NORFOLK, AUG. 17 -- The U.S. government, forced to outfit an unprecedented number of ships in a short time, has resorted to local department stores for items such as pillows and towels, all white.

And anyone hunting for men's underwear here this week could be in trouble, because shelves were cleaned out in some stores as thousands of sailors reported for sudden, last-minute departures for the Middle East.

With barely a few days' notice, sailors were snatching everything they could find: underwear, shaving cream, deodorant, toothbrushes, shampoo, socks, envelopes, writing paper.

"Some of the guys were coming in and leaving the next day," said Debbie Marion, a supervisor at the McCrory store in Bayside Shopping Center near the Little Creek Amphibious Base. "They were in their own world."

The whirlwind of activity resulted from the rapid mobilization of 28 ships that are leaving Norfolk Naval Station or Little Creek in a two-week period for possible duty in the Middle East.

In addition to the nine warships that left last week as previously scheduled, the Pentagon this week ordered the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier and a support group of four ships to depart from Norfolk for possible Persian Gulf operations and a 13-ship convoy of amphibious ships to pick up Marines in Morehead, N.C., and sail for the Middle East. The USNS Comfort, a hospital ship, also stopped in Norfolk for supplies before sailing Tuesday.

Outfitting all those ships so quickly taxed the Navy Supply Center as well as local stores.

In just four days, the supply center loaded 22,000 tons of food aboard 10 ships -- five times the normal amount loaded in a week. Among other supplies loaded in those four days were 185,000 pounds of hot dogs, 250,000 pounds of chicken, 400,000 pounds of hamburger and 2.4 million eggs.

"I think you'd have to go back to the Dominican Republic crisis in 1965 to match what went on over this last weekend," said Capt. Charles E. Smith, commanding officer of the supply center. In some cases, military suppliers visited local commercial stores for extra items they needed.

"They bought every white towel that we had in the building," said Alex Llorente, manager of the K mart store near both the Navy base and the amphibious base. "They have done quite a bit of business with us."

Aside from the 300 white towels -- the store offers 10 colors, but white was the only one the government wanted -- representatives of one ship bought a dozen 19-inch television sets from their entertainment funds, Llorente said.

At the Woolworth store on Little Creek Road, suppliers bought hundreds of pillows. "That's the first time they've ever done that with us," said manager Shirley Miller.

And at a nearby McCrory store, Marine representatives came in searching for mass quantities of collapsible water thermoses, although the store didn't have the right kind.

Smith said such purchases usually are made to obtain items that he doesn't carry in his supply center, rather than because of a shortage of normal stocks.

For the most part, though, the eleventh-hour buying surge came from thousands of individual sailors, some of whom had literally just arrived in port after one deployment when they were ordered to leave on a new one.

"Our sales of men's underwear just really jumped," said Phil Ward, manager of the Roses Store across the street from the Little Creek base.

The Navy's own Servmart store did $1 million worth of business in four days. Normally, said spokeswoman Paula Keicer, that volume would take a month.