Desert Survival Is in the Bag for Marines


This may be the era of high-technology warfare and elaborate procurement rituals for the military. But when Camp Pendleton’s Col. Jack Holly decided that Marines needed cool water to drink in the Saudi desert, he took steps that were more out of Sgt. Bilko’s handbook than the modern Marine Corps manual.

Holly ordered a telephone assault on government red tape to hustle up a decidedly low-tech commodity, an effort that may win a curious footnote in the history of the Middle East campaign against Iraq.

As a result, Marines whose regulation canteens keep water too hot to drink in the Saudi desert are expected this week to receive the first of 10,000 simple, ventilated water bags made of flax jute from Scotland.

The bags cost only $5.10 each, but getting them wasn’t easy.

“We got pleasure being able to beat the bureaucracy,” said Holly, whose insistance on finding the two-gallon canvas water bags involved the maker in Los Angeles, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Customs Service and a firm in Scotland.

With humidity and temperatures typically hovering around 115 degrees, U.S. troops are ordered to drink about a quart of water every hour to ward off heat stroke and kidney failure, both potentially fatal.


When Marines were deployed in early August, Holly remembered how popular the non-issue desert bags were with Marines who trained for desert warfare at Twentynine Palms, and he wanted them for the Middle East campaign.

But when Holly and his staff at the First Force Service Support Group scrounged around for the bags, the supply was as dry as Saudi sand.

Holly’s staff called the manufacturer, Canvas Specialty in Los Angeles, which sells 20,000 water bags a year, mostly to retailers. “We ran out of material filling the last orders,” said general manager Irwin Sack, who was more than merely surprised by the Marines’ sudden and intense interest in jute water bags.

“I’m shocked, not surprised,” he said.

Hardware stores and other retailers were little help. So where to find 10,000 bags?

Holly realized he would have to do things the hard way and assigned Maj. Bob Ackerman, a reservist from Toledo, Ohio, to do it.

The problem? Sack was having trouble getting the material from Scotland, where the sole manufacturer is based.

The major brought the State Department, the Commerce Department and the Customs Service into the fray.

Ultimately, Ackerman found himself in daily talks, sometimes six times a day, with an agency little known outside the military--the International Logistics Office of the Defense Contract Management District Northeast, located in New York. It is part of the Department of Defense.

There, Bill Blanchard negotiated for two weeks and got an agreement from Canvas Specialty to stand ready to produce the bags when the material arrived.

The Scottish firm agreed to send the material Sept. 3 by commercial air rather than by ship, a different procedure that required detailed contracts to be changed but that saved three or four weeks, according to Blanchard.

Finally, the prize: the arrival of about 1,500 meters of flax in Los Angeles, where, according to Sack, “the Marine Corps called and got it passed through Customs in a hurry.” Six thousand more meters of material is on the way.

The material was promptly cut and stitched into desert water bags. “The machine that cuts it is older than all of us,” said Sack, whose firm has been in business since 1943 and has been making the water bags for about 25 years.

But to Holly, the quest for cool jute was more than a requisition. It was a challenge, an obsession to win over the bureaucracy, much like the finagling of Sgt. Bilko on the old TV sitcom.

“It became a cult thing to us,” he said.