mostly desperately needed and where it was to have a greater impact. In the months following Pearl Harbor, there was a huge scramble -- after years of neglect -- to organize and build up the military logistics infrastructure while the American war-related industrial base also had to get up to speed. In addition, the war in Europe was a higher priority; the Army Quartermaster Corps was hard pressed to fill orders for the Pacific until after V-E Day. In the Pacific, there was a lack of distribution facilities and equipment outside Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand, and logistics operations faced tough tropical weather conditions. For example, canned goods were often stored in the open and exposed to corrosion, puncture from rough handling, and intense heat. Loss rates on food shipments were as high as 40%. There were eyewitness accounts of over 100,000 unusable tins of food in a single supply dump.

The Pacific theater of operations also presented the U.S. military with the daunting challenge of servicing supply lines that at that time were the longest in military history, according to Dr. Steven Anders, Quartermaster Corps historian. Rather than a single supply line, the Pacific operations encompassed many.

Challenge of Pacific Theater

"The region was divided into three spheres - the South Pacific, Central Pacific and Southwest Pacific commands," Steven wrote in a 1999 article for the Quartermaster Professional Bulletin. "The size of the region made for unprecedented long lines of communication. Roughly 3,000 miles separated the New York City port of embarkation -- the Quartermaster Corps' main shipping center on the East Coast -- from England and France. In the Pacific, it was 6,200 miles from San Francisco to Brisbane, Australia, which served as a distribution center for most Quartermaster Corps supplies in the Southwest Pacific. While it took about 55-60 days for a supply ship leaving from New York City to reach Liverpool, England, the trip from San Francisco to Brisbane often lasted four or five months. By the time supplies reached their final destination in the Pacific theater, they may have traveled upwards of 8,000 miles."

The recognition that supply operations were critical to the war was brought home in the months after Pearl Harbor by another enormous setback. Thousands of U.S. and Filipino troops suffering from malnutrition and widespread disease were forced to surrender in April 1942. The food supply chain had broken down, dramatically underscoring the urgent need to improve logistics and material handling.

The improved efficiency that resulted from palletized cargo handling in World War II is not particularly surprising to anyone in the pallet or material handling industries today. At the time, however, the use of pallets and forklift trucks was extremely innovative. "The use of the forklift trucks and pallets was the most significant and revolutionary storage development of the war," observed Dr. Erna Risch in a 1953 history of the Quartermaster Corps. "The forklift truck represented the culmination of efforts extending over half a century to combine horizontal and vertical motion in one materials-handling vehicle."

While skids and two-way entry pallets had been in use previously, the four-way pallet was developed during World War II. Norman Cahners, an officer in the Navy Supply Corps based at the Naval Ordinance Depot in Hingham, Mass., was seeking to design a pallet that would allow speedier turn-around time for ships and more efficient handling in crowded work spaces. He came up with a block-style, four-way entry pallet. Cahners held the basic patent, which the government was free to use during the war. He also designed unit loads to optimize fit on 40x48 pallets.

Military Pallet Standards

(During the war Cahners worked on The Palletizer, a magazine distributed by the Navy to its contractors. When the war ended, Cahners was allowed to continue its publication, and in 1946 he changed the name to Modern Material Handling. He eventually sold his pallet patents and licenses.)

"There were military standards for pallets in those days," Bill said. "MIL-Ps, they were called. They were MIL-P and then a number." There was a standard specification for stevedore pallets, for example, and one for warehouse pallets. The military also used some 40x48 and some 48x40 pallets, according to Bill. Initially, most military pallets were two-way entry stringer pallets, but then the military got the "bright idea" of notching the stringers to allow four-way entry.

Manual material handling methods were the norm at the beginning of the war, but as the war progressed and production and use of pallets and forklift trucks increased, material handling output improved. Palletized handling greatly improved logistics productivity and utilization of storage facilities and freight vehicles. For example, the average number of tons handled per man at Quartermaster Corps depots doubled from the 3rd quarter of 1943 to the 2nd quarter of 1945, reflecting the improvements brought by palletized methods. Palletized handling vastly improved loading and unloading times and sped up turn-around times on urgently needed rail freight cars and cargo ships.

Another result of using forklifts and palletization was a significant reduction of material handling personnel and heavy manual labor. The reduction of heavy manual labor allowed women to fill roles in material handling, freeing men for military service.

Pallets commonly used in military depots were double-faced, 32x40. Some single-faced pallets were used for supplies with greater resistance to crush damage, such as buckets of paint or kegs of nails. A third type of pallet, according to Risch, was a collapsible box-shaped framework that was equipped with upright standards and diagonal cross-pieces; these were used to store bulky or irregularly shaped goods and also to provide greater stability to supplies that were easily damaged.

Pallets Difficult to Obtain

In the early stages of the war, pallets were difficult to obtain as few companies manufactured made them in any significant quantity, and prices tended to be high. In July and August of 1942, however, the Office of the Quartermaster General ordered 1 million pallets for Quartermaster depots. Delivery was so slow and irregular, however, that depots were instructed to purchase thousands of pallets locally to fill shortages. The result was a "lack of uniformity and standardization that later plagued the Corps," noted Risch.

Quartermaster depots began manufacturing pallets in the spring of 1943 in order to reduce costs and increase availability. In 1944 there was a movement to centralize procurement, an approach that the Corps felt would help reduce pallet costs. The same year, pallet standardization programs were begun in the depots. Through experimentation and experience, the Quartermaster Corps came to rely on four sizes: 32x40, 36x48, 48x48 and 48x60.

Limited availability of pallets and lift-trucks were only some of the problems faced at the depots. Some workers and administrators resisted the change to new, palletized handling methods. By 1944, however, as equipment became more widely available and depot workers became more experienced with it, satisfactory work methods emerged.

With pallet and forklift usage firmly established as a standard practice at Quartermaster storage operations, an attempt was also made to extend palletizing material handling methods to manufacturers. The Army initially concentrated on goods that could be most readily unitized, such as cases of nonperishable food. During 1942-1943 experiments were conducted to determine the value of palletized loads in improving speed and reducing costs.

While successful, other technical problems remained, such as dealing with unit load stabilization and damage. "Unit loads also had to be of a size easily handled with mechanical equipment and capable of being loaded and unloaded in normal standard carriers," Risch noted. She observed further: "The lack of forklift trucks and other essential equipment at all but the largest and best equipped manufacturing plants hindered the application of the principle of palletized loads to shipments which should have ideally begun at the producers’ warehouses. The lack of facilities for receiving and handling such shipments overseas as well as the sizable cubic displacement of the pallet itself, which amounted to about 10% of an entire load, caused the Transport Corps to oppose extensive palletization of transatlantic shipments until these aspects of the problem had been solved. Its attitude prevented any large-scale unitized shipments during 1943."

Profound Effect in Pacific

Beginning in early 1944, the Quartermaster Corps experimented with various strapping methods and determined that adhesives or glue applied to the surface of the pallet were more effective in stabilizing loads. Later that year, a lighter, more space-efficient pallet was developed. The program evolved to the level where overseas shipments could be pursued, but conditions remained unfavorable on the mainland of Europe. The resources for handling palletized unit loads had improved in England, but the ports of Western Europe did not have the necessary facilities. The differences, too, between American and European freight car design posed other difficulties in handling such shipments. On the other hand, in the Pacific theater, where the Army had built modern facilities for receiving goods, palletized shipments were welcomed.

Pallets were to have a much more profound effect in the Pacific. In one account, David L. Manuel described the wonder of palletized material handling in Sydney, Australia in 1943, with the arrival of a U.S. ship at Glebe Island:

"This attracted widespread attention, especially amongst the services, stevedores and shipping companies. It was a completely amazed and somewhat goggle-eyed collection of Australians who watched the Americans unbatten their hatches, land forklift trucks with ship’s gear and then at the most amazing speed bring off their palletized cargo in slings….To the Australians this was a revolutionary first. There before them were marvels of mechanized muscle operating with trend-setting speed and efficiency. Compared to this, Australian waterside unloading methods had been restricted to primitive man-handling assisted mainly by hand trucks."

Palletization changed the face of wartime distribution, Anders wrote. "Faced with unusual circumstances and finding that they often lacked even basic items or equipment for carrying out their mission, Quartermasters in the Pacific routinely became masters of improvisation – ‘QM Imps’ – they were sometimes called. For example, in an effort to speed up movement of supplies over contested beaches, Quartermasters pioneered the development of ‘palletized unit loading.’ Combat rations, petroleum products, and other supplies were strapped onto rectangular-shaped, wooden pallets or ‘sleds’ which could be quickly discharged from landing craft, dragged over beaches, and even moved inland for great distances to establish instant dumps. At the start of the war this efficient technique of cargo handling had barely been known even among commercial enterprises."

Revolutionary Equipment

Wherever U.S. forces went to set up their wartime bases in the Pacific, they brought their revolutionary material handling equipment, including pallets. The exposure of palletized handling had a big impact in Australia, and no doubt left a lasting impression on American servicemen who re-entered American industry at the conclusion of the war. After the war, the Australian government eagerly acquired abandoned U.S. material handling equipment -- including pallets -- and created the Commonwealth Handling Equipment Pool, or CHEP. A change in government led to the assets being sold to various port authorities in the 1950s, and equipment in some remaining ports was purchased in 1958 by Brambles. (Today, of course, the CHEP name is still alive as a business unit of Brambles that is also the world’s largest pallet rental company.) In Europe, the Swedish railroads established a pool of surplus military pallets in 1946, which eventually led to the development of the Europallet. In America, palletization also began to progressively take hold after the war. Not surprisingly, the food industry led the way.

Anders noted that Brigadier General William F. Campbell, Chief Quartermaster in the Southwest Pacific, sent a memo to all Quartermasters in his command at the end of the war.

Despite the many difficulties, "not once," he asserted, "did our attack falter because of a lack of Quartermaster supplies!"

"Never before in any war," Campbell continued, "have supply lines been so long. Never before has so much been supplied over such distances." He concluded: "I am confident that logistics experts a few years ago would have said that the execution of the supply operations you have accomplished in the last four years (was) impossible. I am equally confident that historians in the years to come will write of your supply achievements as one of the miracles of this war."

Palletized material handling was important in successfully maintaining supply lines during the war, and at the bottom of it all was the wood pallet. Of course, palletization continued to grow and became more widespread in the decades that followed. The pallet, along with the bar code, is often identified as the key material handling innovation of the past century.

If the Japanese had not attacked Pearl Harbor, would American industry still have developed palletization material handling methods? The answer is clearly yes, although without the heightened urgency of supplying military forces for World War II, palletization material handling likely would have been slower to be accepted and grow. Fewer pallets would have been shipped to Europe, which would have slowed the development of the Europallet pool. And without surplus pallets left in Australia, there would have been no CHEP organization, the precursor to today’s giant pallet rental company.

Just as surely as the pallet helped ensure victory for America and its allies in World War II, its role in supplying military forces more than 50 years ago shaped the future of material handling and the pallet industry we know today.

WWII Pallet Suppliers

World War II was a catalyst for the development of palletized material handling. At the same time, the large volume of pallets the U.S. military required to supply its forces and Allied forces overseas served to incubate the pallet manufacturing industry and provided opportunities for companies to enter the pallet manufacturing business. Some of those original pallet manufacturing companies remain in business today.

NEPA Pallet and Container Co. in Snohomish, Wash., is a leading pallet and container supplier in the Pacific Northwest. Walter Crook started NEPA in 1937 with three partners (the word NEPA came from the first letter of each partner’s wife) in order to fill a cost-plus government contract for ‘cargo boards’ or stevedore pallets. According to his son-in-law, Gene Shrier, who was born the same year, the company manufactured thousands of cargo boards for the government. "A lot of production went to the Long Beach (California) docks," Gene recalled. Gene’s wife, Betty, believed the cargo boards were shipped to the docks via rail car.

Cost-plus jobs were few and far between, according to Gene. "You didn’t get a cost-plus job for anything," he said.

The cargo boards were made of Douglas fir and had a 4-foot-by-6-foot footprint. They were a 6-inch double-wing design with trimmed corners. Deck boards were 2 inches thick and were fastened to 4x4 stringers with 3/8-inch carriage bolts -- each cargo board required 32 carriage bolts.

NEPA had work stations with automatic drill jigs to bore holes in deck boards and stringers and ran two shifts. There was one driller and probably four or five people per station. After the U.S. entered the war, many of the men at NEPA went into the military, and the production jobs were filled by women.

Williamsburg Millwork, now a leading pallet manufacturer in Bowling Green, Va., got its ‘pallet roots’ in World War II. "We were a millwork company when the war started," recalled president Ray Piland, who was a boy at the time. Ray’s father bought the Williamsburg business in 1940. After the U.S. entered the war the following year, however, residential construction dried up, along with the demand for millwork.

Ray’s father went to Washington, D.C. to look for new opportunities. "He thought that possibly he would get into the prefab home business," he said. "They were putting so many of them up around the various industrial plants to house workers. That’s where he thought he would go, but they said, ‘We need pallets!’ He probably said, ‘What’s that!’ "

Williamsburg Millwork soon began building pallets for the U.S. Navy. In fact, during World War II, supplying pallets to the military was the company’s only business. Williamsburg Millwork was ideally located to supply pallets a short distance away to the Navy’s many facilities in the Hampton Roads area. The Navy facilities were a main outlet on the Eastern Seaboard for ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean to the European theater.

"Most of our material went straight into Norfolk Naval Base or into Cheatham Annex, which was a division of the base and closer to Williamsburg," said Ray. The Cheatham Annex contained a depot for naval mines. "A lot of our pallets went straight there to go overseas out of Norfolk."

The Navy had specifications for standard pallets. "The military had their own specification, as they do with everything," Ray noted. In fact, the pallet specifications were very similar to those used by the military today. "There has been very little change made,"he said. For example, there is little difference between the military’s 40x48 specification today and the pallet it specified more than 50 years ago.

The Navy also required dry lumber for its pallets, but it was a requirement that was difficult for suppliers to meet, Ray noted. "The military spec called for dry hardwood, but they were anything but dry. They were being manufactured by anybody." The lumber dried as the pallets were trucked to the Navy facilities, he quipped.

The military purchased both block and stringer pallets. "I can remember both being built out in the plant," Ray recalled. All the stringer pallets were four-way entry with double wings. "I think maybe they had to have sling capabilities," he said.

Of course, automated pallet assembly was unheard of at the time. Pallets were built by hand with hammer and nails. "You had to have a young guy with a strong arm," Ray said. Two men worked at each table, and each would drive about 5,000 nails per day -- all into hardwood pallet parts. "Most of the guys would tap it once and then drive it home with the second blow," Ray recalled.

"They were like baseball pitchers with nails, and I remember them very well. They would only work about six hours every day. They were on piecework, and about six hours was all their arms could take. As soon as they quit, they would put their jackets on to keep their right arm warm, just like a pitcher does."

The company accelerated pallet production in a big way in 1943, but when the war ended the Navy’s requirements for pallets fell dramatically, and the company’s pallet operations quickly ground to a halt. Ray’s father shifted gears again, and the company resumed its millwork operations as American serviceman returned from overseas and residential construction picked up again.

In the late 1940s the company added pallet manufacturing operations again, but this time it was supplying pallets to private industry. In the early 1950s, with the outbreak of the Korean Warm, Williamsburg Millwork began supplying pallets to the armed services again. "Then we had a fire during that time," Ray recalled. His father decided to rebuild, but not the millwork operations. "He felt like the pallet was a technology that was really going to take off and that his best bet was in the pallet business."

Pallets were critical to the successful military operations of America and its allies during World War II, Ray said. "The pallet really made it possible for us to fight a war on two fronts the way that we did." It would have been impossible to supply military forces in both the European and Pacific theaters if logistics operations had been limited to manual labor and hand-loading cargo.

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