A New Branch for a New Army: The brief life of the US Army Motor Transport Corps

Hey folks! Welcome back to the blog. After a brief hiatus (and renewing our site domain) I’m back in the saddle to regale you with stories of the Liberty!

Today, we’re going to go a little bit more Liberty truck-adjacent. We’ve talked many times about the history of motorization on this blog. The Liberty truck itself is a direct result of the early motorization of the Army and this is what makes it unique. But in all this, we have talked little about the organization of the trucks and just how they fit into the greater AEF in WW1 and beyond, so today we are going to talk about the Army’s brief affair with a specific branch for motorized vehicles- the Motor Transport Corps. And like the formation of many groups and organizations throughout history the MTC was born out of a need for organization amongst chaos.

Motor Tranpsort Poster
A 1919 Recruitment Poster for the Motor Transport Corps showing the branch insignia (a winged helmet inside a truck tire) and a Packard 3-ton styled truck in the back ground.

The logistical and bureaucratic chaos of WW1 highlighted many deficiencies within the US Army’s Quartermaster Corps. In an Army which was by and large horse-drawn, the need for trucks grew tremendously overnight in April 1917 following the US declaration of war. Though the idea of standardized motor transport was in the works demand outstripped delay in standardization, thus the US Government began the desperate grab for any and all trucks it could get to try and support the needs of what would become America’s largest Army to date. As hundred of models and makes of trucks and cars began to enter the Army property books, the Quartermaster Corps struggled to keep even basic parts on-hand at the mechanic level. A long and convoluted supply system and corresponding funding meant that at the end of the day a supply officer or NCO’s request would take afar longer than necessary. Supply got bad enough at the truck operator level and time tables so tight that it wasn’t uncommon for trucks within a convoy to be cannibalized and left by the road side in favor of recovering the vehicle. In addition to the inability to obtain parts, the sheer number of parts to support the seemingly impossible array of vehicles both foreign, domestic and in between complicated an already strained Quarter Master Corps system which was overburdened even without the advent of motor vehicles.

Le Hauvre Motor Reception depot, 1918
A chaotic scene at Le Havre, one of the premier Motor truck reception ports in France. In thisĀ  photo 3 different types of US motor vehicles are immediately identifiable including the Liberty, FWD trucks, and Dodge touring car. The back of the photo reads “Motor Reception park at Le Havre, Base sec, no.4, where 1500 cars a month are assembled and repaired for use as convoys with equipment from port to front. M.T.C., Le Havre, Seine Inferieure, France, Dec.14, 1918.” (photo courtesy of McCormick Research Center archives)

By the late summer of 1918, it was evident that something had to give. The chaos of maintaining and supplying motor vehicles was becoming an animal of its own within the Quartermaster’s Motor transport section and demanded its own independent command. In order to better facilitate the acquisition, supply, and maintenance of the Army’s massive motor vehicle fleet the Motor Transport Corps was established independent of the QMC August 15th, 1918. This move was made almost exclusively in the context of the war in Europe and as such would only exist so long as the American Expeditionary Forces did. Upon formation the MTC adopted the branch color of purple (seen in the chords worn on the campaign hats of soldiers and MTC sleeve patches of the period). The MTC also adopted a branch insignia depicting a winged, US-style steel helmet (meant to evoke the speedy messenger God Hermes of Greek mythology) inside a motor truck tire/wheel. The war ended only a few months after the establishment of the MTC but its mission was far from over. Trucks and other motor vehicles continued to pour into French ports and maintenance parks well after the armistice and troops were needed to assemble, maintain and drive them. These tasks as well as the general oversight and coordination of the trucks as a fleet were the mission of the MTC.

693rd MTC Company, 1920s
An undated post card showing a Motor Transport Company (#693?) lined up in review, most likely for a command inspection during the period of the Motor Transport Corps. All the trucks appear to be Second-series models pointing to this photo having been taken in the United States somewhere after the war- most likely around 1920-21. (photo courtesy of the First Division Museum Motor Pool collection)

While the Bulk of the MTC mission focus applied to Europe and mopping up the logistical nightmare of the post-war AEF, trucks continued to replace the horse in military units across the continental United States in motor transport companies. These companies were organized of 20-30 vehicles and tasked with transportation duties related to their parent units as assigned. With more and more motor vehicles crisscrossing America however, one thing remained unprepared for the coming deluge of vehicles: good roads. The job of figuring out just how bad they were was motor truck-related, ergo it fell to the newly minted MTC and a young Major Dwight D. Eisenhower. Organized in the summer of 1919, the Motor transport Corps Trans-Continental Motor Convoy would become the first substantial military convoy attempt to cross the US from coast to coast (see upcoming articles this year for more info on this event in particular). Commanded by Eisenhower, the convoy of 64 vehicles (22 of which were Standard-B Liberty Trucks) covered 3600 miles in 62 days; traversing every type of environment from brick road, to concrete, to mud, and simple wagon/mule trails in the American west. The convoy became instrumental in determining the state of America’s automobile infrastructure and the requirements for sound military truck design, both results which left an indelible mark on the future president’s decisions to implement the interstate road system.

FWD recovers a Liberty truck
A commercial 3-ton truck belonging to Service Park Unit 595 recovers a Liberty truck that has gone a bit too off-road somewhere along the 3600-mile route of the ‘Eisenhower’ MTC Trans-Continental Motor Convoy, 1919.

The MTC would leave quite a mark on the US Army, and would become a source of many of the military’s earliest doctrine surrounding motor vehicles and their handling. As time went on, the motor truck only continued to become more prominent in US military planning. However, horse-drawn transportation would outlive the MTC by several years. The Motor Transport Corps provided many valuable lessons on the implementation of motor transport, but would ultimately be a victim of the cut-backs outlined in the National Defense Act of 1920 as the size of the US Army was rapidly reduced The assets, personnel and mission of the MTC would again be absorbed by the Quartermaster Corps as many of the maintenance parks under the MTC’s control were broken down throughout France. Though brief, the MTC’s existence was indicative of new thinking on how to manage the growing influence of transport in a modern motorized army. It built the foundation upon which the Quartermaster (and later Transportation) Corps would define truck and equipment maintenance. It played a significant role in the life of the Standardized Class-B military ‘Liberty’ truck, its implementation and story in the larger history of Army motorization. The MTC’s history, much like the Liberty, is a short one of little-known importance that we hope to make you just a bit more aware of in discussing it here!