Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Philadelphia Quartermaster Revisited

A couple of months ago I drove past the "Quartermaster" on 21st and Oregon Avenue in South Philadelphia and I was saddened by the dilapidated look of the closed Defense Department compound.

As a South Philadelphia neighbor of the compound, as well as a former employee there, I recall vividly when the Quartermaster, an 11-square block compound composed of buff-colored buildings centered by a tall clock tower, was a local South Philly mainstay and major employer.

So like many other former employees, area residents and business people, I was pleased to read that the City of Philadelphia plans to establish a homeland security "fusion center" on the Quartermaster compound.

Last week I interviewed Everett Gillison, Philadelphia's Deputy Mayor of Public Safety, for an article on the Quartermaster fusion center. The piece will appear in an upcoming issue of Counterterrorism magazine and I'll post the piece here when it comes out.

Gillison made the plan for the fusion center, to be called the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center, sound encouraging. It will truly be good to see the old Quartermaster once again used for public service.

The Quartermaster compound, in operation since 1918, was the site of the Defense Supply Center Philadelphia (DSCP) until 1999 when the command collocated with the Navy’s procurement center in Northeast Philadelphia.

From the 1960s throughout the 1990s, the South Philadelphia military colossus purchased billions of dollars of food, clothing, textiles, medicines and medical equipment annually at the wholesale level for the men and women of the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force worldwide.

The Quartermaster also had a number of Defense Department tenants who shared the compound, the largest being the Defense Contract Administration Services Region (DCASR), later reorganized into the Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA).

DCASR oversaw defense contractors in the state of Delaware, Southern New Jersey, and Southeastern Pennsylvania. These defense contractors supplied the armed forces with everything from DSCP’s clothing, medical and textile products to major electronic weapons systems. From boots to cruise missiles, DCASR provided contract administration, quality assurance, engineering and program oversight of the contractors for the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and NASA.

Prior to moving to the Quartermaster site in 1918, the organization that later became DSCP was called the Schuylkill Arsenal. According to DSCP's official history, the Arsenal began as a warehouse for ammunition and other military supplies. Local seamstresses were contracted to make uniforms by hand in their own homes. In 1803 the Arsenal outfitted the Lewis And Clark Expedition to the Northwest at a cost of $2000.

The Arsenal supplied guns and ammunition, as well as clothing and textile materials, to the American military during the War of 1812. In 1818 the Schuylkill Arsenal gave up its ammunition and arms mission to fully dedicate itself to manufacturing, storing and distributing clothing and textile materials.

During the Civil War, more than 10,000 seamstresses and tailors were hired to make uniforms and clothing for Union troops. The facility provided the same service during World War I. Due to the enormous requirements of the world war the organization moved to the newly constructed buildings in South Philadelphia.

The new facility was called the Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot. During the 1930s, the Quartermaster outfitted 600,000 members of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

The Quartermaster later supported the Army in World War II, which saw the troops swell to more than eight million soldiers. The depot also continued to support the troops during the Korean War.

In 1965, the Defense Personnel Support Center (DPSC) was officially established and its mission was expanded to provide food, medicines and medical supplies, in addition to its already essential clothing and textile supply responsibilities. The Defense Subsistence Supply Center of Chicago and the Defense Medical Supply Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. moved to the South Philadelphia location. DPSC went on to provide support to the troops fighting in the Vietnam War.

DPSC continued their support of the troops during the Gulf War, as well as a number of humanitarian relief efforts and peacekeeping missions related to Hurricane Andrew, Somalia, Bosnia and Haiti. DPSC was renamed the Defense Supply Center Philadelphia (DSCP) on January 13, 1998, although local residents and employees continued to call the compound the Quartermaster.

As a result of the 1995 Base Realignment and Closure Commission's decision, the Quartermaster compound was closed in 1999 and DSCP and the tenant commands moved to the naval depot in Northeast Philadelphia.

The Quartermaster compound is important to me as I worked there for more than 25 years.

After serving two years on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War, I went to work as a clerk at the Quartermaster in 1972. 

I quit later that year to attend Penn State and study journalism, as I have always wanted to be a writer. Unfortunately, I later discovered that I could not afford to be a full-time student, so I reluctantly returned to the Quartermaster with a plan to attend college at night.

I was hired by the tenant command DCASR and I worked there as a clerk for another year. I went back on active duty in 1974 and served two years on a Navy harbor tugboat at the U.S. Navy nuclear submarine base at Holy Loch, Scotland. I was discharged in 1976, and as the economy and unemployment was as bad then as it is today, I reclaimed my old DCASR clerk job as a returning veteran.

Although I hated the boring and seemingly senseless clerical work I did during my early years there, I loved the social atmosphere.

There were office parties, extended lunches at neighborhood bars like JR's and The Loft, celebratory luncheons, fabulous Christmas parties, picnics, dances, and drinking at the Officer's Club after working hours. The Quartermaster also had a bowling league, a dart league, a men's softball league, and a mixed men and women softball league. The softball games were played at the nearby "Lakes" (Roosevelt Park) and the Philadelphia Navy Yard in South Philly.  

There were old friends from my South Philly neighborhood working at the Quartermaster and there were many, many beautiful girls working there as well. The pretty girls alone were an inducement to go to work each day.

I've often joked that the Defense Department didn't have to pay me during those years, as I had so much fun I would have gladly paid admission at the Quartermaster's gate.

That is not to say that good work was not accomplished there. We were a combat support agency and our mission was to support the armed forces worldwide during war and peace, but we had a relaxed working atmosphere . 

I would later be promoted into better jobs and I discovered that the work there could be interesting and rewarding.

In 1986 I became the chief of installation services for the Defense Contract Administration Services Management Area (DCASMA) Philadelphia, which later, like DCASR, was renamed the Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA).

I was responsible for security, safety, public affairs and other support services for the command. I served as an investigating officer and investigated security violations, theft, and other crimes. I also investigated Inspector General complaints of misconduct, waste, fraud and abuse.    

I was also a contributing writer for Defense Department magazines.

I received the Philadelphia Federal Executive Board's 1990 Public Affairs Award for my magazine pieces. Writing military journalism and covering stories for the Defense Department's magazines helped me become a freelance writer in 1993.

I expanded my public affairs role in 1991 by becoming a producer and on-air host of a public affairs radio program called Inside Government. I worked with the radio program from its 1991 debut to the closing program in 2005.

Sponsored by the Philadelphia Federal Executive Board and its executive director Jack Radcliff, the radio program aired Sunday mornings on WPEN 950 AM and WMGK 102.5 FM. The half-hour interview program dealt with crime, espionage, terrorism, taxes, health, the military and other issues of concern to Philadelphia area residents.

Along with the other members of the production team, I received the Vice President's National Performance Review "Hammer" Award in 1995.

My installation services chief job would be upgraded several times over the years with increasing responsibility and pay, and I went on to become the command's administrative officer.

Although I did a good bit traveling during those years to defense contractor plants and military bases in the tri-state area, as well as to Washington D.C., Boston, Memphis and St. Petersburg, Florida, to name a few places, on a normal work day I walked to work at the Quartermaster. Walking to work most days for more than 25 years was truly a job benefit.

Like many of the Quartermaster's employees, I was devastated to learn that the Quartermaster compound would close under a base realignment and we were to be relocated to the Naval Support Activity in Northeast Philadelphia in 1999.

Although we were glad that we retained our jobs with the move to the Navy depot, and the Navy depot was a good place to work, the new base was clearly not the old Quartermaster.

Below are photos of the Quartermaster closing ceremony:

I retired from the Defense Department in 2007 to become a full-time writer, but I still think about my time at the Quartermaster when I drive or walk past the compound gates, or when I bump into another old employee.

I made many good friends while working there. I met my beautiful wife there. I witnessed many triumphs and tragedies there. And I like to think that I did some good and purposeful work there.

I lament the passing of the Quartermaster era, but I'm hopeful about the planned homeland security fusion center on the old compound.

You can also read my Counterterrorism magazine piece on the multi-million dollar contract fraud and bribery case at the Philadelphia Quartermaster via the below link:


  1. On a recent trip to the Harrisburg area via Phillly, I had enough time before my plane departed to drive back to South Philadelphia to try to find my old Army post, the DPSC. I had to ask some folks at the Swedish Museum in FDR Park because I could not remember exactly where it was. After all, it had been about 45 years. I was stationed as a Corp of Engineer officer (2nd LT) with the DCASR where I performed odd jobs and was heavily involved in setting up DCASR's in Boston and Cleveland.

    I too was shocked at the condition of the place. As I stood there looking through the bars, a very young security guard drove up and asked me what I wanted. I told him that it was a memory trip and then he invited me to come in and drive around in his security car. He was much too young to remember the Vietnam War but I showed him the exact spot where I and several of my young military friends listened on a portable radio to President Johnson's Vietnam "build up" speech in I think it was 1967. We were all certain that we would be shipped out the next day. Indeed, half of us did go within the next year.

    I really enjoyed your memories as they coincided very much with my own. Happy Hour on Wednesday nights at the Officer's club which was open to everyone. Great social network. I also remember an italian restaurant called Nick's Beef and Beer not too far away where we would often go for lunch.

    The buildings still look sturdy enough so with some spit and polish perhaps they can be restored.

    I left the Army in 1968 and went on to a career in business. But I alway look back on a great two years in Philadelphia.

    Terry Beal (hdnacres@prexar.com)
    Jefferson, Maine

  2. Terry,

    Thanks for sharing your Quartermaster memories as well. You were there a few years before me.

    Nick's Roast Beef is still operating. Did you also go to a bar called JR's, which was a few blocks away? They also had good roast beef sandwiches and great pork sandwiches and other good food.

    My hope is that the fusion center will be the begining of new life in the Quartermaster.



  3. Paul,
    It was great to read your article. Right out of the Navy in 1977, I got a job as a GS-2 file clerk in the DCASMA office. A man I'll never forget for his leadership and command presence was Joe Dawson. He wondered what a 24 year old Navy vet was doing in the file room, and asked me about what I did in the Navy, (P3 Orion aircrewman). Pretty soon I was in an intern program with the Region office.
    While I was now station out in the field as a QAR intern and later full time QAR, you're right about the girls and the parties. It was one of the best experience of my life. I attended night school and once I graduated I was pretty much told I wasn't getting promoted as long as I was in the DCAS Quality orginization. As my supervisor put it, "a degree don't mean nothin around here". I was assigned increasing difficult contractors and ended up working with DIS to put a couple of thieves away. Conicidentally, several people in my chain of command were also being investigated for code of conduct violations. I myself ended up in an inquisition with Colonel Roland Hasselbrock leading the way due to a letter sent by a later convicted felow saying I acted inappropriately in the performance of my duties. While it was totally unfounded and I ended up sort of a short term pet project of Col. Hassebrock. It was a difficult time. I left civil service left in 1987, all in all it was a valuable career experience.
    I remember you, or I should say I remember hearing your name and seeing you around the campus. I often wonder what happened to the men and women I used to work with there.
    Thanks again for the look back.
    George Bass

  4. George,

    Your name is familar, but I can't put a face to it.

    I worked with Joe Dawson and he was like an uncle to me, as he was for many people.

    He was big on veterans and he tried to make me a QAR as well, but I was content to be the chief of the command support office and later the command's administrative officer.

    Most of the Quartermaster/DCMA people from the 1970s and 1980s are retired. A good number of people retired rather than move to the Navy Depot in Northeast Philly.

    I spent my last 10 years of service at the Navy Base.

    Thanks for writing.


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