War Surplus Army Trucks Support Farms

Working war surplus Army truck shares ‘DNA’ with sleek sports car.

Studebaker Avanti

Built in small numbers, the sleek Studebaker Avanti is not recognized by most people.

Photo by Clell Ballard

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During World War II (1941-’45), the civilian population of the U.S. had to do without a lot because of the massive needs of the military. All civilian automotive production ceased in February 1942.

For the duration of the war, the only new cars and trucks that were available came from the stockpile of unsold vehicles the government took over when production was shut down. The only individuals who had access were those considered essential to the country’s well-being. Doctors, for example, could get a new vehicle if needed.

Allowances were made for agriculture during those years. One son of a farm family, for instance, might be exempted from military service so the farm could continue producing. However, the lack of replacement farm vehicles was a major problem. That was especially true in western America. Instead of a few miles from the field to storage facilities, the distances there were often 20 or more miles one way. Old farm trucks wore out. By the time hostilities ceased with V-J Day on Sept. 2, 1945, there was a huge pent-up demand for new vehicles.

It would take at least five years for production to catch up with demand for both cars and trucks. In the meantime, farmers turned to the only existing source of new or “almost new” trucks: war surplus. Thousands of Army trucks, all painted olive drab, went to work on America’s farms. Since most were designed to travel over hostile terrain, they were four- or six-wheel drive and geared extremely low. Few farmers needed those features but they bought the trucks and used them to get their crops to market. Not much could be done to make them more efficient but the one modification almost all of them received was a coat of paint covering up that old Army color.

New role for IH truck

In 1946 a local farmer who had a 2,000-acre dryland grain operation bought several surplus 1-1/2- to 3-ton trucks. He also had the opportunity to purchase one of the military’s largest trucks, a 5-ton semitractor. The Army’s designation for it was “International Harvester H-542-11” (or M-426). Being designed for long-distance transport, it was a 4-by-2, meaning it did not have a powered front axle.

Although no appropriate trailer was available, the farmer bought the truck anyway. Since the huge truck was very powerful and geared extremely low (with a top speed of 38 mph), he built a trailer large enough to transport two Caterpillar D6s and one Caterpillar D4 tractor at the same time. That way he could move those large crawlers to any part of his far-flung operation. The truck served faithfully for close to 30 years.

The long road home

After it was retired by the original owner, the truck was sold to another farmer. Unfortunately, he went bankrupt so the old International truck was to be auctioned off. To satisfy creditors, the auction had to be held before the first of the year. That meant the two-day auction was held in December with snow on the ground and the temperature at 5 below zero. A couple hundred people bundled up like they were on an Arctic expedition stood in the snow all day long to bid on a great variety of farm equipment. I was one of those. As luck would have it, the old truck wasn’t auctioned until two-thirds of the way through the second day so the first day’s suffering in the cold was unnecessary. Maybe because my hand was frozen in the raised position, I ended up buying the truck.

Although sold as being in running condition, the truck hadn’t been started in several years, so trying to start it in extreme conditions was out of the question. It was too large to find someone to haul it for me. Since the auction people required it to be moved, my dad and I managed to get it home by towing it approximately 10 miles through unoccupied territory. He drove the tow vehicle and I steered the huge open cab truck enduring the blast of below-zero temperatures as we moved along.

A startling discovery

When the weather improved, I examined the truck’s data plate (similar plates were affixed to the dashboards of all World War II military vehicles). The data plate contains information on the manufacturer, operation and maintenance of the vehicle. As a military vehicle enthusiast, I knew my “new” truck was one of a small number built only in the last couple of years of the war. The data plate identified it as no. 4574, built in November 1944.

Most car and truck serial numbers have more than eight digits. That extremely low serial number caused me to wonder if the only other limited production vehicle I own might have a similarly low number. I have a supercharged 1964 Studebaker Avanti sports car that is one of about 6,000 built. When I checked its serial number I was shocked. It too had the serial number 4574. Thus I own two vehicles with identical automotive DNA.

I wonder what the odds are that two completely different type vehicles built 19 years apart (The Avanti was sold as a 1964 model although it was actually built in 1963.) would have the exact same serial number and end up in the hands of the same person. I am the fourth owner of the IHC semitractor: Uncle Sam owned it first, the large farmer owned it second, the farm that had the bankruptcy auction owned it third and now it is mine. I am the third owner of the Studebaker Avanti: An individual in Fort Wayne, Ind., bought it new; a young man in Essex, Iowa, owned it for a year and I bought it when it was four years old. How did they both end up in a small town in south central Idaho?

This is a farm magazine, not an automotive magazine, so I will include just a brief comparison of the vehicles (see Slideshow). If it hadn’t been for a farmer needing a truck for his operation, the H-542-11 would probably have been scrapped years ago like most other World War II surplus vehicles have been. Today it still exists and is a valued vehicle. To be accurate, in spite of the matching serial numbers it should be noted that it and the Avanti really aren’t identical twins. We would have to say that they are fraternal twins. FC

A retired high school history teacher, Clell Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net.