NEW CUMBERLAND, PA. — 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.