The military supply system is stupid and messed up. Everything has a stock number and a description. They frequently don’t make sense. For example, a flyswatter is referred to as “Exterminator, Insect, Manual.” When I was a new E-4, I was forced into the role of Supply Petty Officer for the workcenter by the E-4 who was previously the most junior. He was glad to be rid of the job. I was soon to understand why.

On July 1, 1941, a requisition was submitted for 150 rolls of toilet paper by an officer aboard the submarine USS Skipjack (SS-184). As the boat patrolled the Pacific, the requested item never arrived. In March 1942, Lieutenant Commander James Coe took command of the Skipjack. As Coe settled into his new role, he learned of the missing toilet paper. On June 19, Coe received a canceled invoice for 150 rolls of toilet paper. The request was the original from July 1941 and was stamped “canceled-cannot identify.” Coe wrote a response that is famous within the Navy today.

1. This vessel submitted a requisition for 150 rolls of toilet paper on July 30, 1941, to USS HOLLAND. The material was ordered by HOLLAND from the Supply Officer, Navy Yard, Mare Island, for delivery to USS Skipjack.

2. The Supply Officer, Navy Yard, Mare Island, on November 26, 1941, cancelled Mare Island Invoice No. 272836 with the stamped notation “Cancelled—cannot identify.” This cancelled invoice was received by Skipjack on June 10, 1942.

3. During the 11 1/2 months elapsing from the time of ordering the toilet paper and the present date, the Skipjack personnel, despite their best efforts to await delivery of subject material, have been unable to wait on numerous occasions, and the situation is now quite acute, especially during depth charge attack by the “back-stabbers.”

4. Enclosure (2) is a sample of the desired material provided for the information of the Supply Officer, Navy Yard, Mare Island. The Commanding Officer, USS Skipjack cannot help but wonder what is being used in Mare Island in place of this unidentifiable material, once well known to this command.

5. Skipjack personnel during this period have become accustomed to use of “ersatz,” i.e., the vast amount of incoming non-essential paper work, and in so doing feel that the wish of the Bureau of Ships for the reduction of paper work is being complied with, thus effectively killing two birds with one stone.

6. It is believed by this command that the stamped notation “cannot identify” was possible error, and that this is simply a case of shortage of strategic war material, the Skipjack probably being low on the priority list.

7. In order to cooperate in our war effort at a small local sacrifice, the Skipjack desires no further action be taken until the end of the current war, which has created a situation aptly described as “war is hell.”

J.W. Coe

Coe’s letter caused quite a stir and was circulated throughout the fleet. When the Skipjack returned to Australia after her patrol, she was greeted by quite a sight. The pier was stacked seven feet high with boxes of toilet paper instead of the usual crates of fresh fruit and ice cream. Toilet paper streamers decorated the dock, and a band greeted the boat wearing toilet paper neckties and toilet paper flying out of trumpets and horns. The men of the Skipjack would not have to do without toilet paper again, as they were greeted upon every return with cartons of the precious paper.

Back to my story: we had an upcoming deployment, and I had to order supplies to get us through the first six months. I was told to order some superglue and some wooden handled cotton swabs. I looked them up, and the superglue was listed as “adhesive, cyanoacrylate” with a unit of issue of CS (meaning case) and a unit cost of $1.44. The cotton swabs were listed as “applicator, cotton tip, wood handle” with a unit of issue of BG (bag) and a cost of $0.29. No mention in either case of how many were in a case or a bag. At the time, the military was known to be paying $400 for a hammer, so I had to guess.

I guessed that there were at most 2 tubes of superglue per case, and ordered 12 units of superglue, and that there were at most 10 swabs per bag, so I ordered 100 bags of them. What it turned out was that there were 144 tubes of glue per case, and 100 swabs per bag. I wound up with 1,700 tubes of superglue and 10,000 cotton swabs. This mistake was legendary. I caught shit about it for the entire deployment.

When I passed the job on to the newly promoted guy a few months later, I was evil about it. We sent him down to supply to get a can of eh-eye-arr. He came back to supply with a bottle marked “Air, room temperature.” He got the best of me.

Categories: Military


Unknownsailor · July 4, 2023 at 5:49 am

I was career supply, first an AK (Aviation Storekeeper,) then SK, now Logistics Specialist (SK and Postal Clerk merged). I know subs have SK(SS) onboard, did you not run your request past them for a sanity check? I was Repair Parts PO (the current term for what you were doing) for the entire time I was on the carrier I retired from, and I ordered all sorts of weird and cool stuff, including things like Surefire flashlights and folding knives.
Things like superglue and cotton swabs are General Services Administration items that all 4 services use, and are not stocked or managed by Navy Supply. GSA puts out paper catalogs with most commonly ordered items for people to use when ordering stuff. Mops, push brooms, pens, paper, all that sort of stuff is in there.

Columbozo · July 4, 2023 at 6:57 am

Quartermasters are a construct of the white male patriarchy. (honk!)
All supplies will be redistributed to rainbow rump rangers first but only if the proper pronouns are used.
Used to have the 52 card aircraft identification playing cards, jungle survival information cards and the M16 comic book reprints from the 1970’s.
Got grampaws USMC boot leggings from the Pacific which he didn’t care for, they go for about $60 but not for sale and dog tags for sporky time.
Those old cots and ruck sacks are still going but getting long in the tooth and the uncomfortable itch and scratchy olive drab blankets.

EN2 SS · July 4, 2023 at 7:43 am

I was the supply PO for the engine room on my boat during and after a SOAP overhaul. During one quarter the Supply Officer had the great idea (s/) of cutting corners during resupply of the entire boat, including the food. I don’t know if you’re aware, but the boats have a well deserved reputation of eating the best food of all branches of the military. Needless to say, with the great idea (s/) the needed supplies and food went downhill pretty quick. Just before the end of the quarter, the Supply Officer bragged to the Captain about how much money he saved him. I still think the Skipper dented the hull went he went ballistic and handed the Supply Officer his ass in the proverbial basket. As the Supply PO with the most experience, I was told to help spend all that “saved” money before the end of the quarter. When it was over, we had more stores than we could put on the boat, almost. We had live Maine lobsters flown in several times, the best steaks (unfrozen) we could find, tools that we’d previously only dreamed of to care for the boat. When it was settled up, we were many thousands of dollars in the hole. The Supply Officer never made the mistake of not spending every penny in the budget and REALLY never made the mistake of telling me to buy what we needed, no matter what it cost. LOL

exile1981 · July 4, 2023 at 8:53 am

We use material master(mm) #’s at work, can not order something without one. We have a moron who tends to guess and pick what looks close when ordering because he’s too lazy to do it right. The plant has a whole out building of wrong items they dont need that he ordered.

Anonymous · July 4, 2023 at 10:25 am

I was in the U.S. Army. We had to replace a steel winch cable on the front of a truck, 200 feet of twisted wire rope. The supply clerk ordered one. Problem was, the “unit of issue” was “ft”, so we got a piece of steel cable one foot long. We needed flashlight batteries. Supply clerk ordered 100 batteries. Unit of issue was “box” of 72. We got 7200 flashlight batteries.

Jester · July 4, 2023 at 10:30 am

Things did tend to improve when I was doing my supply and armorer time in the Army but I still had some experences like you did DM. Things like trying to order some roll pins for example. No listing of unit of issue anywhere or how many came in a bag. Was just a bag. So I had no idea of what I was ordering. Guess who ended up with approximately 10k roll pins? The ordering number system is fine, I mean you can order a battleship with a NSN. But you can’t often tell especally with the older items in the system what you get. Which is what leads to supply shortages. Some unit in the middle of no where has the items you need because they ordered all of them unknowingly (OR in some instance knowing full well and they wanted it for barter material)

    Divemedic · July 4, 2023 at 10:38 am

    LOL. We had some fun with it, too. I once found out that the NSN for one of the transformers we needed was only one digit removed from a nuclear warhead. So we ordered the transformer, but purposely put the NSN for the warhead on the request and waited to see what happened. We got the form back with “Cancelled- Restricted Item” marked on it.

      Jester · July 4, 2023 at 12:34 pm

      Yeah I had some of those shennigans too. Lazer grips for the M9s, supressors.. There was a lot of leeway given when I was in Iraq, but there was a couple times the XO had me in the office asking me to please stop pushing it so much, he was tired of explaining it to the powers that be.

      Gryphon · July 5, 2023 at 11:39 am

      A friend of mine who was in the Army in the ’80s as a Radio/Electronics Repairman in Germany said they once Ordered an Atomic Demolition Charge, by NSN, and the Order made it all the way to an Ammunition Storage Facility, and one was put on the Truck, but the Transportation Officer noticed that the Shipping Paperwork was to a Commo Company, not Engineers (who were Authorized these Atomics). There were too many people in the Chain of Paperwork to effectively Blame anyone. The Captain asked my friend (suspecting he was the ‘Instigator’) “What would you have done with it if it had been Delivered?” His reply was since that Ivan was going to Overrun their Position on Day 2 of the Invasion, they would set the Timer before they Left….

BobF · July 4, 2023 at 10:36 am

Air Force. Shop Chief would say, “Airman, go down to Base Supply and get 6 sheets of 1/2” plywood and 10 lengths of Dexion. I went, told them what I needed, loaded it up, and back to the shop. That went on for a short while. THEN the Base Supply Computer took over. Progress and al that. We all swore the purpose of the system was to NOT issue anything from then on.

I remember ordering a part for an aircraft I was working on. Arrived, opened box to find nothing inside. Want to see pure chaos bound together by red tape? Try telling the computer system the box was empty and they still owed me a VERY expensive gyro package. And oh, by the way, send another against the same tail number. Not sure how they fixed it, far above my lowly pay grade, but there was a lot of yelling on the phone.

    Phil B · July 4, 2023 at 4:09 pm

    Tut tut! Stores are for storing things, not issuing. If they were meant to issue stuff, they’d be called Issuing. Or so the QMS in my regiment said whenever you needed anything.

    Oddly enough, fuel was “free issue” (an armoured regiment where petrol/gas was used for a lot of things such as cleaning paint brushes, degreasing etc.) which lead to a few incidents.

    Unknownsailor · July 4, 2023 at 9:10 pm

    The S-3A Viking had a very fancy synthetic apeture radar on it. The antenna for it had a replacement cost of over 7 million dollars. On my first ship, USS Kitty Hawk, where I was working in the repairable storeroom, we had one of those antennas. Lo and behold, the embarked S-3 squadron needed one, so they ordered it, and turned in their inop unit. The ship’s intermediate level repair activity fixed the squadron turn in, and gave it back to us ready for issue. We put it in the same crate we issued the previous good unit out of, except one of our peeps put a nail into it when he was nailing the lid of the crate back on. That nail punctured the antenna such that it was not repairable on the ship, so we had to order a replacement one from the depot at NAS North Island.

    That was one very expensive nail.

    Lost repairable parts like you describe draw a lot of attention, very fast, in the world of naval aviation supply. Repairable parts are tracked 1 for 1 at the serial number level at every stage of their useful lives.

    I’m sure whoever received that empty box learned to open boxes before signing for it, because once you sign for it, you own it.

Rick T · July 4, 2023 at 12:20 pm

We ordered pith helmets to wear during field day by claiming that “helmet, protective” was a part of anti-contamination suits. The full NSN description was “helmet, protective, sun” but that conveniently didn’t fit on a supply chit. I still have mine.

Red · July 4, 2023 at 5:08 pm

During Korean War, the Cooks and Medics kept getting killed due to the Guy In charge. My Dad was a Navy Cook at that time and was brought to an area to make sure the Army Guys got some hot food into them. One of the People in charge told him to take off his parka and just wear his Cooks Whites. He said NO as that was the reason the Cooks and Medics were getting KILLED. The Supply critters had sent fresh eggs, fresh steak and other comestibles which were suited to a Dinning Room and not a icy Mud fest. Dad got the radioman to call his ship with an order of powdered eggs, minute steaks, coffee, butter and jam. The Army Rations had these hockey puck biscuits no one could eat dry. Dad gathered them up, put them in a pan with water and stuck them in an oven which finally was hot. Imagine a hot fluffy biscuit and hot Coffee. The Supply form was a swap between what the Army had and the Ship. He also set up fake Cook tents so they weren’t getting shot.

Rick · July 4, 2023 at 9:33 pm

Golly, none, but one slight reference, to the memorilizing of the Skipjack’s problem in the brillliant movie, Operation Petticoat.

Mumphry, can this boat go down?
Like a rock, sir.

Brilliant dialog.

    Aesop · July 6, 2023 at 6:39 am

    Look up two replies ^^.
    I got this. 😉

Nemo · July 5, 2023 at 1:53 pm

Back in 60’s when I was a Comm Tech, ET3 at my permanent duty station, on shore. We had a room full of communication equipment that converted TTY signals to electronic carrier wave and back for communication circuits between the main comm sta, the transmitter and receiver sites all located about 2 miles distant from each other connected by telephone type communication cable. There were 12 “drawers” to each bay of equipment and 24 bays in the room at the main comm sta. Only about half of the bays were active.

This equipment was a constant problem. Turned out the problem was the main capacitors in the power supply for each “drawer” were crap, constantly shorting out. I’d had to bring bad capacitors to the parts crib for a replacement. The parts crib was staffed by a QM2, laziest SOB I’ve ever come across in all my years working anywhere. I’d sometimes have to wait ten minutes for him to even recognize that I was standing there to get a replacement part, while he screwed around doing god knows what.

This guy was so lazy he almost never ordered replacement parts for anything. He put the bad parts back on the shelf and give me the bad one back when I came for another replacement. I finally discovered what he was doing and started marking the bad capacitors with a big X on the top. That sent him into orbit. He chewed me up one side and down the other telling me I didn’t know WTH I was doing. I went back to the ET shop and told the E-6 in charge what this guy was doing. He went to the Lt in charge of the comm sta and told him what was going on. Turned out about half the parts in the parts crib were no good after we had tested them. The thing that really killed the QM2 was, when the Lt looked at the order records from the parts crib, there were two replacement parts orders for about a half dozen part numbers over the eight months that the QM2 had been on board. Prior to that there had been a parts order every month for a dozen or so of various part numbers.

The QM2 was gone the next week to another duty station, well short of his expected two year stay on shore, to a ship on the East Coast that was headed somewhere on a long cruise, less one stripe.

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