History Lesson on a Studebaker Truck Dashboard

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The boys (who rode inside when the truck was moving) considered the trip to retrieve the Studebaker truck a great adventure.
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Dashboard plates like this are customary of military vehicles. The plates give clues as to when and where the vehicle was manufactured, as well as maintenance requirements.
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An unknown artist drew a sketch of Adolf Hitler in his prime.
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This drawing shows Hitler dead and the Third Reich in shambles at the end of World War II.

Because of a shortage of trucks in agricultural America caused by World War II, thousands of surplus military trucks went to work on the nation’s farms in the late 1940s. They served faithfully, often for decades. When worn-out or replaced by modern civilian trucks, many were just parked, along with other retired equipment.

Occasionally, they can still be found, if you know what to look for. If the trucks were not repainted and still have the Army olive drab color, spotting one from any distance away is difficult, because that original paint does what the military wanted: It makes the trucks hard to see.

Even though war era restrictions prevented truck manufacturers from putting their names on military trucks after 1942, every make had distinctive features, making it easy to determine which company built any given truck. For the uninitiated, any confusion can be dispelled by examining information plates fastened to the dashboards. All military trucks have several of those plates providing data on make, model, serial number, (most often) date of delivery, publications for maintenance and repair, and such things as minimum gasoline octane and viscosity of engine oil required.

Now, more than half a century later, many of the plates are missing, but the first thing a person does when encountering a wartime truck is to look on the dash for the plates that belong there.

Lend-Lease Studebaker trucks

Many younger people today are unaware that a company named Studebaker was once a major producer of cars and trucks. In fact, in the earliest days of the 20th century, Studebaker was the third largest producer of automobiles. Difficult times during the Great Depression damaged the company, but it went on to produce vehicles through the mid-1960s. In World War II, the government contracted with Studebaker to build large, tandem-axle trucks. Most were 6x6s rated at 2-1/2 tons. 6×4 models with no powered front axle were rated at 5 tons, because they were to be used on established roads, whereas the all-wheel drive trucks could be used cross-country.

In four years, Studebaker built 200,000 of those big trucks. In spite of that large number, surviving Studebaker military trucks are not commonly found today. The reason? America’s World War II era Lend-Lease loan program. More than 100,000 of the trucks went to our ally, Russia, as it fought back Hitler’s invading army. Other allies were also given Studebaker trucks. Most Studebaker US6s (the official military designation) discovered now are those that remained in the U.S. after World War II and Lend-Lease ended.

Adventure with the ancients

In the mid-1980s, I was contacted by an individual who learned I was involved with military vehicles. He had an old World War II truck he wanted to get rid of and asked me if I wanted it. Only a small purchase price was required and I was pleased to discover the truck in question was a Studebaker, because I am an enthusiast of all vehicles produced by Studebaker. The only problem was that the truck was not running and it was more than 100 miles away. Trucks of that size, even those with just a cab and chassis (no bed), weigh roughly 9,000 pounds. A large semi would be needed to haul it, and hiring one cost more than I could come up with.

Flat-towing it home was my only option. An equally large tow vehicle was needed, and the only one I owned was our ex-military 1943 Autocar M15 multiple gun motor carriage. It was built as an armored halftrack. After the war, the tracks were removed and it was converted into a truck to meet the dire need for trucks during that time. A round trip of more than 200 miles in the “gun carriage” (as we call it) to retrieve the Studebaker was somewhat daunting, since it too, was more than 40 years old at the time.

Our four sons considered such a trip a great adventure and “went along for the ride.” As our cruising speed was about 40 mph, it took quite a long time to get to our destination. We promptly attached our custom-built, heavy-duty tow bar to the Studebaker’s formidable front bumper. A specially made 19-foot wiring loom made it possible for rear lights to be affixed to the towed truck.

The usual pre-tow procedure was followed. We made sure all tires were properly inflated and driveshafts removed (tandem-axle trucks have three) so the transmission and transfer case gears would not have to turn while in motion. Most of the territory we traversed on the way home was unpopulated and we managed to avoid all but one small town. Anyone who saw us pass by probably marveled at the “ancient towing the ancient,” but the trip was completed with no problems.

History of farming and logging

It is very unusual to find an old Army truck complete and unmodified after spending several decades in civilian hands. One must be prepared to accept whatever is left of the original vehicle. If resurrection is anticipated, many parts and much work lie ahead. Although not running, the newly acquired Studebaker US6 had very decent sheet metal and appeared to be complete mechanically. The exterior had been painted black, but the interior was still the faded olive drab.

The seller said it had been used as a farm truck for several decades in southern Idaho’s potato-growing area. Tandem-axle trucks were ideal for the huge loads of potatoes that had to be transported from field to storage area. Powered front axles like those of World War II trucks were especially prized because of their ability to traverse soft field conditions. Trucks from World War II were still used into the 1980s, but finally faded into oblivion when parts were no longer easily obtained.

In the years just before our purchase, the truck was used in logging to transport the long poles used to build western ranch corrals. A logging-type bunk was fitted on the back after the bed was removed and a trailer, also equipped with a bunk, was pulled behind.

The truck had been parked outside for decades. Even in our dry climate, the weather had taken its toll and the faded military paint on the interior was shabby, to say the least. Glass on some of the dash gauges was broken and the seat upholstery was basically in shreds. In spite of those drawbacks, the truck was very sound and savable. It was an impressive historical vehicle.

Drawings on the dashboard

Quite some time passed before a careful examination revealed something very unique. Low on the left side of the dashboard was a pencil drawing depicting none other than Adolf Hitler. A face with a toothbrush mustache and a swastika below it could be none other. Some distance away, near the middle of the dash, is another pencil drawing of the same face, but this time it appears in distress with “X”s over the eyes. The accompanying swastika has scribble marks over it. That drawing obviously represented the death of the German dictator and his Third Reich at the end of World War II.

 The unique drawings could have been made by a soldier during the war, but my guess is that some bored potato truck driver was the artist. Otherwise, really old pencil marks would have faded away like much of the paint did. Whoever it was knew his history. Perhaps piloting an old military truck from the war years inspired the drawings. The caricature of Hitler in his prime is so low on the left side of the dashboard that it had to have been created by an individual sitting on the running board with the door open. The other drawing could have been made when the artist was sitting behind the wheel. I’m sure he would be surprised that, almost half a century later, his work was noted and admired.

The truck on which the drawings were made was sold to a military vehicle collector and shipped halfway across the U.S. When it is restored, one can hope the unique drawings will be preserved. 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.

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