Reconstructing history

12/17/2011 12:00 AM

03/27/2012 9:33 AM

"I've collected World War I stuff since I was 16 years old," David O'Neal said.

In the 34 years since, he has collected some amazing artifacts from "The Great War," ranging from helmets, uniforms and gas masks to the heavy cast iron corkscrew devices used to string barbed wire along the battlefield trenches.

But he felt he needed something bigger to bring it all together.

"I came across a photo of a 1917 ambulance in a bombed-out village in France... and it really spoke to me," he said.

It became clear: He needed to find one of those ambulances and restore it, or if that was impossible, build a faithful recreation of one of the Model T-based vehicles.

"When the United States entered the war in 1917, they needed an ambulance service of their own," O'Neal explained. The French army was already using Ford Model T chassis and fitting their own wooden ambulance bodies to them.

Many young Americans had joined the American Field Service to serve as ambulance drivers between 1914-1916, he said. So when the US Army Ambulance Service was formed, there already were drivers available.

But the US government needed 2,400 ambulances and they needed them built within three months. When none of the custom body manufacturers stepped up to provide them, Ford Motor Co. was contacted and took the contract itself, O'Neal said. It was able to deliver the ambulances on time, using the French design as a starting point.

"The ambulance drivers were not happy with them at first," O'Neal said. "They were not as strong... they were more flimsy. But it was a light vehicle that could get through harsh conditions and muddy fields. The only purpose for this vehicle was to get wounded soldiers from the front-line trenches back to triage stations," O'Neal said.

When the first ambulances shipped to Europe arrived battered from storage in the holds of ships, Ford began shipping them in crates, broken down into components. They were assembled on the docks and painted olive drab, then shipped to motor pools where unit numbers were stenciled on before they went into service, he explained.

"They used them to the point where they were falling apart. They ran them into the ground," O'Neal said.

He figures any that were salvageable after the war were turned into farmers' trucks in France and most of those were probably crushed for metal during World War II.

"This is an extinct vehicle, so I decided I would try to build one," he said. He found a moss-covered Model T touring car chassis in an antique salvage yard near Iola and trailered it home. Ford actually used the car chassis for the M1917 Army Ambulance because it hadn't yet introduced the bigger Model TT truck chassis, he said.

O'Neal stripped the chassis bare, rebuilt the engine and replaced the rusty lower cowl panels of the open-air body. He then began building the ambulance body itself, based on photos he was able to locate. None of the original drawings could be found, and he credits the Pioneer Flight Museum of Kingsbury, Texas, with giving him access to its recreated ambulance for measurements and other key background.

He crafted the body out of ash, poplar and pine and used laminated panels of masonite for the sides, approximating the material used on the original ambulances. The ambulance could haul three wounded soldiers on stretchers, or four sitting on fold-down benches in the back.

When his 20 horsepower ambulance was assembled, O'Neal handed his young daughter, Allison, a paint brush and together they applied the dull olive drab finish to the vehicle. "I wanted it to be as accurate as possible... and they were painted with paint brushes," he said.

The ambulance is lettered with "SSU 502."

"This unit supported US Marines at Belleau Wood," O'Neal said. "I chose this because I have several friends who are Marines and this was such a pivotal point in the war."

The ground-up project took almost exactly two years to complete. How accurate is it? O'Neal said he began receiving emails from a Polish model manufacturer, RPM, wanting to build scale model kits of his ambulance.

Doubtful at first, he agreed to the proposal and the company now makes exact replicas of his World War I ambulance in both 1:48 and 1:72 scale.

"I get emails from all over the world now from people asking me for details and pictures of it," O'Neal said. He said he and his family enjoy showing the ambulance at local car shows and occasionally take it out for a ride. "This is an extension of my collection... it really does draw a lot of folks' attention," he said.

To see the complete build process, go to O'Neal's website at http://www.ww1history.comFor more information on the model kits, email O'Neal at: shellshock@ww1history.comcq

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