The media reports more and more often, so it seems, on accidents involving ex-WWII DUKWs being used as tourist rides. The latest occurred in July this year when one of these vehicles known as Stretch Duck 07 sank in Table Rock Lake, Branson, USA, with the loss of 17 lives, nine from the same family (in the first version of this article I had said that the dead included the driver, but this turned out not to to be correct). The vehicle was 74 years old, and was owned by the “Ride the Ducks” organisation. 

But before looking at any of these accidents maybe we have to go back to the beginning. In the many words I have read about them I have not come across the name of anyone who might have said, ‘Hey guys, why don’t we make a truck which can float. That would be pretty cool wouldn’t it.?’ But further research indicates that the vehicle was designed by Rod Stephens of Sparkman & Stephens Inc, a yacht designer, with the intention of providing a means of resupplying units that had just made amphibious landings. The final design was perfected by engineers at “Yellow Truck & Coach” in Pontiac, Michigan, a company that was to become part of General Motors.

Initially the military were unimpressed. Let’s face it, it was a vehicle that seemed to combine the worst of all worlds. It weighed a colossal eight and a half tons, and hence had limited freeboard, it was slow on the road with a top speed of about 50 mph, and could only achieve five and a half knots on water. However, during a demo at Provincetown, Mass, a coastguard cutter had run aground on a sandbar, and high winds and heavy seas had prevented the rescue of the crew by conventional means. But one of the designers in a DUKW had no trouble in recovering the seven men to safety. As a result the military changed their minds and GM started production, eventually manufacturing 21,137 of them.

Apparenty General Motors had been successful in the design of a medium sized truck which was much used by the military, and from that the DUKW was developed. The initials don’t actually stand for anything we might relate to. They are GM acromyms as follows: D for a 1942 design, U for untility (amphibious), K for all wheel drive and W for two powered rear axles. But they were called ducks in 1942, and they are still called ducks today. A GM straight six engine was housed under what we British would call the “bonnet” and from the gearbox “astern” of it a shaft was connected to the transmission, from which further shafts connected with the front axle the rear axles and the propeller. The propeller was housed in a tunnel and directional control provided in water by a small rudder. The problem of providing a watertight link between the drive shafts which start within the hull and end at the suspension outside the hull, so needing to go up and down, was overcome by the use of tubes with rubber boots, the watertightness for the prop shaft provided by means of a simple stuffing box. 

Of the 21,000 odd produced a couple of thousand were supplied to the British under the ”lease-lend” scheme and several hundred went to the Australians and the Russians. The vehicles served in many theatres of war; during the invasion of Sicily in 1943 General George S. Patton used 1000 of them and, possibly most famously, many supported the invasion forces on D-Day, crossing the channel with troops and supplies from the UK ports. 

In operation the DUKWs were able to carry 25 troops or a moderate quantity of equipment, and we should remember that they were expected to have a short life. Indeed some sank at their first outing, due to overloading and all were fitted with a high capacity engine driven bilge pump to cope with the unwanted ingress of water. In operation they were found to be prone to filling up due to wave action or hull failure, particularly from debris caught in the propeller, which would result in the shaft support structure being ripped off. A sort of grill had been designed to mitigate this problem but had not been put into operation and engine cooling or the lack of it was also recognised back in the war. All these problems still existed when the vehicles were turned into APVs (Amphibious Passenger Vehicles). 

The first tourist “Duck” company was started up by a man called Mel Flath in 1947 at Wisconsin Dells, Winconsin.  It was, and still is, called the “Original Wisconsin Ducks” and they have 92 of them. It was probably not long before further enterpreneurs purchased these war surplus vehicles, painted them up and put them into service. One of them “The Ride the Duck Company” chose to increase the length of 57 of the vehicles by 15 inches, to get more people on board, and it was one of this fleet that sank at Branson. 

Even though their operation in the leisure industry started in 1947 nothing seems to have gone wrong with them until 1999, 52 years later. Then, on May 1st 1999, the Miss Majestic sank rapidly shortly after entering the water in Lake Hamilton, Arkasas. 13 passengers lost their lives. The accident was investigated by the NTSB who found that the sinking was due to poor maintenance, specifically due to ingress of water through the rear drive shaft housing, and the fact that the high capacity bilge pump was not working. And amongst other things the investigators found that the vehicle lacked the appropriate level of reserve buoyancy, and recommended that  all APVs be provided with reserve buoyancy either by constructing watertight compartments or by other means. Only one of the 30 APV operators in America accepted the recommendation.

After this misfortune there were further accidents, not always due to a fault with the DUKW, and not always at sea. One was run down in 2010 by a tug and barge combination on the Delaware River, because the tug driver was on his mobile phone at the time, and over the years there have been several serious accidents on the road involving the vehicles, mostly, it seems, due to structural failure, but on one occasion a fatality when a woman walked off the pavement into the path of  DUKW while loooking at her mobile phone. In all, up to the accident on Branson, 41 people had lost their lives in DUKW accidents in USA and Canada. 

The use of these vehicles in UK has been extremely limited compared with their use in US due, essentially, to the lack of suitable environments, but two companies have operated a small number of vehicles, in Liverpool where the APVs transited the historic dock system, and in London where a company operated nine vehicles on the Thames. Their craft had to conform with UK regulations for small passenger vessels, which required them to have “residual intact buoyancy of at least 1.1 times the intact volume of dispacement”. This required that the vessels/vehicles be fitted with buoyancy foam in the void spaces to achieve the required regulatory conformance. 

Even though their numbers were limited the use of the DUKWs in the UK had not been free of accidents; in 2001 the London Frog Company’s vessel Beatrice suffered a hull failure requiring it to be beached, and for the passengers to be rescued. The propeller had been fouled and the shaft tunnel holed. In June 2013 the Cleopatra owned by the same company, caught fire and was beached on the bank of the Thames; there were no fatalities. This incident was investigated by the MAIB as was the sinking of the Wacker Quacker 1 in Liverpool which suffered from a breach in the hull after the propeller had been fouled. The WQ1 was fitted with buoyancy foam but of insufficient volume to keep it afloat, and on inspection the vehicle was found to be in a very poor condition being, according to the report, in a state of potential failure all the time. Fortunately there were no fatalities, maybe because the vehicle sank bow first and when the front was on the seabed the stern as still out of the water, allowing the passengers to evacuate, and to be rescued by a number of private leisure craft. By the time of the WQ1 accident the WQ4 had also sunk, with no-one aboard while under tow. 

The investigation, into the two accidents went into great detail about the volumes of foam used, mostly finding that its use was less than that actually required, and also that the foam had caused considerable operational difficulties. Indeed, in one of the accidents, that to the Cleopatra, it had been the foam packed in the engine compartment which was actually the cause of the fire.

So what now for these strange objects? What makes people think it is a good idea to ride in a modified wartime vehicle more than 70 years old – yes, that’s it - 70 years old. I was going to write that I could not imagine what there was in it, but since penning most of this article I have met with one of my cousins who had actually been in one in Boston, and he said it was a fabulous experience to be driving along the road one minute and then the next plunging into the Delaware, to emerge on the other side a few minutes later. So there it is, an energising and exciting experience, but before embarking you might consider the following: Has the vehicle been maintained efficiently? Is the original high capacity bilge pump still operational? Does the craft have sufficient reserve buoyancy (sometimes indicated by buoyant attachments on the outside)? Is the roofing in some way open to allow you to escape if it all goes wrong? Are you going to be issued with lifejackets to wear throughout the waterborn part of the trip?

If the answer is NO to any of these questions then think carefully before proceeding. 

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