Odd DUKW- page 5 | Travel | Smithsonian

Odd DUKW

On land and in the water, World War II's amphibian workhorse showed the skeptics a thing or two now it shows tourists the sights

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(Continued from page 4)

By the time the war ended in 1945, GM had built 21,147 DUKWs, many of which would end their days rusting away on Pacific battlefields or in forgotten storage depots in Europe. Those that made it back to the United States joined the gargantuan postwar garage sale. Some DUKWs served as rescue vehicles for fire departments in floodprone towns. Hundreds were converted to odd-looking dump trucks or wreckers, and some went to sea. In California in the late 1940s, hunters of basking sharks harpooned their enormous prey from DUKWs.

 

Melvin Flath, owner of a Milwaukee trucking firm, was the first person to put the amphibians to sight-seeing service, having picked one up at a war-surplus truck auction in 1946. He installed some used bus seats and began charging50 cents for rides around a local lake.

 

Gradually, the tourist DUKW idea took off. By the 1990s, more than a million passengers a year were taking the tourist plunge in approximately 225 DUKWs around the country. Today, no one knows precisely how many DUKWs there are in the United States, though estimates range from 300 to 1,000, many owned by collectors.

 

Then came May 1, 1999. A Hot Springs, Arkansas, DUKW named Miss Majestic entered LakeHamilton carrying some 20 passengers. About 250 yards from shore, the craft began filling with water and sank in 30 seconds. Thirteen people, including three children, drowned. Investigators blamed the tragedy on a dislodged rubber seal.

 

The Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board moved swiftly to recommend tighter inspections and impose new safety requirements. At a hearing on DUKW safety in December 1999, Robert F. McDowell, manager of a tourist DUKW business, in Branson, Missouri, told investigators that he replaces virtually every unseen part of a military DUKW with modern components for sight-seeing. McDowell, who also runs a small military museum, added that building the amphibians from scratch is probably more costeffective. So tourists will likely soon be sitting in vehicles that look like DUKWs and swim like DUKWs—but won’t really be DUKWs. It won’t happen overnight. Like old soldiers, DUKWs never die; they just fade away.

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