What the Heck IS That Thing????

In the day-to-day events of my regular job, I get asked a lot of questions….That’s what a  Reference Historian does. We answer questions. So today I got a call from a gentleman who said he had a photo of a vehicle, and he had NO idea what it was. Could he send it to me? Those of you who know me are well aware that I used to be one of the ordnance curators at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, and the wheeled and tracked vehicle specialist. I was intrigued…..I couldn’t WAIT to see it. I sat there, on pins and needles, until the email popped up.  I opened it, and the attachment, and started to laugh. The unknown vehicle was none other than a King Armored car!!!

I am quite sure there are many of you who are thinking, “What the heck is that??” Well, I happen to LOVE King armored cars. Working at the museum, I was involved in  the restoration of the King that  is currently on display at the museum….and so I thought I’d tell you a little bit about this ungainly (but loveable!!) machine!

So what exactly IS a King armored car?? And where does it fit into USMC history???  For that answer we must look to roughly the turn of the 19th century, a time when the Marine Corps was seeking to adapt to new ideas, to experiment, to innovate.

Shortly after the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, the attention of naval planners turned to the problem of seizing and holding advanced naval bases. Such temporary bases, often seized against opposition, would prove vital for the prosecution of war in distant waters. Almost immediately, Marine Corps doctrine and training embraced this new mission. By 1910, the first school of instruction in advanced base doctrine was established at New London. A year later it was moved to the Philadelphia Navy Yard where it remained until 1920.

In 1912, Colonel William F. Biddle, Commandant of the Marine Corps, outlined the major objectives of the Advanced Base School’s training program: to train officers and men in the handling, installation and use of advanced-base materials, to examine the weapons and equipment best suited to the seizure and holding of an advanced base, and to study those subjects that pertain “to the selection, occupation, and attack and defense of advanced base positions…”

Within this area of study, the Marine Corps began to experiment with new technology, to experiment with new weapons and equipment that could be employed in its mission of seizing and holding advanced bases. One promising innovation was the armored car.

The first mention of the armored car is found in the Quartermaster Marine Corps files in 1916. Funds were secured for the purchase of two armored cars. It is noted in those files that the US Army had two types under consideration, one manufactured by Bethlehem Steel, the other by the Armored Motor Car Company.

By August 1916, Captains Andrew Drum and Earl H. “Pete” Ellis were sent to Philadelphia to conduct preliminary testing on the Armored Motor Car model.

(YES!! Pete Ellis, the same “Amphibious Prophet” who would write Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia.” The same Pete Ellis who would describe in great detail how war with Japan would b prosecuted…Pete Ellis; brilliant, erratic, a drunkard, a man years before his time, and a Marine I admire beyond almost all others!)

Built on a King luxury sedan chassis and powered by an eight cylinder motor, the King armored car was fitted with quarter inch armor sections capable of resisting .30 caliber fire at 100 yards. Manned by a crew of three, the car featured a revolving turret and mounted a Benet-Mercie machine gun.

Testing included the viability of utilizing the car in ship-to-shore movements. Captain Drum reported the car was embarked upon a 40’ launch. While there were no appreciable problems with water transportation, getting the car ashore proved a more difficult task. A number of modifications were suggested by Drum and in October 1916, two additional cars were ordered and sent to Philadelphia for further testing.

In January 1918, General George Barnett, Commandant of the Marine Corps, directed the Quartermaster Marine Corps to “please take the necessary steps to procure eight armored cars similar to those furnished the Marine Barracks, Navy Yard, Philadelphia PA.” This is the genesis of the 1st Armored Car Squadron. Unit records show that on 1 January 1918, Colonel Ben Fuller noted “all members of the Armored Car Squadron joined Headquarters Detachment, First Regiment.” Commanded by Marine Gunner Charles Loring, who was later promoted to 2d lieutenant, the squadron averaged 36 men on the muster rolls. Further inspection and testing of the King armored cars was conducted by Captain Drum.

The discovery of photographs taken in Galveston, Texas, and an unpublished manuscript written by Lieutenant General Edward Craig, then a young lieutenant assigned to the 8th Marines, shed additional light on the history of the King armored car. While the King armored cars saw no service in Europe during World War I, Craig clearly states that two of the armored cars where loaded aboard the USS Hancock in Philadelphia for transport to Galveston where the regiment was poised to move into the Tampico oilfields. Additionally, there are several photographs in existence of the King armored car being used for recruiting purposes.

In November 1919, Drum’s report cast serious doubt on the design and performance of the King armored car. His report was quite scathing:

“Found only 7 in commission and 5 of these put through testing. Performance not all that good, as the design is poor and insufficient persons available to keep cars in running order. Only well-trained drivers can operate the cars. The XO of the armored car squadron, 2Lt Charles B. Loring, is one and can handle it in any terrain reasonably expected. Cars are underpowered, weak transmissions, but could render good service if overhauled. Recommend that of the eight cars at Phil, 6 be entirely taken into overhaul, other two to have armor removed, use chassis for spares. Recommend assign 30 men to the Armored Car Squadron full-time.  Attached sheet of possible engineering upgrades for machine shop, QM Dept Phil to consider.”

Instead, the 1st Armored Car Squadron was disbanded on 4 May, 1921.

Of particular note, however, is the assignment of the unit to the First Regiment. While no definitive use of the armored car emerged from its testing, assignment to the First Regiment is indicative that the Marine Corps recognized their potential use in the defense of advanced naval bases.

Five of the cars later saw service with the 2d Marine Regiment in Haiti. Equipped with the beloved Lewis gun, use of the King car shifted to conducting patrols. Haiti, however, had few roads, and once again, its design proved inadequate for the task at hand. The cars returned to Quantico in 1927.

It should also be noted that in January 1927, LtCol Noa, who was working on the East Coast Expeditionary Force planning contacted the QMMC regarding armored cars. The memo from the Quartermaster is as follows: “there are no armored cars available in this country" types in civil use for banks, etc. unsuitable. The four [sic?] AC in use in Haiti are fitted with one-pounders in turrets. On the King chassis which is unreliable, unsuitable”.

In April 1927, an urgent request from the Commanding General, Marine Corps Expeditionary Force, China, was sent to the QMMC, urging immediate deployment of light tanks or armored cars. The QMMC memo reads: “no procurement of Christie after defects revealed in '24 Culebra test; no std Acs (Armored cars), including the 5 in Haiti, unsatisfactory. Therefore recommends a light tank platoon be added to forces being sent to China.”

Another request for armored cars was made in May and again the QMMC notes that “neither Army nor MC has adopted any type of AC. There are five armored cars in Haiti which have never been successful due to the weight of the body being in excess of the eff load of the chassis. Recommend shipping these back to US for fitting with suitable chassis.”

The armored car was still in debate in 1933 when the Philadelphia Quartmaster reported to QMMC on one of the remaining King cars: “It is equipped with solid tires mounted on wood wheels. In this vehicle the steering gear is too short and the steering wheel rubs side armor. In fact, the wheel comes to drivers' knees. The floor is made of ¾" lumber. The steering gear is very light. The springs are weak. The frame has been straightened, has been drilled for two steering gear locations, and is very weak. The side armor had to be cut away in order to clear drag rod of steering gear. The front wheels are out of true due to the hubs being slightly offset." Parts are mostly dated 1917, impossible to replace. At present the vehicle can be operated, but, is absolutely unsafe at any speed exceeding 8 miles per hour, due to weak steering linkage, shimmy, and poor brakes."

In short, the Marine Corps tested the King armored car for a short period, found them both unreliable and unsuitable, and never adopted them for use. It was something of a armored car disaster. However, the King armored cars remained in storage until their disposal was authorized in 1934.

One interesting tidbit? In 1938, a request for three armored cars was made by Marines serving in the Philippines. The request stated “These are urgently needed by the 4th Mar for use in patrolling their sector and cannot be obtained in the Philippines." A response, dated 21 March 1938, read “No armored cars available in Marine Corps and no funds available for their purchase."  Ahh well…..

If you visit the National Museum of the Marine Corps, you can see the only surviving example of a King armored car.  Over a period of several months, the museum’s staff undertook a complete restoration of this historic vehicle. Fabrication of front wire cutters and bridging ramps was done by the Restoration staff. A historically documented, hand brushed, camouflage paint scheme was applied using images from the 1st Armored Car Squadron as a template. (And the paint is AWESOME!!)  It is NOTHING less than a spectacular example of this early armored technology, and, for all its myriad faults, nothing less than a concrete example of the Marine Cops’ ability to innovate and adapt to new technology…much as we see the Marine Corps doing today…. Long Live the King!!

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