Ducks' ancestor was valuable, vulnerable

The Ride the Ducks vehicle sunk in the Delaware is recovered. The tourist versions are descended from amphibious vehicles used in World War II.
The Ride the Ducks vehicle sunk in the Delaware is recovered. The tourist versions are descended from amphibious vehicles used in World War II.

Military DUKWs saw triumph and tragedy.

Posted: July 20, 2010

By Peter Binzen

The tourist boat that capsized in the Delaware River this month, drowning two, was a direct descendant of the amphibious vessels that carried troops and supplies from ships to shore during World War II. The DUKWs - a designation based on the naming conventions of their manufacturer, General Motors - were used for landings in the Mediterranean, the Pacific, and on the beaches of Normandy.

They also saw service on an Italian lake in the final days of the war. An Allied assault, led by troops of the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division, had driven German forces out of the Apennine Mountains and across the Po Valley to the foothills of the Alps. The Allied forces' next goal was to take the town of Riva, at the northern end of beautiful Lake Garda. They advanced along a road that tunneled through the hills rising steeply from the lake's eastern shore.

The retreating enemy troops trained their artillery on the road's numerous tunnels. On April 28, one tunnel was blocked by shellfire. Early the next day, a shell exploded in another tunnel, killing four soldiers in my company, including our company commander. My squad was 100 yards or so behind the stricken tunnel, and I can still hear the cries of "Medic!"

I next found myself standing beside our division commander, Maj. Gen. George P. Hays, as he surveyed the situation. His decision was to order DUKWs into the water to bypass the tunnels.

The general, with responsibility for about 10,000 troops, asked me, the leader of an eight-man mortar squad, what I thought of the idea. I thought it was a good idea as long as it spared us from German artillery.

And it did. With the help of the ducks - as we called them in 1945 as well as today - the 10th liberated Riva. Less than a week later, the war in Italy was over.

However, there was a tragedy on Lake Garda, much as there was on the Delaware. On April 30, 1945, 25 men in a field artillery unit boarded one of the ducks with their heavy equipment. The vessel was overloaded. Far out in the lake, the men began throwing equipment overboard, but to no avail. The duck sank, and 24 men were drowned.

The 10th lost close to a thousand men in World War II. Its final fatalities may have been those on the doomed duck.


Peter Binzen is a retired Inquirer reporter.

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