Seventy-five years ago, when the United States became embroiled in World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. armed forces found themselves seriously unprepared. It was apparent from the German “blitzkriegs,” both on land and in the air, that the war would be one in which machines played a huge part. Industry quickly was mobilized to build these machines and troops were trained to operate them, but every piece of machinery requires maintenance, and training competent mechanics takes time and experience.
The War Department solved the problem in part, by in 1942 turning to the established machine manufacturing firms and asking them to recruit skilled personnel from their employees. Although most all these factories were heavily engaged in making war material, nearly all civilian production had stopped and the government apparently felt that it could draw trained technicians from these sources without causing disruptions in production.
The first farm implement company selected by the Army was the International Harvester Company – a firm that was making half-tracks, artillery tractors, trucks of all sizes, wheeled and crawler tractors, scout cars, ambulances, tank transmissions, cannon, gun carriages, ammunition, torpedoes and even blood bank refrigerators.
IH got the request on June 24, 1942, began enrollment in the unit on the 29th, and had surpassed the enlistment quota by July 6. Volunteers came from the main office, the various factories and sales branch houses and dealers. The 900 plus men who were chosen from more than 1,000 volunteers were to report to Camp Perry, Ohio, on July 15 and were to be commanded by Lt. Col. D.L. Van Syclye of the Army Ordinance Corps. Organized as the 134th Ordinance Maintenance Battalion and assigned to the 12th Armored Division, the unit later joined General Alexander Patch’s 7th U.S. Army in November of 1944, and ended up in Austria at war’s end.
Next up was Deere & Company, who received the same request in September. The firm was making tank transmissions, aircraft parts, ammunition and mobile laundry units, as well as assembling Cletrac MG-1 military tractors. Recruiting posters were put up in all the Deere factories, branch houses and dealerships across the country and by November some 600 former Deere employees were assigned as a battalion of the 303rd Ordinance Regiment and were undergoing basic training at Camp Sutton, a temporary facility near Monroe, North Carolina. The unit later trained in the California desert and then went to England in late October of 1943. Re-designated the 608th Ordinance Base Armored Maintenance Battalion and assigned to Patton’s Third Army, where the Deere unit served in France and Belgium, helping to relieve the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.
A veteran of the Deere unit, a Texan named Bill Pekar, said in a 2009 interview by Nicole W. Little in the Gonzales Inquirer: “We didn't stay in one place; we were with the Army and moving with the front lines, repairing tanks, trucks and all the equipment with them. We fixed what we could on the road, but if we couldn't fix it we’d bring back to the shop.”
The J.I. Case Company was asked at about the same time for a heavy maintenance company, a request that, as at IH and Deere, was met with enthusiasm by employees of the factories, branch houses and dealers. In a short time the 200 man company was recruited, organized, and mustered into the Army as the 518th Heavy Maintenance Company. Case was making artillery shells, military tractors, and bomber wings, among other military products.
The 518th was stationed at Knockmore, in County Mayo, Ireland, from Nov. 20, 1943 until May 8, 1944, and then was part of the First U.S. Army, initially under General Omar Bradley in the June 1944 invasion of France known as Operation Overlord, and then later under General Courtney Hodges as the 1st Army fought its way across Europe.
A news blurb about the Harvester unit tells us that not only mechanics were enlisted, but machinists, blacksmiths, welders, carpenters, painters, chauffeurs, electricians, warehousemen, clerks, engineers, supervisors, radio experts, toolmakers, and leather and canvas workers.
One source says that Allis-Chalmers also organized a maintenance unit, but I’ve been unable to verify that, although I’m sure that employees of every farm equipment manufacturer either enlisted or were drafted into the armed services throughout the war.
So many trained repairmen were in the service that during 1943 the farm dealer’s magazines were full of complaints about the lack of technicians to keep existing farm machines running. There were many calls to bring back some of the repairmen and to exempt from service any who were still on the job.
In the end, of course, everyone made do with what they had and the war, thankfully, was successfully concluded.
– Sam Moore
A photo showing Deere president Burton Peek shaking hands with one of the company’s first recruits. (From the September 1942 issue of Farm Machinery and Equipment magazine in the author’s collection.)