How the World War II amphibious 'Duck' vehicle evolved into an American tourist staple
By ALEX HORTON | The Washington Post | Published: July 22, 2018
Melvin Flath encountered a Frankenstein's monster of a vehicle — a boat and truck hybrid snatched up from a postwar surplus sale — and had an idea.
The vehicle was a 2.5 ton military cargo hauler sealed tight with a makeshift hull to move troops and supplies ashore during War War II. But Flath envisioned a new life for the DUKW, hauling sightseers eager to experience the twisting waterways and sandstone formations along the Wisconsin River.
The first vehicle, owned by Flath's business partner Robert Unger, set out in 1946, lumbering through Wisconsin's serene Dells region teeming with deer and turkey.
Troops in Normandy, Italy and the Pacific had already untangled the initialism, calling the vehicles 'Ducks.' The name stuck for Unger and Flath.
The Original Wisconsin Ducks now operates 92 authentic but modernized DUKW vehicles, general manager Dan Gavinski told The Washington Post on Saturday.
The business model grew nationwide, arriving in Branson, Missouri, 40 years ago.
On Thursday, a replica of one of the vehicles capsized and submerged into Table Rock Lake, killing at least 17 people, including a 1-year old. Nine of the victims were from a single family, The Post reported.
The history of DUKW is charted over seven decades, an unlikely success story of military ingenuity that survived a skeptical bureaucracy to fuel Allied invasions and evolved into a ubiquitous vehicle for waterway tours.
It was not officially called a "Duck," however. Troops dropped the "W" in the name to make it sound like the bird that drifts from land to water. General Motors manufactured the vehicle, confusing production codes and all.
The model year of 1942 carried the letter D; a letter U for amphibious utility truck; K for front-wheel-drive; and W for dual rear-driving axles, the Smithsonian wrote in 2002.
Its development partially solved the ancient problem of amphibious combat - how to get troops, ammunition and supplies off ships and onto the shore in great numbers. Some boats, like the Higgins landing craft, could only approach the beach and were not designed to carry heavy equipment.
DUKWs carried as much as 5,000 pounds of equipment, including artillery pieces desperately needed to pound enemy positions as friendly troops scurry on the beach under fire. One vehicle could carry up to 25 troops at once.
But top war planners showed little interest in its design phase, even ahead of a planned demonstration of the prototype's abilities off Cape Cod in December 1942.
Until a massive, near-hurricane storm hit.
The skies darkened and churned the water that Dec. 1, days before the exercise. A Coast Guard vessel smashed against a sandbar. The violent waves kept rescue boats away.
One of the designers of the vehicle, Roderick Stephens, tore across the sand in the DUKW and plunged into the water to help pluck seven Guardsmen from the boat as it broke apart, the Smithsonian wrote. That incident and the successful demonstration won the vehicle some approval.
But its biggest endorsement came just eight months after the Cape Cod demonstration. Gen. George Patton used 1,000 DUKW vehicles for the crucial mission of resupply for the invasion of Sicily in July 1943.
The vehicle was a vital tool in that campaign, an Army history revealed. The DUKW adopted a new engineering feat to transition from water to land and back. Its tires could deflate at will, allowing drivers to churn through the challenging terrain that had vexed U.S. warplanners.
Some DUKWs operators were deputized to moved 20 miles inland to burst through the sand hills that mired other trucks, then ordered to return to move artillery pieces over high dunes.
One was captured by German troops, but they apparently were baffled by the array of levers and switches that pumped out water, cranked the propeller and operated the tire inflation. The vehicle was recaptured by U.S. troops the next day in the exact same spot, the Army said.
The military prepared more DUKWs for the June 1944 Normandy invasion. About 18 million tons of supplies were brought to the shores in the first 90 days as the Germans bitterly held the ports there.
But those operations came at a deadly cost. The vehicles proved to be unseaworthy in trials while carrying heavy loads, historian Joseph Balkoski wrote in "Beyond the Beachhead." Several DUKWs sank after unloading off tank landing ships, either felled by enemy fire or large waves, taken under by the weight of artillery guns and shells.
Its drawbacks also appeared in Sicily. The vehicles got stuck in mud and were difficult to unload. They cruised at about 45 mph on land, but only about 5 mph in the water. And when they rallied to drop off supplies, their bulky frame caused traffic jams on narrow roads.
But the vehicles were mostly a boon to the war effort in both Europe and the Pacific.
They also gave black troops - segregated from whites and often tasked with support roles away from combat - opportunities to prove their mettle.
The Army's 476th Amphibian Truck Company, an African-American unit, powered through the water to land DUKWs on the volcanic sand beach of Iwo Jima in February 1945. They were tasked with bringing artillery pieces ashore.
The beach was littered with bodies and destroyed vehicles as the 476th inched through enemy terrain to deliver their guns to Marine Corps artillerymen. The guns began firing by the evening, according to an Army history. More than half of the 48 vehicles were sunk or destroyed.
Five soldiers in the unit were awarded Silver Stars for their bravery in a rare recognition for black troops in the war. But their contributions were ignored by history, leading to an official ceremony for veterans and family members of the crews in 1979.
DUKWs saw some service in the Korean War and were later phased out of service. Some were bought by police departments and fire departments for water rescue work.
Others became sightseeing vehicles. Tour companies as far as Dublin tout their DUKW connections to the war.
It is unclear how the deadly incident in Branson may affect the Duck boat industry. This past week's tragedy is not the first involving the vehicles: More than 40 people have died in incidents involving Ducks since 1999, according to the Associated Press.
The stakes are high in some places. Original Wisconsin Ducks is one of the top tourist attractions in the state, Gavinski said. The company is in its 73rd season.
And it might be only way to completely experience the sandstone cathedrals in the Wisconsin Dells, from trail to river, river to trail.
There is something indescribably special about it, Gavinski said. Nearly half of his visitors are repeat customers, coming back to touch relics of a war that grows more distant every season.