I’m a career soldier. I enlisted as an infantry private in 1978 and retired in 2011 as a lieutenant colonel. My “African Queen” halftrack journey began in 2005 with my second Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) tour in East Africa.
To acclimate ourselves to the East African heat, we ran a six-mile loop around the airfield and down by the Gulf of Aden. Italian defensive positions left over from that country’s 1939 invasion of Ethiopia were visible along our route. On my third run, I worked my way through thick thorn brushes to explore one. That’s when I spotted the Queen.
I returned to the base and grabbed a pickup, some implements, and a couple of my troops who, like me, were curious to see more. Once we’d cleared a path through the thorns, I could see it was a complete U.S. Army 1943 White M16A2 MGMC (Multiple Gun Motor Carriage). It even had its M45 Maxson Quad Mount Gun Turret. As a former armor officer, I recognized the significance of this piece of WWII history. But how had it landed in the desert sands of Djibouti?
Track #276676 was built under contract at the White truck plant of Cleveland, Ohio, in May 1943. One of 43,000 halftracks built for the war, it was officially accepted by the army in 1943 and assigned the vehicle registration number of USA4049386.
Its WWII history is incomplete due to the record keeping of the day and the destruction of army records in a St. Louis warehouse fire in 1973. Most tracks built under contract went to combat units, so I believe this one served in the European Theater of Operations (ETO), but its assigned unit is unknown. M16 halftracks were used exclusively to provide antiair defense at bridgeheads and airfields and during breeching operations. Belts of M16 halftracks were deployed in defensive lines around the port of Antwerp, where they were credited with shooting down more than 1000 V-1 “buzz bombs” during 1944–45. Hitler’s effort to knock the port out of the war was foiled by hundreds of M16 tracks and their outstanding five-man crews.
Fast-forward to May 1952. United Nations forces, including the U.S. military, had been fighting in Korea for more than a year. China had entered the war, and the U.S. Army was desperate for a weapons system that could be used to defend against “human wave attacks.” More than 400 M16s were gathered from Europe and America and converted to M16A2 models under contract by Bowen-McLaughlin (now the FMC Corporation) in York, Pennsylvania. The Queen’s conversion came in July 1952—#315 of the 413 halftracks readied for Korea. The modification added a 10-inch ring under the turret so the four 50-caliber machine guns could be depressed to sweep the ground. The turret received a communications upgrade that enabled the gunner to talk via the intercom with the track commander or on the radios. Finally, an electrical system upgrade allowed the batteries driving the turret’s 100-amp motor to be charged by the halftrack’s engine. It also let the turret’s Briggs & Stratton motor charge the halftrack’s battery during Korea’s extreme winter.
On arrival in Korea, the Queen was assigned to the 50th Antiaircraft Brigade, AWSP (Automatic Weapons Self-Propelled), a separate combat unit charged with airfield protection and defending troop positions. In 1954, after the Korean ceasefire, the Queen was transferred along with three other halftracks and tanks to the French Army for deployment to Indochina (Vietnam). It ended up in the service of the French Foreign Legion and in 1956 was transferred to the Horn of Africa.
Stripped head bolts sidelined the Queen in 1958, and it was parked in the desert beside an airstrip. The turret was removed and replaced with a fixed missile launcher, and the crew compartment bulkhead was cut out to accommodate. Finally, in 1960, the track was decommissioned.
The next 45 years were hard on the Queen. It was vandalized, and all the original equipment was stripped. Surprisingly, when I found it, the engine and the drive-train were intact, and there was still oil in the block. The armor was complete, and it still had its Tulsa 10-ton winch. I had to rescue this machine.
After getting permission in writing from the French commander located near my base, I borrowed a heavy wrecker, towed the track in from the sand, and then stashed it in an out-of-the-way motor pool. I spent what little free time I had cleaning it and researching options for shipping it back to the U.S. News of my find got out quickly, however, and everyone wanted to claim it as some kind of trophy. I was serving on a joint task force, and there were lots of folks who outranked me. The navy JAG (judge advocate general) dropped a letter on my desk that said he was going to have the Queen seized as its value was more than the limit of $300 set by the government for the receipt of gifts, although I never stated that it was given to me as a gift by the French. Luckily, the French commander and I came to an understanding, and for the sum of 20,000 Djibouti francs ($100), I purchased the Queen. Into a shipping container it went, then back to America and into storage until I could get home.
I finished my 18-month tour and went home to Wisconsin in late March 2007. The Queen arrived in my driveway on a rainy April Fools’ Day. Immediately, I began preserving the original WWII paint and putting the track back to the condition it would have been in Korea. It was a joy to work on, and I was impressed by the craftsmanship and materials used in its construction.
Unfortunately, I was ordered to deploy a year later and didn’t get home again until I retired in October 2011. But during my time away, I sourced the equipment that would have been onboard the Queen during the Korean War, including original working radios, the turret generator, the gun site, a correct partition to replace what the French had cut out, new tracks, spare .50-caliber barrels, original tombstone ammo cans, tools, field gear, and more.
I restored the Maxson gun turret in 2015–16, rebuilding the gearboxes, fabricating a new wiring harness, repairing frozen and rusted linkages, and sourcing the original electrical Amphenol connectors and Packard slip ring. Folks all over the world tracked down items on my behalf or simply donated them.
My goal has always been to use the African Queen as an educational tool via exhibitions and shows, to celebrate the Greatest Generation’s sacrifices during WWII, and to recognize heroes like my dad, Tony, a combat engineer during the Korean War, who died in 2003. He passed to me his love for classic cars and old, unique vehicles, and I know he’s still looking over my shoulder as I continue to preserve this M16A2 and its history.