Those undertaking historical vehicle restoration efforts at Marine Depot Maintenance Command, a subordinate command to Marine Corps Logistics Command, a tenant organization of Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, are typically provided strict technical guidance on the performance of work to be accomplished.
This was not the case with the most recent restoration, a World War II era truck that was brought back to its former glory largely with the help of visual aids and 3-D printing. The truck will be temporarily housed and put on display, while on loan, at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona before going to its new permanent home at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Virginia.
“I am very proud of the research, fabrication and repairs that our artisans completed in order to bring this vehicle back to specifications. I am also very grateful for the National Museum of the Marine Corps partnership and their trust in allowing us to complete this restoration of our military history,” said Col. Wilfred Rivera, commanding officer, MDMC.
The vehicle is a 1942 FWD SU-COE 4x4 Prime Mover that served as an artillery truck in the Pacific Theater of World War II. It is one-of-a-kind, and was brought back to a similar state as seen in the 1943 film “Guadalcanal Diary.”
Officials with MDMC said the truck was found in a junkyard in San Diego, after which the Marine Corps transported it to Quantico, Virginia where it remained until arriving at MDMC in 2016.
“It was about 20 years before we got a hold of it; it changed a lot of hands,” Jody Nesbitt, project officer, Program Management Division, MDMC, said.
Kater Miller, outreach coordinator, NMMC, said the truck was built by a company based in Wisconsin that specialized in 4x4 vehicles and farm equipment. It was purpose-built for use in the Pacific Theater, and among 300-500 units purchased for the Marine Corps.
They were in use largely during the early years of World War II and phased out later in favor of vehicles that were easier to mass-produce and repair.
“The truck was slow to produce with parts that didn’t come out very fast,” Miller said. “Later on, the Marine Corps opted for vehicles that were easier to fix.”
Miller went on to say that many of the vehicles succeeding the truck are still around today, while this artifact stands out for its rarity.
“The truck restored at MDMC’s Production Plant Albany is the only one of that configuration in existence that we are aware of,” he added.
The crew at MDMC had their work cut out for them. Many of the truck’s parts were heavily corroded, so it had to be essentially stripped all the way down and rebuilt.
Bringing this once crucial World War II artifact back to life was a herculean effort. The NMMC had very little information on where the truck came from to guide MDMC, except for photos. This made interpretation of color schemes difficult as most of those photos were in black and white. Color alone is an important detail to get right; it tells a vital piece of the vehicle’s story.
Research was a critical component in bringing the truck back to its original state, and impacts the museum visitor’s experience.
“The color tells the environment the vehicle was in,” Miller said. “If you put a lot of research on the front end, it is not noticeable on the back end. The visitor is not going to think much about it.”
“Most histories will not talk about vehicles; they didn’t preserve the history of these vehicles. We tried to scan every single photo we could find,” he added.
The MDMC crew discovered the serial number when the vehicle was sandblasted, and the number was re-painted during restoration. Every component of the vehicle was ultimately coated and painted to make it look brand new.
The truck was in service with a construction company prior to its discovery in the junkyard. It sat in the museum’s predecessor facility, the Marine Corps Air Ground Museum, for 30 years before making it to PPA.
“From 2003 to present day, we have been focused on restoring vehicles for the galleries we have,” Miller said. “We had a major expansion in 2010 and we are working on another.”
“We have looked for artifacts at risk of being lost to the elements,” he added.
At MDMC is expertise specific to the Marine Corps that has been instrumental in building a relationship with NMMC. This collaboration ensures any restorative work performed is carried out to make vehicles look as historically accurate as possible.
It may have been too late to save this rare piece of Marine Corps history had the restoration waited another 10 years, given the state the truck was in, Miller said.
“The truck was rotting away and needed to be rebuilt,” the outreach coordinator said.
The fabrication of parts using 3-D printing has been a capability at MDMC for several years, but it has not been done to this extent before. Per the museum’s guidelines, everything needed to be put back in the manner in which it was pulled apart. This is a process different from the one the depot uses for most of its projects.
The truck was already in desperate need of restoration when it came to Quantico decades ago. Due to the resources required to carry out the job being prohibitive, a strategic partner was needed. Miller said, with a partner helping out, the vehicle could be put in the hands of experts while the museum’s restoration staff remained focused on other tasks.
And the museum could trust they would get from MDMC a product that did not fall short in terms of quality.
“As time goes on, the harder it is to fix,” Miller said. “PPA was willing to help us out; they did a lot of work for us before this.”
Miller said the museum might have had to rely on private funding and taken out a significant expense without PPA’s help.
“For us, we have been able to save Marine Corps equipment that would not have otherwise been saved,” he said. “We would not have been able to do a full restoration at the museum; MDMC is able to put more work into it. They have saved heavy equipment we would not have been able to.”
“All vehicles are completed on time and under-budget; we can get more funding to restore other vehicles in the future,” Miller added.
While on loan in Arizona, the truck will still belong to NMMC. The loan facilitates added exposure for the museum by getting its name and artifacts out in an area where many people may not otherwise have access to them.
“It is a way to see Marine Corps heritage without traveling (to Virginia). It is our vehicle; we will have an interest in it, and invest in it,” Miller said.
A Humvee from Operation Desert Storm is among the prior renovation projects MDMC has taken on. Rebuilds are usually best done with the use of a technical manual and the parts from the year in which the vehicle was manufactured.
There is no technical manual for the Prime Mover, and getting new parts for a 75-year-old truck required more than using a 3-D printer. To ensure project success, both strategic and resourceful industry connections had to be made throughout the country that PPA does not commonly tap into.
It became necessary to think outside the box and take on challenges not previously faced by MDMC.
“None of this stuff could be procured through our normal channels,” Nesbitt said. “We had to do some reverse engineering. We have never tackled anything like this before or since.”
The engine PPA first received was not true to the 1942 truck, so finding an engine that was required going back to the drawing board. This gives some idea of the obstacles faced.
The four-year process took place while the master workload, the planned depot-level maintenance performed at MDMC in direct support of the Fleet Marine Force, was also being conducted. The master workload takes priority.
The opportunity to rebuild historical Marine Corps vehicles provides the chance to both interact with and learn about the past. Multiple generations who will see them on display benefit by MDMC partnering with the museum in preserving history.
“What we did will be there for a long time,” Nesbitt said.
David Tucker, heavy mobile equipment mechanic, MDMC, was responsible for taking the truck apart and putting it back together. He spent more time with it than anyone else in PPA.
“It has been challenging. Where we saw something blotted and missing, we asked: ‘What did it look like?’ We could not consult a manual,” Tucker said. “As the project progressed, we got more and more parts. We had to fashion some parts, come up with the size to make it fit.”
“There was a lack of information, a lack of documentation. From a design standpoint, it is very challenging,” Tucker added.
The process was memorable for Tucker, who was transported to the past while thinking through how to make the reconstruction work the way it was meant to. Using a 21st century mindset was not feasible in this case.
“You have to think about the design mentality 75 years ago, not today,” he said.
The vehicle still came out to look the way it did when it was brand new, even with the level of improvising involved.
“You couldn’t tell the difference if you didn’t know,” Tucker said.
Tucker expressed gratitude for being trusted with the responsibility, while remaining hopeful for what the end result will be.
“I am just grateful to be given the opportunity. I hope to be able to see it on display one day,” he said.
Miller complimented Tucker’s dedication to the project.
“Mr. Tucker did a lot of good research. He was able to find stuff really quickly which was out of his normal scope of work,” he said.
“David Tucker was able to take the information we sent him and he printed it up real big. The more pictures we found, the more we knew about it,” Miller added.
This tremendous time and effort ultimately allows for the Marine Corps’ heritage to be preserved for future generations. The restored vehicle can now serve as a tangible artifact to tell the Marine Corps story and how far the branch has come in a way audiences can see, relate to and connect with.
“The Marine Corps is a small branch, and there is a certain amount of pride to being a Marine,” Miller said. “On Guadalcanal, the Marines faced staggering odds.”
“By keeping this vehicle from rotting away, we are preserving the history of the Marines on Guadalcanal and saving the material legacy of the Marines,” he continued.
The strategic partnership with MDMC has evolved into a strong relationship that continues to grow.
“As funding becomes available, there are more things we’d like to see go down there for restoration. I want to see the partnership keep going,” Miller said.