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Effects Depot

Colonel A.C. Ramsey, Q.M.C.
The Quartermaster Review
September-October 1945

LOCATED at Folembray, France, fourteen miles from Soissons, and five miles from Chauny, near the site of one of the German “Big Bertha” guns which shelled Paris during the last war, is Depot Q-290, the official depository on the Continent for the personal property of U. S. military personnel who have been officially reported deceased, missing, captured, interned, or hospitalized. Lost baggage is stored here so the owner may recover it, and excess property of officers is held for the convenience of the officer.

What now houses 125,000 packages of personal effects and baggage was, during German occupation, a subsistence depot, and prior to that, a French glass factory employing 3,600 people. The siren which now summons 800 Frenchmen, 250 PWs, and 200 American soldiers to work was a Paris air-raid alarm during World War I.

Situated on the edge of a village of about 1,000 people, along Highway N-37, Q-290 is a unique installation. The post includes eleven major buildings, 150,000 square feet of storage space, a small lake, two water towers, and a series of railroad spurs. Edged by low wooded hills and entirely enclosed by stone walls and high fences, it affords to its international population of 1,250 the cloistered life of a feudal age.

The job of the Commanding Officer, who is the Effects Quartermaster (Continent), is to receive and safeguard thousands of’ packages of irreplaceable personal property until they can be returned to the owner or forwarded to the Army Effects Bureau at Kansas City for disposition. Q-290 serves as a holding and reconsignment depot in transmitting the property of casualties from the unit in the field back to the owner, or in forwarding property of deceased to the U. S.

When a soldier becomes a casualty (either deceased, hospitalized, captured, interned, or missing), his unit commander collects all personal property, inventories it, removes government property, and forwards all the personal items to Q-290, marked with the owner’s identification and status. If the owner is deceased, the property is documented and forwarded immediately to Army Effects Bureau, Kansas City, for transmission to the next of kin. If the owner is hospitalized, the property is placed in storage indefinitely, subject to disposition instructions from the owner. If the owner is missing, captured, or interned, the property is stored so that he may claim it upon return to duty.

If such an owner is not returned to duty within a few months, the property is forwarded to the Army Effects Bureau for transmittal to a bailee.

The detail involved in receiving, storing, safeguarding, and shipping personal property is prodigious. Each package must be handled separately in order that the name, status, and other pertinent data may be correctly recorded; and, too, the consignor must have a receipt. There is no “O.S.&D.” report in the handling of personal property. In order that each package may be immediately available upon request, numbered bin storage is necessary; recording the wrong storage space is tantamount to losing the property. A master file must be maintained indicating the status of all property on hand and the disposition of that which has been shipped. Transcribing a name incorrectly from a package, or misfiling a card, may make the property unavailable. Checking the files for receipt or disposition of property in order to reply to thousands of letter inquiries daily is a major clerical undertaking. mistakes must not be made because they affect the morale of soldiers who have been casualties, or of their next of kin.

The Effects Quartermaster has received, to date, more than 300,000 packages of personal property and about 60,000 packages of indefinite storage and lost baggage, and has forwarded a total of approximately 235,000 packages. Over $2,000,000 has been received, mostly in the form of Finance Department receipts, of which amount $1,300,000 has been disbursed. Receipts of property have averaged about 1,000 packages per day. Incoming correspondence has averaged about 3,500 pieces per day.

The original effects detachment of thirty-nine men and four officers arrived on the Continent on D+28-and moved into the remains of a bombed cheese factory at Isigny, a few miles off Omaha Beach in Normandy. First Army had already accumulated about 13,000 packages of effects which had been stored without documentation or classification. Property kept pouring in. and it was necessary within a month to secure additional space. Cherbourg, though farther away from the armies, was the only place that afforded adequate storage facilities. It was necessary”‘ to move 35,000 packages to Cherbourg, most of which there had not been time to document. Isigny became only a forward collecting point to serve the advancing armies.

While Cherbourg offered adequate facilities, it soon was so far behind the armies that transportation was not available to bring the property in. Therefore, after only six weeks, it was necessary to move to a location closer to the armies, which afforded adequate rail and road communications. It was decided that Paris was the most forward location affording the necessary facilities. The Cherbourg installation was left intact, to be liquidated as soon as possible. Armies had accumulated a tremendous backlog of property of casualties, and as soon as the depot was established in Paris this property began flowing in at the rate of 10,000 packages a week. During the two and a half months at the Paris location documentation again fell behind, and the correspondence backlog became serious because of a lack of personnel and equipment.

It was decided that the depot would move forward to Reims and join the parent organization, the 64th QM Base Depot. It was evident that the handling of effects had become an operation of considerable magnitude, both from the standpoint of personnel required and of equipment and space needed. The move to Rein’s required twenty-three rail wagons and was made difficult by the fact that storage records had to be kept valid. The information that property had been received for an individual was of slight value unless that package could be located quickly among the thousands of other packages. Property continued to arrive in volume, and though additional personnel had been allocated, the number was still insufficient to satisfy the clerical demands.

The move from Normandy across France had meant better service to the troops, hut had made it impossible to augment the inadequate staff of enlisted personnel with civilians, to any great extent, and had made the maintenance of accurate records very difficult. It was necessary to secure a static location, where both clerical and storage operations could be stabilized and where enough personnel could be secured and trained to insure the accomplishment of the mission.

The military developments in the closing months of 1944 indicated that the effects installation would have to remain in France until after a spring offensive. It was decided that a separate QM depot should be activated, having as its mission the handling of personal effects and baggage. Depot Q-290 was activated at Folembray on 25 January 1945, and was staffed as follows:

1 Graves Registration Company

1 QM Composite Battalion Headquarters

1 QM Service Battalion Headquarters

Effects Detachment of 48 men and 6 officers

This provided the administrative set-up that the Effects Quartermaster had needed from the beginning. Rail and road communications were adequate. About 150,000 square feet of dry storage space was developed, but it was almost a month before storage bins could be built and other necessary facilities made available. Tables, chairs, and filing cabinets had to be constructed. Requisitions could not be filled fast enough to take care of the increasing volume of business.

The military personnel numbered about 200, including twenty officers, and at first was augmented by 120 non-English-speaking civilians. This staff was woefully inadequate, however, and a backlog in all sections was accumulating at an alarming rate. Requisitions by hospitalized owners for the return of their property could not be answered within a reasonable time. Receipts of effects and baggage far exceeded the capacity to document and process. It was evident that personnel would have to be quadrupled in order to do today’s business today. The required military personnel was not available, and the only alternative was the employment of civilians.

In order to employ civilians in an isolated community such as Folembray, many problems had to be solved, such as procuring, housing, feeding, transporting, administering, and (most difficult of all) overcoming language difficulties. The solution of such problems has assured the successful accomplishment of the depot’s mission.

Each officer and enlisted man of the depot’s complement has had to be an instructor. He must teach the non-English-speaking civilians their jobs. Every soldier is a supervisor and deals with the civilians in his charge with understanding and firmness in a semi-military manner. The employees are made to feel that the depot is a part of their community; that the success of its operation adds to the success of the community. Close liaison is maintained with the officials of the communities from which the workers come, and each worker is constantly reminded that without the continued performance of duty on his part the mission of this depot could not be performed.

Special arrangements have been made with the French Government labor agency, whereby personnel available locally can be hired at the depot personnel office. Closest liaison is maintained between the depot personnel office and the French labor agency so that problems regarding pay status, working conditions, and separations can be solved immediately. Non-resident personnel was hired through an employment office maintained by the depot in Paris, in cooperation with the French labor agency and the Civilian Personnel Section of the Paris military command. All applicants are interviewed for suitability, and those who meet employment requirements are interviewed by Military Intelligence. They are sent to the depot, eighty miles from Paris. Upon arrival at the depot they are interviewed by the officer in charge of civilian personnel, who stresses the fact that the work is exacting and the hours long, that everything will be done to make them as comfortable as possible, and that the pay is in accordance with the scale set down by their own government. They are told the nature of the mission of the depot and are reminded that none, but the honest and conscientious will be retained. This is done very tactfully and in such a way as to emphasize the nature of the discipline. Next, the employee is established in his billet and is told to report for duty the following morning.

Billets are obtained personally by a civilian personnel officer. Since sufficient housing space is not available locally, a call is made on the mayor of the nearby town in which billets are solicited. The officer explains whom he represents, what the nature of the depot mission is, and the reason why employees must be obtained other than locally. The mayor is asked to send a representative with the officer for the purpose of assisting in securing rooms. A cordial relationship is established with the landlady, and a letter from the Commanding Officer follows, thanking her for her cooperation.

Rail and truck transportation, both provided by the depot, are operated on a regular schedule to serve personnel who would have to walk more than a mile. Local employees are given only the noon meal. Nonresident personnel are fed three meals a day. Such meals are prepared on the basis of the prescribed civilian ration, and necessary deductions are made on the payroll. Employees are paid twice a month by French paymasters, and pay errors are adjusted on the spot. Only emergency medical service is provided.

More than 375 non-English-speaking civilians are employed in a clerical capacity. Of these, approximately 250 are doing work which requires knowledge of English names, figures, and phrases. In order to minimize the language difficulties, each job has been broken down into numerous simple tasks, each of which requires a minimum reading knowledge of English. The skillful breaking down of major jobs makes possible the successful employment of non-English-speaking personnel in every normal clerical capacity.

When a civilian employee is placed on a job he is given the personal attention of a soldier supervisor. His job is explained to him by the demonstration method. He is shown where errors are most likely to occur, and the easiest and most efficient method of operation. He is then turned over to a trained civilian who is charged with supervising his work until he has mastered his job. Eternal vigilance on the part of the soldier supervisor is the key to successful and extensive employment of civilian personnel. Civilian employees are apprised of the solemn mission of this depot, and are informed in detail as to how their task fits into the accomplishment of that mission.

Formal written instructions, covering basic functional needs, are published approximately every week, and distributed by means of the depot bulletin to all personnel employed in clerical capacities. Vocabularies peculiar to particular operations such as Inventory, Motor Pool, and Mess, are published in French and English in order to make personnel employed in these operations more efficient. Each person is given a French translation of all letters and forms he must use.

Each clerical worker attends class, under an English-speaking French instructor, for one hour per week during duty hours. These classes deal with on-the-job problems and the English vocabulary required in the particular operations. English language classes are conducted daily from 1230 to 1300 hours for key civilian personnel.

Though VE-day eliminated the source of property to be handled, it has not at once terminated the job of the Effects Depot. Thousands of packages for which transportation to Q-290 had not been available have now been forwarded. As of 1 July 1945, some 125,000 packages of hospital effects and indefinite storage of officers remain to be returned to the owners. Concerted effort is being made to return property to owners who are still on the Continent. Property remaining unclaimed when it is decided to close the depot will be forwarded to the U. S. for eventual transmittal to the owners.

The work of the Effects Depot has been very materially aided by the interest, guidance, and never-failing support of Maj. Gen. Robert M. Littlejohn, Chief Quartermaster, European Theatre of Operations, and of Brig. Gen. Charles O. Thrasher, Commanding General, Oise Intermediate Section, Communications Zone, European Theatre of Operations.