Frank S. Besson, 75, a retired Army general who was the first commander of the Army Materiel Command and a leading authority on military transportation, died of cancer July 15 at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Gen. Besson, who lived in Alexandria, was born into an Army family in Detroit. He ranked second in the class of 1932 at the U.S. Military Academy and was commissioned in the Corps of Engineers. He received a master's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Thirty years after he left West Point, Gen. Besson was named head of a group to set up the Army Materiel Command. When the AMC was activated later that year, he was put in charge of it.
He thus played an important part in one of the major reorganizations of the Army in modern times. The materiel command was created at the direction of Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara to improve the service's ability to develop and deliver new weapons and equipment. In the process, seven previously independent technical branches were brought together. By rationalizing procedures and cutting red tape, the new system was to institutionalize the sort of efficiency achieved by the special management groups the Navy used outside regular channels to launch the Polaris submarine program.
The AMC, or something like it, had been discussed since the end of World War II. A decade before Gen. Besson got his command former Defense secretary Robert A. Lovett said reorganizing the Army's usually warring technical services "would be no more painful than backing into a buzz saw, but I believe it is long overdue." In the end, such venerable institutions as the offices of quartermaster general and chief of ordnance passed into history.
Among the new command's responsibilities was transportation and it was in the movement of men and equipment that Gen. Besson first made his mark. Early in World War II he worked on the development of portable steel mesh runways for airfields, portable pipelines, the famous Bailey bridges and other specialized equipment.
In 1943, he was sent to Iran to direct the Allied Military Rail Service that carried supplies to the Soviet Union. While there he was promoted to brigadier general at the age of 34.
After the war, he went to Japan and took command of its shattered railway system. He used it to deploy occupation forces. He later was deputy chief of transportation for the Army in Washington and then took command of the Transportation Center and School at Fort Eustis, Va.
In 1955, Gen. Besson was named assistant chief of staff for logistics and transportation for NATO with headquarters in Paris. In 1958, he returned to Washington as chief of transportation for the Army. He held that post until he took over the organizing group of the materiel command. In 1964, he became the 75th officer in the history of the Army to hold the rank of full general.
Gen. Besson retired in 1969, but was recalled to active duty as chairman of the Joint Logistics Review Board. The board reported on logistical problems in Vietnam, including shortages of bombs and other weapons.
Gen. Besson, who left the review board in 1970, wrote about transportation and related problems in numerous professional journals. A particular interest of his was containerized cargo and roll-on, roll-off techniques for moving supplies by sea, air and road.
His military decorations included three Distinguished Service Medals, two Legions of Merit, and honors from Britain, Iran and South Korea.
In 1970, President Nixon nominated the general one of the founding directors of the National Rail Passenger Corp., which operates Amtrak. In retirement Gen. Besson also was a director of the old Services National Bank in Alexandria and ERC International, formerly the Environmental Research Corp. He was a life member of the Army Navy Country Club.
His first wife, the former Nancy Sessions Morris, died in 1975. His second wife, Beatrice George, died in 1978.
Survivors include his wife, the former Betty Wheeler, who was married to the late Gen. Earl G. Wheeler, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of Alexandria; three sons by his first marriage, retired Army Col. Frank S. Jr., of Arlington, Toliver, of Santa Monica, Calif., and Peter Richard, of Alexandria; four stepchildren by his second marriage, Michelle Fernandez of Malaga, Spain, Jeffrey St. George of Miami, Kevin George of Houston, and Dr. Mark George of Alexandria; a stepson by his third marriage, Gilmore Wheeler of Washington; a sister, Jean Adams of Laredo, Tex.; three grandsons, and eight stepgrandchildren.