. - It was cold, dark, and raining at the port of Jacksonville last week when some of the hundreds of Apache, Chinook, Kiowa, and Black Hawk choppers from Fort Campbell, Ky., touched down in Jacksonville.
Within minutes, troops began partly dismantling the aircraft and wrapping them by hand in protective padding and sheets of white plastic. Then, working late into the night, they began loading the helicopters for the elite 101st Airborne Division onto ships bound for the Persian Gulf region.
"By the time the pilots were unstrapped, the crew chief was on top taking off the rotor blades," said Gen. E.J. Sinclair, assistant division commander for the 101st.
The unprecedented speed of the 101st deployment - one of the final phases of the most massive US military mobilization since the 1991 Gulf War - reflects the urgency with which the Bush administration is gearing up for a possible attack on Iraq. The division's combat-ready "force packages" should arrive in the region within three weeks.
"The command authorities [the president and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld] said 'How fast can you move it?' and we said, 'This is our capability,' " says Col. Ronald Heiter, the Army transport manager overseeing the move. "We are working very aggressively to meet that timeline."
The relative orderliness of the complex operation also underscores hard lessons learned from 1991, when smaller, slower ships and scattered cargo kept troops waiting for their equipment far longer.
"Back in the desert operations [of 1991] everyone just sent stuff to the port, and if it was going that way they put it on the ship. It made for a nightmare marrying it up on the other side," says Col. Tom Thompson, chief of staff of the Army's Military Traffict Management Command in Alexandria, Va.
Today, a fleet of 19 new "roll-on, roll-off" ships designed to overcome those problems is rapidly loading and disgorging the Army's tanks, trucks, helicopters, and other gear. Computerized "stow plans" allow for a unit's equipment to be grouped together as "force packages" ready for specific missions.
"We tailored the loads to make sure as soon as we arrive in theater we'd be ready to fight," says General Sinclair.
Such advances are in full display here at Jacksonville, as the entire 101st Airborne Division, a light infantry assault unit founded in World War II, moves out for the first time since the Persian Gulf War.
"You basically break a small town into little pieces ... take it across the water and put it back together," says Colonel Heiter.
Trains arrive every four to six hours carrying some of the 3,800 Humvees, trucks, and other heavy vehicles from Fort Campbell, where from 500 to 1,000 soldiers are working around the clock at a new 10-track railhead. In addition, scores of semi trucks are pulling into the port with containers packed with everything from helicopter fire-control radars to night-vision goggles, computers, and camouflage nets.
But the most delicate operation involves loading the 250 helicopters flown down from Kentucky. Padded and shrink-wrapped to protect them from the sea salt, the helicopters, like so many butterflies in white cocoons, are loaded onto the ships and lashed to the decks with special synthetic straps.
"A lot of [the helicopters] have our names on the tails," says Spc. Jake Kingsbury, the crew chief of a Kiowa OH58 D scout. He is one of 500 crew chiefs and maintenance troops from the 101st assigned to load and escort the aircraft on the voyage. Most of the 17,000 101st troops heading out will fly to the Middle East on commercial aircraft.
Last week, all this gear was being packed simultaneously onto two huge roll-on, roll-off ships - the USNS Bob Hope and USNS Dahl - the first time two of the ships were loaded at the same time. A total of five or six of the ships will be used to transport the equipment.
The 950-ft.-long ships are sized to be as large as possible while still able to pass through the Panama Canal. Each have two ramps able to support two 60-ton Abrams tanks and six decks with carrying capacity equivalent to eight football fields.
"It's like a floating parking lot," Colonel Thompson says.
The vast majority of the US military equipment, fuel, and ammunition needed for an Iraq war has been moving into the theater by ship. In the past eight weeks, about 6-million square feet of US military cargo has moved through US ports, including six of 16 "strategic ports," such as Jacksonville, that are not normally used by the armed forces.
After loading up, troops like Specialist Kingsbury, of Paxton, Mass., will make the most of a few remaining days with loved ones. "I'm going back to Fort Campbell to spend some time with my family," he says.