How did motorized vehicles change the face of war and how we do battle? Would motorized vehicles have changed the outcome of the American Revolution or the Civil War? What would have happened during the two World Wars, had soldiers not had trucks and motorized ambulances? Things might have been very different.
The U.S Army first made use of motorized vehicles in 1916. Trucks were used in the Punitive Expedition, with its purpose the pursuit and capture of Pancho Villa in the mountains of northern Mexico. Villa’s men, the “Villistas” carried out a raid on Columbus, New Mexico, which killed many and caused extensive damage. In response, Brigadier General John Pershing put together a large number of troops, as well as numerous horses and vehicles to be used to find and capture Villa. The fleet of motorized vehicles included three-quarter-ton 1915 GMC model 15 trucks.
The troops found themselves traveling over rough terrain during this operation that involved driving 400 miles into the Mexican state, Chihuahua. Conditions were harsh. Many trucks became mired in sand or mud, and the troops were often forced to abandon them.
Trucks and the Great War
The expedition was a failure and Villa was not caught. The army, however, learned a great deal about how to operate trucks, and what was needed to support and maintain them in the field. As a result, the army was ready to make more efficient use of mechanized vehicles once WWI rolled around in 1917.
It was the Great War that brought about the first large scale use of motor vehicles in warfare. The British early on used GMC trucks similar to those used during the pursuit of Pancho Villa. When the U.S. entered the war, Model 16 trucks became the standard for military use. This was the Class AA military truck used for the duration of the First World War. The majority of the 13,316 Model 16 trucks produced during 1917 and 1918 went to the war effort.
Once trucks and other military vehicles were in common use by the army, a classification system was developed. The GMC ¾-ton trucks were designated as Class AA. The military version of the truck was called 16AA. These were most commonly used for ambulance service in the field.
Building Ambulances From Kits
GMC released a booklet on the ambulances which reads: “It is to the credit of the United States government that in every phase of preparation for the great war the utmost consideration was given to providing comfort for the soldiers; not only during the preparation term at the various encampments around the country, but in providing for their welfare on the field of battle.
“It is a source of much satisfaction to the General Motors Tuck Company that the Medical department of the United States Army found the GMC 3/4 – ton chassis to meet the requirements of this very exacting service.”
Despite this optimistic assessment, the Model 16 could only travel at a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour. The truck had a wheelbase measuring 132 inches and with 35×5 pneumatic ties. It had a 30 horsepower engine.
GMC put together most of the ambulances, but was soon overwhelmed by the demand. As a result, GM put together kits with all the parts needed to build an ambulance. Huppmobile and other US sub-contractors were able to use the kits to help fill the demand. Some kits were sent to France where American troops were also put to work building ambulances.
The Model 16 was not the only truck pressed into service during WWI. A further 2,400 Model 23, 1-ton trucks were used by the Signal Corps as light aviation tenders for the support of airplanes used in field reconnaissance. Some of these vehicles were used to carry troops while others were used to support artillery operations.
Motorized vehicles had a tremendous impact on the course of the war. The proof is in the numbers. At the time the armistice was declared on November 11, 1918, almost 90 percent of the trucks produced by GMC were made specifically for the military. All told, GMC had built 8,512 military vehicles for the war effort. And it was these vehicles that helped the Allies win the war.