The colourful history of the DUKW – from WW2 to now

Tuesday 6, September 2016

The DUKW or ‘Ducks’ are a vehicle steeped in history. Made for a purpose during WW2 and then adapted into what we know today. Cars are cars, trucks are trucks but the Ducks are truly special! Rich in history. Pivotal in WW2. An amazing vehicle for showing tourists unique parts of the world from land and and water! You can find out more about the Ducks history in my blog ‘The eye opening history of the amphibious boat.’ Here I’d love to explore a slightly lighter side of how the Ducks came to be what we have today.

What are the Ducks?

The DUKW more affectionately known as ‘Ducks’ were US military vehicles that were born due to necessity. As you can imagine it was very hard for the US to re-supply their troops on enemy soil. Their large supply ships unable to get close to the shore getting caught on sandbanks and coral reefs. As a result it became an arduous task to load the supplies onto smaller boats, taking them into shore and then unloading them again onto trucks to take to the troops. They were taking a lot of time and losing supplies and troops during the transitions.

How did they solve this issue?

Military Generals approached a young yacht designer from an esteemed yacht building company Sparkman and Stephens – Rod Stevens Jr. Rod worked alongside the Massachusetts Institute of technology. They were tasked with transforming a US army truck known as a GMC deuce and a half into something that could leave the supply ships and easily take supplies all the way to the troops. Essentially they were asked to build something that had never existed before which wasn’t a lot to go off, or so you might think!

Something interesting about the ducks is that it did not take very long to design, build and present the first DUKW to the US military. Amazingly this whole process took a mere 38 days! This is where things got interesting because the US Generals took one look at the vehicle that was presented to them and they HATED it. They decided that because the vehicle was made out of 2mm thick steel plates and weighed around 7 tonnes that the vehicle would not be fast enough or float very well, they had already decided that it was an awful idea. Simply looking at the design was enough for them to dismiss the idea as a failed attempt at solving their problems. No testing, no questions just an outright no.

How did they overcome this?

A dejected Rod and Palmer, sure of the quality of their vehicle, managed to persuade the US generals to put the DUKW’s through some sea trials in order to prove their worth. While it was a reluctant agreement to trial the Ducks it was progress for Rod and Palmer. This is where the DUKW history takes an interesting turn. The vehicles were never actually put through the sea trials! This was due to a large storm that occurred off the coast of Providence Town in Massachusetts. During this storm a local coastguard boat became stranded on a sandbank with 7 crew members on board. Thankfully Rod and Palmer had produced a few more DUKW’s in the time before this storm and had them on display around the country to try and gain some support for their idea. Luckily one was stationed nearby in Boston at the time. Two local army men jumped on board the DUKW, went out and rescued the stranded Coastguard boat cutting through huge swells with ease!

What happened next?

The media were all over this rescue and it featured in newspapers across the country ‘floating truck saved coastguard.’ The news managed to find its way to the US military generals who suddenly decided that the Ducks were not such a bad idea anymore (funny how that works right?) They got to work and produced 2000 Ducks in 1942 in the GMC manufacturing plant in St Louis, Missouri. They produced a further 19,000 in 1944 making the total roughly 21,000 Ducks ever made.

Then they went to war!

The Ducks did amazing work during the war shipping over 1 million tonnes of mixed supplies into the troops on the front lines like no military had ever seen before. The Ducks were used extensively in the Pacific and even later in the war were used for landings including the D-Day and Normandy landings among others. I have written a blog about the key battles Ducks were involved in and you can check that out here. For a full history check out the many videos on YouTube including us using the Ducks to save people during a flood in Rotorua. I could talk for hours about these amazing machines but check it out for yourself. It’s one of the engineering marvels of the world!

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