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War Surplus Army Trucks Support Farms

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

| May 2014

  • Built in small numbers, the sleek Studebaker Avanti is not recognized by most people.
    Photo by Clell Ballard
  • After getting the truck home from the auction, used roofing metal kept snow out of the driver’s compartment.
    Photo by Clell Ballard
  • The Avanti’s serial number plate is difficult to see since it is riveted down on the frame in front of the cowl.
    Photo by Clell Ballard
  • Like the contemporary Corvette Sting Ray, the Studebaker Avanti’s body was made of fiberglass and the car was designed for high performance. The license plate corresponds to the year of the car.
    Photo by Clell Ballard
  • The data plate on the huge International Harvester truck provides specific information about it, including the manufacturer’s serial number.
    Photo by Clell Ballard
  • Like all late model World War II trucks, with the canvas cab removed the windshield could be folded down. On the back of the semitractor are a toolbox and a fifth-wheel connection.
    Photo by Clell Ballard
  • Comparison of IH truck and 1964 Studebaker Avanti specs.
    Chart courtesy Clell Ballard

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.


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