Several years ago, WWII veteran Maury Deul declared at a breakfast, “I’ll tell you what won WWII: the deuce-and-a-half truck. That thing could go anywhere. I drove one for weeks in Italy without brakes.”
Officially known as the CCKW 6X6, the deuce-and-a-half was a tactical cargo truck that could carry 2 ½ tons of materials on-road or off-road in all weather. The Army ordered 812,000 of these trucks, second only to the Jeep in wartime vehicle production. They rolled on asphalt, gravel, and mud-rutted roads all over the world, supplying and supporting ground troops wherever they went.
The US’s great advantage in WWII was also its biggest logistical challenge: the war wasn’t being fought on American soil, which meant the US had to find ways to take its warfighting around the world. WWII for the US was really a war of transportation. Each branch had its sturdy workhorses: LSTs, C-47s, Liberty Ships (which actually weren’t so sturdy). For ground transportation, nothing beat the deuce-and-a-half.
The key was its versatility. There were over twenty major variations. Deuce-and-a-halves served as fuel tankers and fire trucks, cranes and troop carriers, radio shacks and mobile surgical units. The famous amphibious DUKW—still used for urban “duck tours”—is actually a modification of the deuce-and-a-half.
The three-axle truck was also durable. It could be repaired in the field with easy-to-interchange parts. Many were, in fact, shipped overseas in two halves and bolted together after arriving in North Africa, Burma, or France. So many were left overseas after the war that several countries’ armies continued to use them well into the 1990s.
Three companies produced the CCKW 6X6. GMC made 70% of them (which is why another nickname for the truck was “Jimmy”). But International Harvester also produced about 100,000, which were shipped out to the Pacific with the Navy and Marine Corps. Studebaker, meanwhile, manufactured about 200,000 for Lend-Lease, most of them going to the Soviet Union. To this day, if you say “Studebaker” in Russia, people will know you’re talking about a big truck.
The deuce-and-a-half’s finest hour was after the breakout from the D-Day beaches in Normandy in 1944. The Red Ball Express was a mind-boggling supply operation by truck convoy that funneled water, fuel, engine parts, food, clothing, ammunition–you name it–from Cherbourg to the front lines. Piloted largely by African-American soldiers, 6,000 of these trucks, each emblazoned with a red ball, moved across France each day to keep the frontline forces in the fight. They drove in numerical order on military-only roads at 35 mph while maintaining a 60 ft gap between each truck. These drivers worked without stop for 83 days until November 16, by which time French railroad tracks had been repaired.
The deuce-and-a-half remains part of the US military inventory, changed little since it first went into production in 1940. There have been new adaptations and improvements, tweaks to the chassis and engine, but the M35 2½-ton cargo truck has served in every American military operation since 1945, including Afghanistan and Iraq. And it’s a mainstay in armies around the world, from Norway to Fiji, Bolivia to Djibouti.
If you keep your eyes peeled driving past an old garage or boneyard, you’ll still occasionally see a vintage deuce-and-a-half standing indefatigably, as if waiting for its next mission. And you can also still buy them used. But, if you do, make sure you have some money saved. You’ll need it for gas.