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Dodge Military Trucks and the Burma Road in World War II

The father: 15,000 trucks Dodge built for China. The son: the Dodge Power Wagon.

© 2010 Curtis Redgap; all rights reserved. Printed by permission.

Prologue: Burma and World War II (skip to the trucks)

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The story of the Dodge Power Wagon begins in with the Burma Road that connected China to the Bengal Bay.

Burma has a strategic location, with India on the west and north, the Bay of Bengal in the south, China in the north, and Laos and Thailand on the east. The military ousted the elected government in the late 1980s and early 1990s, through shootings, beatings, jailings, and participation in the drug trade; the junta recently delayed tsunami aid from the United States, which was ready with food and medical supplies, until after many had unnecessarily died. The controversial 2009 Chrysler 300 ads demanded freedom for the 1990-elected Prime Minister of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for over two decades.

In the 1930s and early 40s, Burma was a British colony, little noted until the Japanese began their war in Singapore. No one came to visit or make inspections. Great Britain reaped a huge income, without re-investing much; the domestic income of the average Burmese in 1940 was about US$15 per year. Most food was grown domestically, including animals raised for meat. The Burmese apparently (and for good reason) hated the British passionately.

The United States of America was by no means a world power then; the US Army was ranked 17th in the world, the Navy barely existed, and there was no Air Force, aside from a small detachment within the US Army, which was headed by temporary ranked major, whose permanent rank was captain, Claire Lee Chennault.

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On the day President Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war on Japan, December 8, 1941, over $50 billion was thrown into the military - money that had already been assigned by Congress to the Presidential Discretionary Fund. Roosevelt had been secretly working on a buildup since late 1935; seed money for the engine for the B-29 had come through the Discretionary Funding in 1936, even the plane design did not yet exist.

Japan attacked Singapore, the Jewel of the British Empire, on December 8, 1941. Britain was not prepared; never believing that a war would come from Japan, they never trained for it. They had good officers, but middle leadership was lacking, and there were few aircraft, no tanks, and a short supply of small arms and ammunition. By February 14, 1942, Singapore was firmly in Japanese hands, after the surrender of over 80,000 British, Indian, and Burmese troops.

Sir Winston Churchill called the fall of the Island "the greatest defeat of the British Army in history." The United States had come into the war by then, but was unprepared for the sort of war that Japan and Germany were waging. Still, Roosevelt had quietly ramped up war preparations and production, while assuring the public that "he would never lead the country into a foreign war."

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Captain Claire Chennault had been asked to retire from the Army Air Corps in April 1937, because the Army did not see the future of air power. He had initiated many firsts, including the forerunner of today's Air Force Thunderbirds. Chennault was never promoted higher than a temporary major, keeping a permanent rank of captain, even after 27 years service!

He was one of the rare officers that had complete understanding of tactical and strategic missions. Franklin D. Roosevelt met Chennault after becoming President and they became quite friendly, after Roosevelt discovered he loved flying.

Chennault further irritated Army brass when Roosevelt called for visits. Roosevelt was the first President to fly, in secretly conducted tests. When China requested assistance in their war with Japan, FDR "suggested" that Chennault be hired to review the Chinese Air Force. Chennault went to China on May 1, 1937, for a 3 month review, at a princely salary of $1,000 a month.

Talked into staying longer, he continued as a colonel in the Chinese Air Force at the same salary. FDR gave China $100 million in lend-lease aid in April 1941, and had Chennault reinstated as a permanent colonel in the US Army Air Force; he also diverted 100 P-40 Warhawk fighters from a British shipment, sending them to China for Chennault.

Chennault formed a volunteer group of American pilots, the "Flying Tigers," (tigers are honored in China). In April 1942, the 14th Air Force was formed, disbanding the volunteer group, and Chennault was put in charge, promoted to Brigadier General, then to Major General.

Chennault retired on August 10, 1945, and formed an airline company that later became Air America, the CIA's air arm. He was promoted to Lieutenant General by an act of Congress on the day before his death, in 1958.

Roosevelt was the first to aid China, giving it $100 million. China was brought into focus by the weapon system which had never been flown, but was then under full production: the Boeing-designed B-29 Superfortress. Proposed in September 1939, the Superfortress was the long range weapon that America needed. Boeing had production facilities in Seattle, while Bell in Georgia and Martin in Nebraska were tasked by the War Department to build facilities to make the huge aircraft.

The closest launching point for bombing raids on Japan (to slow or stop their military production and divert their resources from attack to defense) was China, since nearby islands were held by Japanese forces.

Getting B-29s to China was a major issue; the only practical way was via the Bay of Bengal, and the only overland route to Chinan ran right through the middle of Burma. The "Burma Road" was 770 miles long, with switchbacks, sheer cliffs, and weather conditions that created bogs when the monsoon season came in.

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To reclaim and save the road, the US military created a theatre of war, the CBI Theatre (China/Burma/India). It was considered a backwater assignment; while it merited at least a two star general, it ended up being run by a colonel. Roosevelt chose Colonel Stillwell, partly because he knew Stillwell's parents, Stillwell's wife, and her parents, who all moved in the same society circles as Roosevelt; but, mainly, because Stillwell was the best man for the job. He spoke Chinese fluently, and had spent about 13 years in assignments there.

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Stillwell raised hell about the assignment, but FDR wanted him, and the military command was glad to send him away. He arrived in 1942, as Japan overran Rangoon and closed the Burma Road, capturing Rangoon's huge gasoline storage tanks and shutting down 2,000 miles of pipelines.

The CBI Theatre was commanded by Chiang Kai-shek, the so-called Democratic leader of China. Stillwell spent two years fighting to get the road re-opened, trying to stop rampant corruption by the Chinese, training soldiers, fighting for equipment, and dealing with the politics between the Americans, the British, and the Chinese. Along the way, Stillwell received promotions, becoming a two star general by the end of 1942.

In 1943, General George Marshal assigned Stillwell to be second in command of the Southeast Asia Theatre, a British setup headed by Load Mountbatten. He knew the job was rough, so to placate Stillwell, he authorized his third star, making him a permanent Lieutenant General.

Stillwell promised that, if he was able to build a new road, he could get more tonnage to China than the airlifts set up by Claire Chennault, perhaps not realizing the new aircraft which had been specifically set up for airlifts; by mid-1944, Chennault 's fliers were bringing in over 65,000 tons of supplies a month! Meanwhile, B-29 flights out of China were vastly curtailed, because the island-hopping campaigns of MacArthur and Admiral Nimitz had acquired air bases far closer to Japan.

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Stillwell finally got authorization to build a new road, after its time of need had passed. Chiang Kai-shek opposed it, being more concerned with beating Mao Tse Dung. He might have seen the road as being an advantage for Mao, or he might have felt that he would not be able to divert money and materials from it as he had from the Burma Road. He used the lend-lease money not so much for the war against Japan, as FDR had intended, but to build up his forces for his war against the communists.

In late 1943, Chiang Kai-shek, seeing that Stillwell would be able to get a new route built, demanded that Stillwell be replaced; and Stillwell was indeed moved in 1944. Perhaps to appease the US, Chiang recommended (successfully) that Stillwell receive his fourth star, making him a full General Officer.

Kai-shek also asked Roosevelt for 15,000 two-and-a-half-ton trucks capable of handling the Burma Road - for any number of possible reasons.

<a name="dodge-truck"></a>Dodge trucks for China and the Burma Road

The truck request was passed along; Ford and GM both claimed they were too busy. Over at Chrysler, though, Dodge Division had just delivered its 40,000th truck to the US Army, with much fanfare. Most were scheduled as replacement vehicles for Europe, and were held in huge banks near ports. The Army had told Dodge to decrease production, as the war appeared to be winding down.

Without a contract in hand, on a handshake, as was Chrysler's custom, given K.T. Keller's unbridled patriotism, the 15,000 truck project was on for China.

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A prototype was already built, as part of a 1939 proposal to the US Army. One thing led to another, and as such the truck was an engineer's exercise that really didn't get put together as shown above until late Spring 1942. It used the regular 1939 Dodge truck cab. From the cowl back, it was quite roomy, with extra space if additions were needed for more controls.

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The first prototype used regular truck fenders, but engineers quickly saw why the military specified "flat style" (actually slightly rounded) fenders when the trucks started going through mud. The mud would quickly build up in the fenders, even to the point of stopping the tires from turning, or lifting the front of the truck off the ground.

Mainly, the 1939 exercise quickly got turned away due to contractual obligations, and demands of the company; the prototype languished in a corner for months before a couple engineers started to speculate about what they could do.

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You can see the influence in the style of the post-war Power Wagon in the design of the 1940s military trucks. Dodge built over 43,000 of these 6X6 trucks, in addition to the 70,000 4x4 command cars, 60,000 4x4 ambulances (popular on TV shows like MASH) and the 40,000 replacement 4x4 trucks held in reserve for all military forces in 1944. The cab above was not the civilian version used by the Power Wagon or the Burma Road trucks.

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The four wheel drive system came from the early Dodge designs; the first 4x4 military Dodges had a single speed transfer case, but the half-ton 4.89 differential gearing was weak, so they increased it to 5.83. (When the ¾ ton 4x4 was modified into 1.5 ton 6x6, the military found it needed additional gearing, so Dodge added a two-speed transfer case.)

Dodge was not new to building multi-axle drive units, having started using them in 1934. Jeffery (later renamed Nash) had been making one since 1911. Dodge was, though, the first that could be engaged from inside the cab without having to get out, using one lever beside the transmission.

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The 1930s trucks were more conventional in appearance than civil units, but side visibility may have been impinged by the two spare tires sticking up in the driver's sight line.

Production of the 15,000 trucks started in October 1944, and ran into March 1946. The China-built Dodges were made with extra heavy duty components and design, and were right hand drive, with a GVW rating of 20,000 pounds and maximum payload of 11,200 pounds (this was rarely observed, with heavier loads being the norm). All season military traction 9.00/20 tires were installed on all 15,000 trucks, based upon Dodge experience with previous trucks for the military; they used ten-stud Budd disc wheels and had a 170 inch wheelbase.

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Seeing that the US was going to be able to fulfill his order for 15,000 trucks, Chiang Kai-shek wrote specifications he thought would hold back the factory, including a six cylinder engine with over 300 cubic inches. He was probably dumbstruck when Dodge reached into its 1938 parts bin and produced specifications, pictures, and a working 331 cubic inch L-head 6 cylinder engine, rated at 128 hp.

Only Dodge that had such a big six, from having built its own 6 cylinder diesel engine of the same size in 1938 and 1939 (which did not appear again, even for use in the war). The China Dodge was the only application of the 331 ci engine through 1946.

Chiang also specified that the trucks had to comply with Chinese vehicle laws; he felt that no one could jump from the left side drive to right side drive easily. Dodge was already prepared for this, having built hundreds of trucks for the British.

Chiang specified a 5 speed transmission, when he believed that no one had one, not recognizing that Dodge had a subsidiary that built just such a five speed for them for another military contract. Thus, the big engine was backed by a 13 inch clutch driving a 5-speed Clark heavy duty transmission.

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The photo below is correct, with the right hand drive from the US Army Specification Manual published in Chinese.


Dodge also produced Cab Over Engine trucks for the LEDO road project. These were heavy haulers, with all wheel drive, designed to move large trailer loads of goods. The chassis was a bigger version of the 2.5 ton China Dodge, expanded to handle the higher weights of the far bigger loads. More than a few were used to haul gasoline in tanker trailers to fuel the trucks along the LEDO road before the refueling stations were built. Some were canvas tops while others were enclosed cab models. They are not connected to the Power Wagons, except by parts.

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Thanks largely to Chiang's foot dragging, the road never reached the expectations of General Stillwell or his replacement, General Wydamayer. By the time the road opened, it had become superfluous. At its best, the road only delivered 1,600 tons of goods in a month, nowhere near the 65,000 tons that the Air Force had been routinely flying in, thanks to the introduction of specialized aircraft, better piloting skills, and rescue squadrons.

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