Kipling’s description of the civilian attitude toward the soldier in peacetime—“Chuck him out, the brute!”—might as plausibly have applied to many American military vehicles after World War II. With two notable exceptions: the plucky jeep, whose offspring continue to bounce merrily along, and the lesser known DUKW, or “Duck.” These hardy amphibians still earn the kind of accolades once voiced by Winston Churchill as he recalled watching them carry supplies for the liberation of France. “I was fascinated to see the D.U.K.W.s swimming through the harbour, waddling ashore, and then hurrying up the hill to the great dump where the lorries were waiting to take their supplies to the various units. Upon the wonderful efficiency of this system . . . depended the hopes of a speedy and victorious action.”
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From Hawaii to Australia and from Seattle to Washington, D.C., DUKWs that once went to war now transport tourists on amphibious sight-seeing treks. While the visitors gawk at the sights, the natives gawk at the DUKWs. Former sight-seeing DUKW captain Jim Nichols once had three war-time DUKW drivers as passengers. “I let them take turns driving in the Potomac,” he says. “There’s a steep pile of rocks along the riverbank. They told me they could take it up those rocks just the way they did in World War II. They told me things about the DUKW I never knew.”
The DUKW saga began in a World War II U.S. government agency where everyone took a pledge of secrecy, so like many an old DUKW cruising today, the tale is a bit patchy. But there are enough memories and declassified records to document how the DUKW was born in a mere 42 days.
On March 20, 1942, Maj. Gen. Jacob L. Devers, chief of the Army’s Armored Force, wrote to Vannevar Bush, director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, asking whether the OSRD could come up with a way to float light tanks from ship to shore. Bush, who had been vice president of MIT, had made his secretive agency independent of the military, turning to universities and industry for scientists and engineers. His team would help build the atomic bomb and bring to the war such innovations as radar, the bazooka, mine detectors and the proximity fuse. Colliers magazine once referred to him as the “man who may win or lose the war.”
Bush used Devers’ request to advance an idea his people had been working on for months: making a standard Army truck swim so that it could carry men and supplies from ship to shore and across beaches during invasions. Bush handed the project to his chief technical aide, Palmer Cosslett Putnam, who had a reputation for getting things done.