The DUKW was designed by Rod Stephens Jr., Dennis Puleston, and Frank W. Speir. Developed by the National Defense Research Committee and the Office of Scientific Research and Development, it was initially rejected by the armed services. When a United States Coast Guard patrol craft ran aground on a sandbar near Provincetown, Massachusetts, an experimental DUKW happened to be in the area for a demonstration scheduled to take place a few days later. Winds up to 60 knots (110 km/h), rain, and heavy surf prevented conventional craft from rescuing the seven stranded Coast Guardsmen, but the DUKW had no trouble, and the military opposition melted. The DUKW would later prove its seaworthiness by crossing the English Channel.
The DUKW prototype was built around the cab over engine six-wheel-drive military truck GMC ACKWX (a COE version of the GMC CCKW), with the addition of a watertight hull and a propeller. The final production design was based on the CCKW. The vehicle was built by the GMC division of General Motors. It was powered by a GMC Straight-6 engine of 270 in³ (4.416 L). The DUKW weighed 7.5 tons and operated at 6.4 mph (10 km/h) on water and 50-55 mph (80 km/h) on land. It was 31 feet (9.3 m) long, 8.25 feet (2.4 m) wide, and 8.8 feet (2.6 m) high with the folding-canvas top up. More than 21,000 were manufactured. It was not an armored vehicle, being plated with sheet steel between 1/16" and 1/8" thick to minimize weight. A high capacity bilge pump system kept the DUKW afloat if the thin hull was breached by holes up to a couple inches in diameter.
The DUKW was the first vehicle to allow the driver to vary the tire pressure from inside the cab, an accomplishment of Speir's device. The tires could be fully inflated for hard surfaces such as roads and less inflated for softer surfacesespecially beach sand. This added to the DUKW's great versatility as an amphibious vehicle. This feature is now standard on many military vehicles.
The designation as a DUKW is not a military pun - the name comes from the terminology used for military vehicles in World War II; the D indicates a vehicle designed in 1942, the U meant "utility (amphibious)", the K indicated all-wheel drive and the W indicated two powered rear axles. Although technically a misnomer, DUKWs are often referred to as duck boats.
The DUKW was used in landings in the Pacific, in North Africa, and on the D-Day beaches of Normandy. The World War II Allied Invasion at Normandy on 6 June 1944 remains the largest amphibious assault in history. Over 170,000 American, British, and Canadian soldiers were involved in the initial assault supported by over 5,000 ships and 10,000 aircraft of all types. The logistical challenge was to supply an Army in the face of enemy resistance, bring the supplies in by sea onto hostile shores without port facilities, and in enough quantities to sustain the fight so that a foothold could be achieved. With the enemy holding all available ports, DUKWs carried 18 million tons of supplies ashore in the 90 days following the landing.
The DUKW's ability to board and debark without assistance via way of an LST's ramp enabled the ship to anchor offshore, thereby reducing reef and beach congestion and lessened the danger of enemy fire on ship and personnel. Furthermore, the DUKW's ability to cross coral reefs and sandy beaches and then proceed inland to wherever supplies were needed saved what would otherwise have been countless man-hours of handling supplies.
The DUKW further proved its value with Marine forces at Okinawa. Heavy rains made the island a quagmire at times. Loading in rear areas, the DUKW’s then proceeded by sea to deliver needs to frontline units. Crews braved enemy shells and rough seas, delivering means of war to forward units. DUKWs from USMC Second DUKW Company even evacuated a unit trapped behind enemy lines.
DUKWs from that company may have been the first American craft to enter Naha Harbor from the sea and then proceed to its inner reaches entirely by water. A dozer tank scraped a road down a harbor bank to enable DUKWs to exit the water and deliver gas to a tank unit, preventing it from being pulled off the front due to lack of fuel and other supplies.
DUKWs may have made a contribution to Desert Storm. They were used in the late 1940's and early 1950's by coastal survey teams mapping the Persian Gulf coastline, which included photographs of the shoreline taken from DUKWs on the horizon.
In the latter '40s and throughout the '50s, while Speir, now Project Engineer for the Army's Amphibious Warfare Program, worked on 'bigger and better' Amphibious vehicles such as the 'Super Duck,' the 'Drake' and the mammoth BARC (Barge, Amphibious, Resupply, Cargo), a good many DUKWs were surplussed and put to good use as amphibious rescue vehicles by fire departments and even, coming full circle, by various Coast Guard stations. Britain's Royal Marines still keep a small fleet of DUKW vehicles for training purposes in Scotland.
Several were used by abalone fisherman of San Luis Obispo County California to take their catch right off the boats and directly to market, neatly combining the two steps of off-loading onto smaller craft, and then transferring to trucks once they reached the beach.
In the 1950's the USSR copied the DUKW and the Zavod Imeni Likhacheva factory started producing the ZiL-485 known also as BAW. Production was stopped in 1962.
Many DUKWs are still in use, as well as modern, purpose-built, amphibious tour buses, primarily as tourist transport in harbor and river cities, such as Galveston, Memphis, Boston, London, and Singapore. The Boston Red Sox celebrated their 2004 World Series victory with a parade of 17 DUKWs carrying members of the team over land and across the Charles River. One particular duck built in 1945 was loaned to a fire department during the Great Flood of 1993 and in 2005, the vehicle spent 10 days rescuing survivors from Hurricane Katrina. The DUKW maneuvered through flood waters, transporting victims from their rooftops to helicopter pads setup throughout New Orleans.
The DUKW’s operated by Galveston Duck Tours were built in 1945 and never saw action until 1998. Our DUKW’s have been re-built from the ground up and modified for your comfort and enjoyment. Our DUKW’s have undergone extensive modification and upgrades to withstand the salt water of the Gulf of Mexico. We are one of the few companies in the United States operating DUKW’s in salt water. The US Coast Guard inspects and certifies our DUKW’s yearly and works closely with us to ensure your safety. Our experienced captains are also US Coast Guard certified. There are currently about 25 DUKW tour companies in operation in the United States and we would urge you to take a “duck ride”, wherever your travels may take you.