Landing the Kosovo Force

Army Logistician VOLUME 32, ISSUE 1 JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2000

by John R. Randt

When the air war over Yugoslavia ended, the Army had to deploy a peacekeeping force to Kosovo quickly. The best route into the landlocked province was through a Greek port.

   Peace in Kosovo was signaled from far away. It was announced by the roar of diesel engines and the clanking of metal as the combat vehicles of the U.S. Army's peacekeeping task force arrived at the port of Thessaloniki, Greece. Uncle Sam was on the ground and headed for Kosovo.

There was no time to lose. With the air war over but disorder swirling in Kosovo, General Wesley Clark, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, requested the urgent movement of promised peacekeepers from NATO nations. Each day and each hour counted—the U.S. Army was needed in Kosovo immediately to begin peacekeeping duties.

The vehicles began streaming like a long ribbon from the USNS Bob Hope on 30 June 1999. Three days later, the scene was repeated with the USNS Soderman. Later, the contract vessel Osprey arrived from Beaumont, Texas, with equipment from several continental United States (CONUS) Army installations to augment the task force.

The unloading at Thessaloniki was directed by soldiers and civilians assigned to several Military Traffic Management Command (MTMC) ports under the 598th Transportation Group, which is headquartered at Rotterdam, The Netherlands. The transporters teamed up with soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized), which is based in Germany, and together they quickly grouped the tracked and wheeled vehicles of all kinds into serials organized by unit.

Hundreds of 1st Infantry Division drivers fell in on their vehicles. Hours later, in the muted early morning hours, the vehicles were proceeding in long columns up the highway to Skopje, Macedonia. There, the main force of 1st Infantry Division soldiers, who had been airlifted from Germany, would join up with their vehicles. The move to Kosovo was on.

Reaching Kosovo

MTMC began planning for deployment of a peacekeeping force in October 1998, as crisis loomed in Kosovo. Many ports were reviewed for a possible contingency operation, but planners kept coming back to Thessaloniki. The northern Greek city had excellent port facilities and road and railroad connections that led directly north, through Macedonia, to Kosovo.

With the start of the air war over Yugoslavia in March 1999, MTMC planners shifted their efforts. U.S. troops moved in force into the rugged terrain of Albania, which is southwest of Kosovo. While bombing went on across the border, MTMC developed a lifeline of shipments, carried by small vessels from Brindisi, Italy, to Durres, Albania. The shallow waters of Albanian ports and restricted maneuver room precluded using larger shipments. When the Osprey was routed to Durres on 2 May, the daily newspaper ZerLiPopulli, in the Albanian capital of Tirana, called it an "American Titanic" because of its size in the tiny port. The Osprey was the largest vessel ever to have visited Durres. "This [Kosovo] has got to be one of the hardest places to get to in the world," testified Dave Terry, the acting operations officer.

After some 90 days of sustained aerial bombing, the Serbs agreed to evacuate Kosovo and the air war came to an end. The need to move a peacekeeping force into Kosovo propelled MTMC and its maritime partner, the Navy's Military Sealift Command, into action.

Moving the Peacekeepers

Plans and processes were considered thoroughly. Responsibility for executing the movement rested with the 598th Transportation Group. It was decided that the 1st Infantry Division and other task force elements would move by rail and road to Bremerhaven, Germany. Once at that port, the heavy equipment would be loaded by the 838th Transportation Battalion, headquartered in Rotterdam. Two ships would be needed for the move from Bremerhaven to Thessaloniki. A third ship probably would be needed later to carry equipment from a CONUS port to Thessaloniki; this would turn out to be the Osprey. Unloading operations at Thessaloniki would be conducted by the 953d Transportation Company, which is located at Piraeus, Greece. Piraeus is the port of Athens, the Greek capital.

The plan became an execution document. Accurate documentation was stressed, according to Captain Dan Joss of the 838th Transportation Battalion's Rhine River Detachment. "Many of the problems we encountered were corrected on the spot by the units," said Joss. "Most of our problems were [caused by] improper labeling, incorrect documentation, poor tie-down of the equipment, or hazardous material." Documentation teams observed the loading of 90 percent of all the trains departing from at least 10 railheads. The documentation made the job of the transporters loading the Bob Hope at the port of Bremerhaven much easier.

The Bob Hope arrived in Thessaloniki on 29 June, 6 days after departing Bremerhaven. The 949-foot ship—almost the size of one of the Navy's Nimitz-class aircraft carriers—brought 1,345 individual pieces of equipment, including 119 shipping containers. It was the first major deployment for the newly commissioned roll-on-roll-off ship, which was named after the comedian who entertained U.S. servicemembers around the world for 50 years.

The Bob Hope completed discharge of its cargo on 1 July. The Soderman arrived 3 July, and its unloading began at once. With all personnel hustling, the ship cargoes were received, staged, and prepared for onward movement. MTMC transporters received enormous unloading assistance from soldiers and civilians of the 29th Support Group from Kaiserslautern, Germany; local contractors; and the port authority. The support group numbered approximately 170 personnel at its peak.

Most of the equipment was driven off the ship by 1st Infantry Division drivers. Troops from other NATO nations were present as well. Many of the heavy equipment transporters at the port were from the British and French armies. The French soldiers looked at the U.S. howitzers with interest since the guns were named for French battlefields where Americans had fought in World War I. Their poignant names included Cantigny, St. Mihiel, Luneville, and Argonne.

In all, hundreds of pieces of Army equipment were unloaded from the two ships. The equipment included M1 Abrams tanks, M2 Bradley fighting vehicles, howitzers, engineer equipment, and assorted other vehicles. According to Major Spero Pekatos, the commander of the 953rd Transportation Company, MTMC personnel worked around the clock to unload the vessels.

MTMC made the transportation requirements of the peacekeeping force a reality. It was "a perfect example of how well a complex Department of Defense mission can be synchronized," said Colonel Tom E. Thompson, the commander of the 598th Transportation Group. Operation Joint Guardian was in full swing. In all, 7,000 Army troops, supported by tanks, howitzers, and construction equipment, were rolling down the highway to Kosovo.

John R. Randt is the public affairs officer of the Military Traffic Management Command. A retired National Guard officer, he has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee and a master's degree in public administration from Ball State University and is a graduate of the Army Management Staff College. He took the photos accompanying this article.

o The USNS Bob Hope, a newly commissioned roll-on-roll-off cargo vessel, is docked at the port of Thessaloniki, Greece (at left).

oThe 953d Transportation Company, from Piraeus, Greece, conducted the unloading operations at Thessaloniki. At left, the company commander briefs MTMC's unloading plan. Above, soldiers from the 119th Transportation Company, Fort Story, Virginia, direct vehicles off the Bob Hope's stern roll-on-roll-off ramp.

o Flatbed trucks are lined up to receive some of the 119 shipping containers brought to Thessaloniki by the Bob Hope.

oUsing a palletized loading system, soldiers at the Thessaloniki docks place a container on a truck. The container holds a standard deployment package.

o M1 Abrams tanks discharged from the Bob Hope are readied for movement to Skopje, Macedonia, and then on to Kosovo.