Dodge WC54 Ambulance

The US Army's standard field ambulance during World War Two and into the fifties.

 The Dodge 1/2 ton 4x4 T214 WC-series was an extremely competent and succesfull vehicle and most would agree that it was also a good-looking truck. Sometimes known as the "Beep" (meaning "big" or beefed-up jeep), the Dodge served with all of the Allies during WW2 and remained in service with the post-war armies of France, Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark. 

It was produced in a range of variants which included weaponcarrier/gunplatform, telephone maintenance, emergency repair, commandcar, sedan and ambulance. On the collectors market the commandcar (WC56/WC57) has probably become the most sought after…and expensive, of the variants, while the weaponscarrier (WC51/WC52) is the most numerous. However, with its fully-enclosed steel body the WC-54 ambulance is an attractive and practical vehicle that warrants further study. 

Chrysler's wartime advertising described these vehicles as being " for medical rescue on the battle fronts… theirs is always the urgent mission of rescue...singly or in trains they move up towards the fronts and back to their bases with dependability the only word to define them". And of course this sums it up exactly. With its powerfull six-cylinder engine, big aggresive tyres, rugged construction and all wheel drive, the go anywhere Dodge was able to pick-up casualties from close to the frontline and carry them back to the clearing stations and fieldhospitals almost regardless of ground conditions….and if the Dodge couldn't make it there was always the little jeep-based fieldambulance which could literally go anywhere.   

The Dodge 3/4 ton WC-series was introduced in 1942, to replace the earlier 1/2 ton type which Dodge had been producing since 1939 and for which the US Army had proposed various improvements following experience in service. Prototypes of the new improved vehicle were produced by both Chrysler Cooperation and Ford but it was Chryslers Dodge Division which got the contract producing the trucks at the Mound Road plant of the former Fargo company. Although it was powered by the same six cylinder side valve engine as the older cousin at 78 in. the new vehicle was wider and at the same time also had a lower profile. It was fitted with larger "high flotation" tyres on combat rims to enhance traction on poor surfaces. And the opportunity was taken to provide a 50% increase in the payload. 

The wheelbase was 121 in where other variants uses a shorter 98in or 114in dimension, but like all of the 3/4 ton series the ambulance shared the same chassis configuration and automotive components. However, unlike most of the other 3/4 ton variants, the ambulance used what appeared to be essentially the same body as the 1/2 ton vehicle. It was fitted with a raked scattle and bonnet which was shared only with the carry-all and it also shared the radiator guard and wide flat wings as the other variants. There was a four speed New Process transmission with parttime 4x4 via a single speed transfercase. The live axles were suspended on a long travel semi elliptical springs and the suspension was designed to provide a comfortable ride on tough surfaces, although this often took its toll on the service life of the springs and bump stops. The chassis was very substantial with a huge flat front bumper and jeep style half bumperettes at the rear. 

The two door cab was fully enclosed, with a high, curved roof, V-shaped opening windscreen, and curiously recessed full lenght doors. Unlike most of the other 3/4 ton vehicles,  the ambulance did not carry its spare wheel across the driver's door opening!   

At the rear, the enclosed and ventilated steel-panelled body was constructed by the Wayne Works of Richmond Indiana. The vehicles were delivered  to Wayne as a chassis/cab with the bonnet and radiator, front wings, scuttle, windscreen and doors in place. Wayne constructed the entire body aft of the fire wall, as well as supplying the ambulance interior fittings, and there was a very promininent seam above the windscreen where the rear body roof was joined to the cab. Entry to the body was via double doors at the rear and there was a folding step to provide easier acces. Inside, the body was lined with Masorite (hardboard) and was equipped with two thinly placed lengitudinal folding benches providing seating for seven patients; there were also roof-mounted slings and wall brackets for two strechers with space for two more on the floor when the bench seats were folded out of the way. The rear compartment was not seperated from the driver and when the lower strechers were in use and the seats folded up, the only accomodation for the attendant was the passengerseat. There was stowage place for basic medical equipment. 

Outside the vehicle, there was usually a swivelling spotlight fitted to the left-hand windscreensupport, with a pistolgrip inside the cab to allow the driver to direct the light. A jerrycanholder was fitted halfway up the right-hand front wing, and a standard pioneer tool tray belted to the right hand side hard up against the front edge of the body beyond the waist moulding. Some vehicles were fitted with a large siren on the left hand front wing but, despite being much coveted by collectors, this was certainly not a standard fitting.  

Deliveries of the ambulance, charminly dubbed "the meatwagon" by the US troops, began in May 1942 and the design was "standardised" on 23 October 1942. A singel example was delivered to the British Wheeled Vehicle Experimental Establishment (WVEE) for assesment in mid 1943, and not surprisingly it was concluded that it offered a superiror performance to the Austin K2 4x2 field ambulance. As a result of the assesment and the general lack of British production capacity the WC54 ambulance was also adopted by the British Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and the Free French Forces. 

These vehicles were finished in standard US matt olive paint and were marked with the usual registration number, national symbols, bridge classifaction and unit numbers etc. In addition the word "ambulance" appeared over the windscreen with a small Geneva Red Cross on a white panel at either end. Early vehicles also carried a white panelled red cross centered on the body sides above the waist moulding a 42x40 in panel on the roof and two panels on the rear doors in overall. In October 1943 much larger red crosses were adopted 36x33in on the bodyside 64x60in on the roof, also centred on the wheel arch and a single panel 47x45in across both rear doors interrupted by the windows. 

Across the four years 1942-1945, total production of  the 3/4 ton WC-series T214 was 255.173 of these the number of ambulances was 22.857. The vehicles were supplied under the US government contracts W398-QM-11420 (850 examples), W398-QM-11422 (9945 examples), DAW398-QM-448 (16 examples), W398-QM-13596 (410 examples) and W374-ORD-2864 (11.636 examples). 

Very few changes were made to the vehicle during the production run, most being purely technical; the most obvious was the adaption of the larger diameter fuel-filler neck and matching recess in the body side in October 1943. 

One of the major criticisms of the vehicle was the space that it occupied during shipping due to the one piece box-like body. There was some talk about disassembling the body and delivering the vehicles in "two unit packs", or replacing the rear body with a canvas enclosure on top bows. These options were not pursued but in early 1943 the Ordnance Department and the Medical Department Equipment Laboratory started work on what was to become the WC64 "knockdown" (KD) ambulance. On this vehicle, the rear body really was a box which could be easily dismantled into a series of flat panels to reduce the required shipping place. In 1944, outstanding contracts for the WC54 were cancelled and production  terminated in April of that year. Deliveries of the WC64 KD design began soon after and the design was declared as "standard" on 29 March 1944 with the WC54 being downgraded to "limited standard". 

During the Korean war some WC54 US Army ambulances were converted to "open cabs" by fitting the scuttle and bonnet from either a weaponscarrier or command car. This necesitated the fitting of a partition across the front of the patient's compartment with a small access door cut into it. It's also worth pointing out that without its strectchers the vehicle was occasionally pressed into service as a van. 

This article appeared in the September 2001 edition of Classic Military Vehicle Magazine.