The DUKW amphibious vehicle is arguably the most phenomenal innovation during World War II. It’s remarkably ingenious and highly versatile, and the timing of its emergence it’s just *chef’s kiss* perfect. Do you need a capable vehicle to transport troops? DUKW. Do you need to transport supplies from a ship to the shores? DUKW. Do you need to ferry wounded soldiers on the ground into hospital ships without having to move them at all? DUKW. The only thing it couldn’t do was fly! DUKW was the perfect transport and support vehicle on the battlefield.
An Ingenious Solution For A Challenging Problem
Amphibious assaults were among the most challenging offensive to pull off, particularly if you’re coming in against a well-defended beachhead. However, despite weeks of thorough planning, things could still array, especially if the execution wasn’t as meticulous as expected. The British Army learned this lesson the hard way during the First World War when troops conducted an offensive on Turkey’s shores. It wasn’t poor planning and execution that led troops to their bloody demise (well, it was one factor) but rather the lack of viable transportation that could safely ferry dozens of its men from their naval warships to the beachhead.
Following the bombings in Pearl Harbor that catapulted the United States into joining the war, the concept of developing an amphibious vehicle became a top priority. At first, military engineers thought of wrapping a huge tarp under a standard Army truck to make it float and propel it using oars, which immediately got thrown out of the window because 1) the idea was obsolete and 2) there was no way it could win in the modern warfare.
So, they returned to the drawing board to develop a more seaworthy design, tapping into the help of the well-respected sailor and naval architect Rod Stephens Jr. of Sparkman & Stephens, Inc.
With a team of four, Stephens converted the two-and-a-half-ton General Motors Corporation (GMC) CCKW military truck, commonly used for transporting ammunition and other supplies, into an amphibian vehicle. The small team worked around the clock and completed the project in a record time of just 38 days.
The new machine rolled into the light of day, and everyone was in awe at the strange-looking vehicle that some GIs began calling the “Duck.” It didn’t really have an official name as it was introduced using the GMC code letters DUKW, which stands for:
D – the 1942 production series
U – for Utility
K – for front-wheel drive, and
W – for rear axles
The Duck endearment, however, stuck.
The First of its Kind
The Duck was the first of its kind. It followed most of the GMC CCKW designs and components with the additional watertight hull and a propeller to make it traverse ashore and float on water, respectively. It was powered by a GMC Model 270 straight-six engine that generated up to 91 horsepower.
It measured 31 ft long, 8 ft 3 in wide, and 7 ft 2 in high with the folding-canvas top-down and 8 ft 9 in high with the top-up. It weighed 5,900 kg (empty) and carried up to 24 troops. On the road, the Duck can operate up to 80 km/h, while on the water, it can propel up to 5.5 knots or 10.2 km/h. If holes breached its thin hull, a high-capacity bilge pump system would keep the Duck afloat. Overall, the DUKW was a phenomenal piece of mechanical equipment.
But the military remained skeptical about the usefulness of the amphibious vehicle—they weren’t sure if it could do its job, especially under the immense pressure on the battlefield. The production of the DUKW, however, pushed through but was only limited to 200 units, with most of them kept away in storage.
Proving its Seaworthiness
How can one know one’s limits if not tested, amirite? I’d like to think Stephens thought the same, too, because in a last-ditch effort to keep the DUKW project afloat—to prove to the military that the Duck has what it takes to be in combat—he asked to demonstrate and test its capabilities in a series of trials located off the New England coast.
By a stroke of luck, a violent storm hit the area days before the trials commenced that wrecked a coast guard vessel on a sandbar offshore. The incident may have been unfortunate for the stranded crew, but it was the opportunity Duck needed to prove its seaworthiness. When all rescue attempts failed, the DUKW was given a chance to save the stranded men, surprising everyone that it actually did. All seven of the crew were rescued hours before the wreck vanished.
Senior military chiefs who initially snubbed the amphibious vehicle now wanted to commission it; even then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt was impressed. And Stephens couldn’t be happier. The once thought ugly duckling, previously expected to become either a lame duck, a sitting duck, or a dead duck, finally received the spotlight it deserved. Additional vehicle production ensued, increasing the stocks to over 2,000.
“Quack” Corp Assemble
Soon after the DUKW was commissioned into the US Marine Corp, special operating companies were formed, dubbed the “Quack Corp,” which led to confusion in the ranks. I would, too, because what the heck are ducks doing in the corp?
The unit would be designated and responsible for operating, manning, and maintaining the amphibious vehicle, spending five weeks training before it was shipped to war to ensure that the drivers and the assisting crew would be as versatile as the DUKW.
While in training, the Marines learned and familiarized the ropes around operating the vehicle, including its gadgets and emergency toolkit—did you know it can haul itself out if stuck on sand without towing? Pretty cool, right? Throughout the training, they also discovered weaknesses that were quickly resolved. The tires needed a specific amount of pressure for different types of surfaces. At first, a crew had to make manual adjustments, but it was soon upgraded, allowing the driver to remotely adjust the tire pressure from inside the cab. For hard surfaces such as roads, the tires need to be fully inflated, while less air was applied when transiting over softer surfaces like the beach sand—adding versatility to the vehicle. This feature would soon become a standard on many military vehicles, even today.
British Army adored the beloved Duck, too, as soon as it was introduced to them and had immense respect for the ingenious vehicle.
Doubts surrounding the combat capability of the DUKW were further squashed when it had proven its usefulness and effectiveness in the Guadalcanal campaign in the Asiatic-Pacific theater in 1942, in the invasion of Sicily (Operation Husky) in 1943, and most prominently on the D-Day beaches of Normandy in 1944. The Duck successfully delivered supplies to the troop and, at some point, repurposed as an ambulance for wounded men, ferrying them directly into hospital ships without having to unload and load them a couple of times like its counterparts.
A Prolonged Service, A Long-lasting Impact
After the war, several DUKWs remained in service while the others were transferred to a couple of civilian organizations, usually rescue units like the police and fire departments. The US Army reactivated more than a hundred Ducks back to service when the Korean War broke out. It deployed to deliver supplies onshore and ferried troops during amphibious assaults.
Finally, in 2012, the Ducks were honorably retired entirely in service and replaced by newer, more sophisticated amphibian vehicles capable of retaliation with outfitted powerful armaments.
Nevertheless, it remained serving as a tour bus for some tourists company, steering through harbors and river cities across the globe.
You can watch the full documentary about the DUKW below.