Roebling's Amphibian The Origin Of The Assault Amphibian
SUBJECT AREA History
THE ORIGIN OF THE ASSAULT AMPHIBIAN
RICHARD W. ROAN
Command and Staff College
Marine Corps Development and Education Command
Quantico, Virginia 22134
TABLE OF CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION Pages 1 - 3
CHAPTER l: Assault From The Sea Pages 4 - 16
CHAPTER 2: Donald Roebling's Alligator Pages 17 - 34
CHAPTER 3: The Marine Corps' Amphibian Pages 35 - 48
EPILOGUE Pages 49 - 52
CONCLUSION Pages 53 - 55
NOTES Pages 56 - 61
BIBLIOGRAPHY Pages 62 - 69
TITLE: Roebling's Amphibian: The Origin of the Assault Amphibian
The amphibian tractor played a decisive role in contributing
to the United States Marine Corps' amphibious victories in World
War II. In a letter sent from Okinawa in 1945 Marine Major
General Roy S. Geiger called amphibian tractors, "the work horses
of the Marine Corps." He went on to state, "Except for the
'amtracs'it would have been impossible for our troops to get
ashore on Tarawa, Saipan, Guam or Pelelieu without taking severe,
if not prohibitive losses." In 1944, then-Commandant of the
Marine Corps, Lieutenant General Alexander A. Vandegrift wrote,
"Our success in the bitter fighting at Tarawa was due in a
considerable measure to the magnificent performance of the
Since World War II, the amphibian tractor, now known as the
assault amphibian vehicle, has become a mainstay of the Marine
Corps' amphibious arsenal and will remain in the vanguard of
amphibious assaults well into the twenty-first century. Despite
the assault amphibian vehicle's significant role in Marine Corps
history and modern operations, the story of the origin of this
venerable amphibian remains largely untold. The purpose of this
study is to examine the earliest years of the assault amphibian
vehicle and identify those factors that led to the vehicle's
fortuitous introduction to the Fleet Marine Force in 1941.
This study of the origin of the Marine Corps' amphibian
vehicle begins with a general overview of the Marine Corps'
development of the amphibious doctrine during the two decades
preceding World War II. The study then turns to the remarkable
story of the eccentric inventor of the amphibian tractor, Donald
Roebling. The diverse factors that influenced the pioneering
efforts that led to Donald Roebling's achievement are reviewed.
The narrative then concludes with a discussion of the joint
efforts of the Marine Corps and Donald Roebling to produce the
vehicle that would eventually spearhead the Marine Corps' march
across the Pacific in World War II.
The United States Marine Corps' assault amphibian vehicle
stands today as the world's only seaworthy battlefield transport.
There is no more obvious symbol of the Marine Corps' unique
capability of maneuver on a battlefield including open sea,
plunging surf and the entire spectrum of land terrain. The
course of the United States' victorious march across the Pacific
in World War II would have been decisively more difficult and
prolonged without the assault amphibian vehicle's predecessor,
the amphibian tractor. And, it is difficult to imagine a modern
exercise of the Marine Corps' primary task of amphibious assault
without the routine participation of assault amphibian vehicles.
The assault amphibian vehicle has become a commonplace and
reliable workhorse of amphibious operations. Yet, the history of
the assault amphibian vehicle, particularly the vehicle's
remarkable origin, remains largely untold.
The purpose of this study is to focus on the origin of the
assault amphibian vehicle in an attempt to fill in the many gaps
in the story of the earliest years of one of the Marine Corps'
most venerable performers. It is hoped that this story will help
to provide a special historical perspective that may contribute
to the ongoing debate over the future of amphibious vehicles.
In addressing the origin of the Marine Corps' amphibian, a
remarkable and unlikely tale unfolds. The factors leading to the
arrival of the first amphibian tractors on the beaches of Guadal-
canal in 1942 include some of the same developments that placed
United States Marines, and not U.S. Army soldiers, in the
vanguard of amphibious warfare. The Japanese seizure of central
and southern Pacific islands at the close of World War I made
Japan the primary focus of United States naval war planning and
study. These efforts led to the recognition of the requirement
to aggressively seize advanced bases for the United States Navy.
Prior to this recognition the Navy's primary emphasis had been on
the traditional task of defending the Navy's overseas facilities.
The Japanese threat shifted the emphasis from defense to offense.
At the same time, the United States Marines emerged from World
War I searching for a meaningful and unique mission worthy of
ensuring the Corps' continued institutional existence. Evolving
from a decade of threatened army encroachment, skeletal budgets
and vigorous, sometimes rancorous, Corps-wide conflict and
debate, the unique mission of offensive amphibious warfare became
the Marine Corps' proprietary domain and primary task. The newly
focused Marine Corps spent the 193Os developing and practicing
an amphibious doctrine that until the last months before World
War II dangerously lacked the hardware to transform theory into
Joining Japanese imperial expansion and the U.S. Marine
Corps' proprietary acceptance and development of amphibious
warfare as factors leading to the origin of the amphibian
tractor was an enigmatic personality totally unrelated to the
Pacific, the Marine Corps or the business of war. The story of
the robust eccentric millionaire Donald Roebling, inventor of the
amphibian tractor, adds one of the most unusual chapters to a
Marine Corps' history full of unusual characters. Finally, the
amphibian tractor would never have been conceived without the
disastrous Florida hurricane of 1928. Japanese aggression,
Marine Corps innovation born of institutional paranoia, an
eccentric millionaire and a devastating hurricane; these were the
diverse ingredients that joined to produce the Marine Corps'
Assault From The Sea
The Japanese threat in the Pacific and the U.S. Marine Corps
could not have been further from Donald Roebling's thoughts as he
handcrafted his first amphibian Alligator in 1935. Reobling's
efforts were directed at creating a land-sea hybrid capable of
negotiating swamps and flooded areas to rescue hurricane
victims.1 Yet, when the Marine Corps fortuitiously discovered
Roebling's Alligator in 1937 it appeared as an unsolicited and
hitherto unconceived solution to one of the most basic problems
of the Corps' newly developed amphibious doctrine. Marine Corps
thinkers had not seriously sought a truly amphibian vehicle like
Roebling's Alligator. The emphasis of innovation and progress
had been on the development of surf-capable landing boats.2 But,
the unexpected arrival of Roebling's amphibian vehicle perfectly
complemented the existing landing boats and provided an ideal
tool to help support the Marine Corps' amphibious doctrine. This
doctrine that awaited the addition of the Alligator in the late
1930s grew from two decades of U.S. Navy and Marine Corps
historical and strategical innovation and evolution.
A new world order emerged from the First World War. The
central European powers were defeated and the eyes of America
shifted westward to the threat of Japanese expansion in the
Pacific. Japan had seized Germany's central Pacific islands in
the Marshalls, the Carolines and the Marianas and threatened
territorial expansion in China, Southeast Asia and the South
Pacific. Japanese expansion clearly challenged United States
Pacific influence and threatened exposed American trade routes
to China and the Phillipines. By 1920, Japan had become the
primary focus of United States Navy war planning.3
A Pacific Ocean war with Japan had been considered by the
United States War Department prior to World War I in a
contingency plan entitled War Plan ORANGE, one of a series of
color coded global plans. By 1921 the Navy Department had
thoroughly reviewed War Plan ORANGE and drafted a new plan for
war with Japan that envisioned the Japanese using her island
territories and a powerful new Navy to challenge the U.S. Navy in
the Central Pacific. A key element of the new War Plan ORANGE
was the recognition by Navy Department planners that the defeat
of Japan would require the offensive seizure of island bases held
by the Japanese as well as the more traditional task of defending
the Navy's advanced Pacific bases. This shift from the exclusive
consideration of defending naval bases to offensive seizure of
new bases was a conceptual watershed that naturally suggested a
significant new role for the Marine Corps. In January 1920 Chief
of Naval Operations Robert E. Coontz advised the Marine Corps
Commandant, Major General George Barnett, that War Plan ORANGE
had become the primary target of Navy planning and suggested that
the Marine Corps develop plans, programs and forces to support
the plan for war with Japan. The Admiral urged General Barnett
to focus particularly on the roles of advanced naval base seizure
and defense.4 However, General Barnett was reluctant to throw
his Marine Corps on the War Plan ORANGE bandwagon. Despite the
Commandant's reservations the leaders of the U.S. Navy as well as
a growing number of progressive Marine Corps officers continued
to urge the Marine Corps' full participation in the advanced base
issue, with particular emphasis on offensive amphibious
Much like the amphibian tractor that would unexpectedly
appear in 1937, the United States Marine Corps in 1920 was a
solution waiting for a problem, an answer waiting for the right
question. Upon General Barnett's end of tour as Commandant of
the Marine Corps in June 1920, the progressive thinking John A.
Lejeune assumed the Marine Corps' top post. General Lejeune was
keenly attuned to the Marine Corps' traditional requirement to
fight for institutional existence and believed that the
development of unique (from the U.S. Army) capabilities and the
assumption of a unique task or mission best addressed this
requirement. This theme was expressed by Lieutenant General
Victor H. Krulak in his book, First To Fight as he wrote, "The
continuous struggle for a viable existence fixed clearly one of
the distinquishing characteristics of the Corps."5
General Lejeune saw the Marine Corps' service with the U.S.
Fleet, and particularly the role of supporting War Plan ORANGE
requirements for advanced naval base seizure and defense, as the
key to ensuring the Corps' institutional survival. In 1922,
Commandant Lejeune wrote to the General Board of the Navy
concerning the Marine Corps' peacetime duties and wartime
missions and asserted that, "the primary war mission of the
Marine Corps is to supply a mobile force to accompany the fleet
for operations on shore in support of the fleet." He called this
wartime role the, "real justification for the continued existence
of the Marine Corps."6 General Lejeune's views were contested by
many of the Marine Corps' senior leaders, including the
Commanding General of the Marine Corps' base at Quantico,
Virginia, Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler. General Butler
believed that the Marine Corps' future was best directed as far
away from the Navy as possible.7 Throughout the decade of the
1920s (Lejeune was Commandant from 1920 to 1928) General Lejeune
exercised his persuasive leadership to shift a growing number of
Marine officers to his belief on the primacy of the mission of
service with the Navy. He generated annual fleet landing
exercises during the 1922 - 1925 period and gradually increased
the emphasis on landing operations at the Marine Corps Schools at
Quantico. The Commandant's efforts set the stage for the Marine
Corps' development of the amphibious doctrine during the 1930s.
Among General Lejeune's many contributions to the
development of the Marine Corps' role as the nation's arm of
amphibious power was his inspiration of the eccentric prophet of
amphibious warfare, Lieutenant Colonel Earl Hancock Ellis, USMC.
Born in Luka, Kansas in 1880, Ellis graduated from high school
and enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1900. His exceptional
intelligence and professional zeal led to his commissioning as a
second lieutenant in 1901. Remaining unmarried and totally
immersed in his Marine Corps duties, Ellis soon gained a Corps-
wide reputation as a brilliant staff officer and a driven
workaholic. These qualities earned him the respect and
protection of senior officers willing to overlook his alcoholism,
fiery temper and impatience.8 Captain Ellis attended the Naval
War College during the 1911 - 1912 term and was invited to remain
as an instructor on the staff of the college. While serving at
the Naval War College, he condensed a series of lectures into a
paper entitled "Naval Bases; Location, Resources, Denial of
Bases, Security of Advanced Bases." This 1913 study addressed
one of Ellis' principle passions, the problems and techniques of
offensive and defensive amphibious operations against the
Japanese in their Pacific island strongholds. Ellis' paper
helped to establish his reputation as one of the Corps' leading
theorists. He joined a handful of progressive Marine Corps
officers, including John H. Russell and Eli K. Cole, already
noted for their pioneering work in operations with the fleet.
Major Ellis later served with distinction in France in World War
I, receiving a Navy Cross for his duty with the 4th Marine
Brigade. In 1921, the recently appointed Commandant of the
Marine Corps, John A. Lejeune, summoned Major Ellis to the newly
formed Division of Operations and Training at the Marine Corps
headquarters and tasked him to study and write about the Marine
Corps' role in the Navy's War Plan ORANGE.10
Major Ellis' response to General Lejeune's assignment was a
document that became a prophetic beacon for modern amphibious
warfare doctrine. Revising his 1913 Naval War College study,
Ellis concentrated on the tactics of seizing advanced coaling and
repair stations for the Navy in the Japanese-held coral atolls
and volcanic islets of the Caroline, Marshall and Mariana
Islands. His conclusions marked a break with tradition in that
no longer would the primary role of Marines be to defend advanced
naval bases; instead Marines would attack and seize these bases
from a determined enemy.11 The mission of the Marine Corps would
be offensive amphibious operations.
As the result of the wholesale failure of the British
amphibious campaign at Gallipoli in the Dardenalles during World
War I, the majority of the world's military theorists largely
discounted amphibious assaults as being too difficult, indeed
almost impossible.12 Major Ellis confidently insisted that
amphibious operations against the Japanese could be successful
and provided the theoretical tactical blueprint for these
operations. While he underestimated the fighting qualities of
the Japanese soldier (he wrote, reflecting the values of his
time, "Our advantages over the enemy will be those generally
common to the Nordic races over the Oriental; higher individual
intelligence, physique and endurance"),13 Ellis prophetically
sketched the Marine Corps' Pacific island battles of World War II
with uncanny accuracy. The product of Ellis' study, entitled
"Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia, 1921" was accepted in
total by General Lejeune, and later, the Navy Department. The
study was approved as Operation Plan 712D, an annex to the Navy's
War Plan ORANGE.14 Earl Ellis' far-sighted work would become the
blueprint for the Marine Corps' amphibious warfare planners of
Shortly after completing his work for General Lejeune in
1922, Major Ellis' services were requested by the fledgling
Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI). ONI earmarked Ellis to join
a team being formed to spy on the Japanese in the Far East. The
team members would be posing as participants in scientific and
photographic expeditions. Earlier in his career, Ellis had
performed intelligence work for the Marine Corps in Central
America. General Lejeune granted Ellis a leave of absence to
work for ONI and Ellis headed for the Pacific. Soon breaking
away from ONI's control, Ellis made several failed personal
attempts to penetrate the Japanese-held islands in the central
Pacific via Australia, posing as a merchant for the Hughes
Trading Company in New York. After being hospitalized in
Yokohoma, Japan, in August 1922 for "severe nervousness"
(probably alcholism) and generating genuine concern from U.S.
Navy and diplomatic officials because of his boasting and erratic
behavior, Ellis disappeared sometime in the autumn of 1922. Earl
Ellis mysteriously died at Parao in the Caroline Islands on 12
May 1923. Most authorities attributed his death to excessive
alcoholism, some accused the Japanese in the Carolines of foul
play. The U.S. Navy pharmacist mate sent to Parao to investigate
and recover Ellis' remains, Lawrence Zembsch, was later killed
along with his wife in an earthquate that devastated Yokohama,
Japan, on 1 September 1923.15 In his history of the Marine
Corps, Semper Fidelis, Allan R. Millett reports that Earl Ellis'
mysterious death made him a, "martyr in the eyes of World War II
Marines and gave his studies the historic glow of prophecy."16
It would be a mistake to assert that General Lejeune and
Earl Ellis immediately and radically redirected the efforts of
the Marine Corps toward amphibious warfare during the 1920s.
More correctly, they provided the intellectual foundation for
the fruition of the amphibious doctrine in the 1930s. The
Marine Corps did, however, execute limited tests of Earl Ellis'
theories during the 1920s. Under the progressive leadership of
amphibious warfare pioneers Colonel Eli K. Cole, USMC, and
Colonel Dion Williams, USMC, Marines participated in fleet
landing maneuvers in the Caribbean during the years 1922 through
1924 and in Hawaii in 1925. These exercises were invaluable in
providing an opportunity for most of the Corps' field grade
officers (senior leaders during World War II) to experiment with
amphibious tactics and equipment. Ironically, the primary
benefit of these exercises was to demonstrate that Earl Ellis'
amphibious concepts remained woefully theoretical and that the
equipment of the day (particularly landing craft) fell short of
the minimum requirements of amphibious assaults.17 By 1926, the
Marine Corps' involvement in Haiti, China and Nicaragua consumed
the energy and manpower of the Corps and postponed serious
progress in the development of amphibious doctrine to the next
In 1933 the institutional existence of the Marine Corps was
challenged by the U.S. Army under the leadership of General
Douglas MacArthur. Like generations of soldiers before and after
him, General MacArthur coveted the funds provided to the Marine
Corps while questioning the need for a separate service whose
land combat role appeared similar to that of the Army.19 Like
General Lejeune before him, the Marine Corps' fifteenth
Commandant, General Ben H. Fuller, responded by touting
amphibious warfare as a unique and meaningful raison d'etre for
the Corps. Fuller was vigorously supported and encouraged by his
assistant, General John H. Russell, a long-time visionary and
proponent of amphibious warfare as the Marine Corps' primary
mission. The result of this joust with the Army was the Navy
General Board's first-time official recognition of the seizure
and defense of advanced bases as the Marines' most important job.
Equally important, General Russell successfully spearheaded the
approval by the Chief of Naval Operations and the Secretary of
the Navy of a new official designation for the Marine Corps'
forces operating with the Navy fleet - the Fleet Marine Force.20
The Fleet Marine Force became a nominal reality on 7 December
1933 with Navy Department Order 241.21 With exactly eight years
left before Japanese bombs would fall on Pearl Harbor, the Marine
Corps had a basic amphibious theory (Ellis' plan) and a new name
for its amphibious forces. But the Corps still lacked the
detailed doctrine, specialized equipment and manpower to make the
amphibious idea a reality.
Commencing in 1931, a special committee of staff members
from the Marine Corps' Field Officers School at Quantico,
Virginia, began work on a much needed manual addressing the
doctrine of amphibious operations. Work on this ground-breaking
manual proceeded slowly through late 1933 when progress was
interrupted by the mobilization of the 7th Marine Regiment for
duty in Cuba. The mobilization brought the departure of
several of the key officers on the manual writing committee.
Major General James C. Breckinridge, USMC, then the Commanding
General of the Quantico base, recommended to the Commandant that
all instruction at Quantico's officer schools be discontinued
and that the schools' staff and students join together and devote
the entire 1933-1934 academic year to the production of a manual
for landing operations. The Commandant agreed with General
Breckinridge and classes were discontinued on 14 November 1933.
Banding together in a dynamic confluence of creativity and
teamwork, the assembled officers of the Marine Corps Schools
produced a landmark manual. Guided by many of Earl Ellis'
prophetic concepts, they codified the basic doctrine, tactics and
equipment of amphibious warfare into a document that, almost in
its original form, continues to guide the amphibious doctrine of
the modern Marine Corps. By June 1934, the "Tentative Manual for
Landing Operations" was essentially complete. A mimeographed
copy of the Tentative Manual was used as a training manual at the
Marine Corps Schools during the 1934-1935 academic years. During
subsequent years, the Tentative Manual experienced numerous minor
revisions and was officially published as the "Landing Operations
Doctrine, U.S. Navy 1938," in November 1938.22
By 1938 the Marine Corps had produced, in the "Tentative
Manual for Landing Operations," a solid doctrinal manual for
amphibious warfare. This manual supported the Corps' primary
mission of amphibious warfare, approved by the Navy Department in
1933. But, the Marine Corps still lacked the basic amphibious
tools to make the amphibious doctrine a reality. In 1935, the
Marine Corps commenced a series of Fleet Landing Exercises
(FLEX's) designed to test the theories of the newly codified
amphibious doctrine as well as to provide practice in landing
operations desperately needed by both the Navy and the Marine
Corps. Each year from 1935 through 1941, elements of the Fleet
Marine Force joined with a Navy task force to conduct landing
operations in the Caribbean or the Pacific.
In the excellent review provided by Lieutenant General
Holland M. Smith in several 1946 issues of The Marine Corps
Gazette, General Smith documented the activities, lessons
learned and deficiencies of the annual Fleet Landing Exercises of
the 1935-1941 period. An obvious highlight of General Smith's
review is his repeated emphasis on the major deficiency of the
Marine Corps' amphibious capabilities - the shortage and total
inadequacy of landing craft.23
By 1940, Andrew Higgins had provided a family of
exceptionally capable personnel and vehicle transporting landing
boats that began to partially alleviate the Marine Corps' landing
craft problems. However, even the remarkably capable Higgins
boats floundered in high surf, grounded on sand bars, avoided
coral reefs and debarked their precious cargo of Marines at the
point of greatest crisis, the water's edge. The Marine Corps
clearly required truly amphibious vehicles or craft to
successfully tackle the most obvious challenge of amphibious
assaults - the uninterrupted transition from sea to land.
Despite this widely recognized requirement, virtually no
practical progress in the development of amphibious craft was
made by the Marine Corps prior to the eve of World War II. There
were two interesting experimental amphibian tanks, one American
and one British, that were considered but rejected. In the 1924
fleet maneuvers at the Caribbean island of Culebra, the Marines
tested a seven-ton amphibian tank, mounting a 75 millimeter gun,
built by Walter Christie of the Sun Shipbuilding Company of
Chester, Pennsylvania.24 Christie's tank was propelled in the
water by two boat-type screws and had an odd suspension system
consisting of both tracks and rubber tires. The vehicle had
performed impressively in demonstrations on the Hudson and
Potomac Rivers but proved to be unseaworthy and dangerous in the
open sea and surf at Culebra. The Christie Tank was discarded by
the Marine Corps and the concept was later sold to the
Japanese.25 Walter Christie subsequently gained considerable
repute for his innovative development of land tracked vehicle
suspension systems. In 1931 the British War Office tested an
amphibian vehicle similar to the Christie Tank. The Vicker-
Armstrong Light Amphibious Tank weighed 2.17 tons and mounted a
30 caliber machine gun. The British amphibian was reliable and
relatively fast on land (27 mph) but slow (3.7 mph) and unsteady
in the water. It was rejected by the British and never tested by
the United States but purchased and successfully developed by the
Soviet Union as a river-crossing amphibian.26 The Vicker-
Armstrong Tank was the forerunner of the Soviet World War II T-37
and modern PT-76 amphibious tanks.
The failure of the Christie Amphibian Tank and the Vicker-
Armstrong Light Amphibious Tank to meet the need of the Marine
Corps for a truly seaworthy and versatile amphibian vehicle left
a void that persisted almost to the final days preceding World
War II. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the Marine Corps'
development of a true amphibian lagged as the result of scarce
military funding and more vigorous interest in the development of
landing boats, amphibious ships and modernization of the Corps'
basic land fighting weapons. While conflict with Japan appeared
increasingly imminent as war ignited in Europe in 1939, the
Marine Corps still lacked a suitable amphibian vehicle to support
the amphibious doctrine it had developed over the previous two
By the end of the 1930s the United States Marine Corps had
claimed a solid foundation of institutional longevity with the
official acceptance and development of the amphibious mission.
Through the pioneering efforts of John A. Lejeune, Earl H. Ellis,
John H. Russell and a generation of young officers serving at the
Marine Corps Schools at Quantico, the Marine Corps faced the
threat of amphibious war in the Pacific with a clear, detailed
and valid amphibious doctrine. The Fleet Landing Exercises of
the late 1930s prepared thousands of Marines and sailors for the
unique challenges of attacking and defeating a determined enemy
from the sea. But, without decisive and rapid advances in the
tools of amphibious warfare, particularly amphibious landing
craft, the Pacific war against the Japanese promised to be
Donald Roebling's Alligator
There could be no more unlikely Marine Corps hero than
Donald Roebling. The rotund, eccentric inventor of the amphibian
tractor is rightly credited for making a decisive contribution to
his nation's victory in World War.II. Yet his creative success
was achieved totally beyond any military influence. For this
reason, Donald Roebling's gift of the amphibian tractor to the
Marine Corps just in time to spearhead the Corps' amphibious
assaults in the Pacific is often, and quite correctly, attributed
to fortuity, fate, or blind luck. But Donald Roebling's inven-
tion was a product of a uniquely American experience. Donald
Roebling and his Alligator were progenies of eighteenth-century
immigration, the boom of American industrialism, entrepreneurial
capitalism, and Yankee ingenuity. The fortunate meeting of
Roebling's Alligator and the war-bound United States Marine Corps
was a uniquely American accident.
John Augustus Roebling, Donald Roebling's great grandfather,
immigrated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania from Muhlhausen, Prussia
in 1831. Born in Prussia in 1806 and educated as a civil
engineer at the Royal Polytechnic Institute in Berlin, John
Roebling soon gained employment as an engineer with the state of
Pennsylvania. He rapidly built a reputation for dependability,
industriousness, and brilliant engineering innovation. By the
early 1840s, Roebling had embarked on a career as one of
America's pioneer builders of suspension bridges. Among others,
he designed and built highway bridges over the Monongahela River
in Pittsburgh and the Ohio River in Cincinnati as well as
America's first cable suspension railroad bridge over the Niagara
River. John Roebling's landmark contribution to the science of
bridge building was his invention of high strength steel wire.
In 1848 he moved his family to Trenton, New Jersey, and built a
factory for the production of steel wire and other steel
products. Roebling became famous as the "father of the modern
era of the great suspension bridge," and represented the epitome
of the confident, enlightened American engineer. In 1869,
Roebling, assisted by his son, Washington A. Roebling, commenced
his most challenging project, the Brooklyn Bridge. In June of
1869, John Roebling's foot was crushed when he was struck by a
ferryboat while surveying the Brooklyn Bridge site. Tragically,
he died several weeks later of tetanus as the result of the freak
Washington Augustus Roebling, Donald Roebling's grandfather,
was born in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania in 1837. He graduated from
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, in 1857 and
became his father's principal assistant. In 1861 he enlisted as
a private in the Union army. He soon gained a commission as an
officer and served most of the Civil War as a colonel of engi-
neers under Irvin McDowell. Throughout the rest of his life,
Washington Roebling enjoyed being called "The Colonel." Upon the
death of John A. Roebling, Washington Roebling assumed the lead-
ership of the Brooklyn Bridge project. He completed the bridge
in 1883 and is credited as the "Builder of the Brooklyn Bridge."
During the 1870s, Washington Roebling built his father's Trenton
wire rope manufacturing plant into an industrial giant. The
company, by then called John A. Roebling's Sons, became the
foundation of the fabulous wealth of the Roebling family.
Washington Roebling built a new factory for the expanding company
eight miles south of Trenton on the Delaware River and estab-
lished a model town around the factory. The town of Roebling,
New Jersey, remains today as a symbol of the height of American
John A. Roebling II, Donald Roebling's father, was
Washington Roebling's most trusted son and assistant. He was
born in 1867 and, like his father, was trained as an engineer at
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Near the turn of the century,
Washington Roebling's health failed (the elder Roebling suffered
from severe decompression sickness, "the bends", resulting from
extensive underground work while building the caissons for the
Brooklyn Bridge) and John assumed direction of the Roebling
family's financial interests.2
The wartime contribution of the Roebling family during World
War I foreshadowed the decisive role that Donald Roebling would
play in winning the Second World War. In November 1915, the John
A. Roebling's Sons plant in Trenton suffered two fires in one
week with damages valued at over $1,000,000. The fires followed
months of threats from prominent Germans that American industrial
plants would be crippled. Immediately after the Roebling plant
fires, an American German-language newspaper, the Brooklyn Frei-
Presse, ran the headline, "RENDERED HARMLESS - Factory Building
of Roebling Company Reduced to Ashes - Was Used to Produce Wire
for the Allies." Actually, John A. Roebling's Sons' production
capacity was only briefly handicapped by the fires. The company
soon geared up and expanded to play a major role in the fight
against German submarines. During the war, the Roebling company
produced over 95 million feet of steel rope and coupling devices
to build submarine nets for American and European harbors and the
framework for the 1918 North Sea Mine Barrage. The North Sea
Mine Barrage was credited with destroying at least twenty-three
U-Boats and putting an end to the menace of German subs. In
1931, the German biographer, Wilhelm Anener, wrote of the
Roebling participation in the defeat of Germany, "To us it
appears tragic fate that this emigrant's cleavage of nationality
exerts its effect long after his time. With Roebling the Father-
land not only lost an engineering genius and a great industria-
list; but that which he created has worked damagingly against
Germany in that war materials in enormous quantities have been
By the end of World War I, John A. Roebling II had concen-
trated his efforts on banking and the management of the Roebling
family fortune, leaving the leadership of the John A. Roebling's
Sons plants to other family members. John and his wife,
Margaret, built a sprawling estate called the Boulderwood Mansion
in Bernardsville, New Jersey, only thirty miles west of John's
office complex in New York City. He also built a lovely winter
home in Lake Placid, Florida, thirty-five miles northwest of Lake
Okeechobee in the Florida Everglades.4 By the 1920s, John A.
Roebling II had become a nationally noted financier, entre-
preneur, philanthropist, and humanitarian.
John Roebling's son, Donald, would never be accused of being
a conformist. Throughout his life Donald Roebling, the creator
of the amphibian tractor, would walk a singular path of sublime
eccentricity. Donald Roebling was born in New York City on 15
November 1908. Young Roebling, strong-willed, temperamental, and
overweight, spent his childhood in the luxury of his parents'
Bernardsville, New Jersey, mansion. Shipped off to the
Stuyvesant Prep School in Warrenton, Virginia, he demonstrated
little scholastic aptitude and, upon graduation, chose not to
follow the Ivy League college routine of his wealthy peers. In
August 1927, the nineteen year old Roebling enrolled in the Bliss
Electrical Academy in Washington, D.C. In April 1928, he was
asked to leave the Bliss Academy as the result of conflicts with
Finding life with his parents in New Jersey difficult, the
restless Donald Roebling travelled to Clearwater, Florida, in
1929 to live with his cousin, Margaret MacIlrane. A year later,
the twenty-two year old Roebling, undoubtedly subsidized by his
father, established the Roebling Construction Company, a business
specializing in the building of luxury homes. In 1930, Donald
Roebling purchased a choice seven-acre tract of beachfront pro-
perty in Clearwater. Inspired by his fiancee, Florence
Spottiswood Parker of East Orange, New Jersey, he built a
fifteen-room English Tudor mansion with a large outdoor pool and
surrounding gardens. The mansion, awkwardly named Spottis Woode
after Miss Parker, was of fortress proportions and strength and
for decades was considered to be the largest, best built single-
family dwelling on Florida's West Coast.6 Near the mansion,
Roebling constructed an expensively outfitted machine shop to
satisfy his personal passion for tinkering. This machine shop
and the nearby swimming pool and Gulf of Mexico would be the
birthplace of Donald Roebling's first amphibian vehicle, the
Once established in his new Florida home, Donald Roebling
and his bride (he married Florence Parker in October 1932) set-
tled into a pleasant life of wealth and leisure. Roebling
loosely managed his construction company while devoting himself
to his hobbies: stamp collection, HAM radio operation, and
mechanical tinkering. He quickly gained local repute for his
eccentricities, particularly his unusual physical appearance.
Roebling was addicted to candy and other sweets and his
extraordinary physique featured over 400 pounds of body weight
primarily concentrated in his enormous buttocks and thighs.
Roebling was so large that the local cinema created a special
seat for the wealthy patron by removing the armrest from two
normal seats. In the early 1930s, the rich and eccentric
Donald Roebling could not have been more removed from the world
of the United States Marine Corps. He was a most unlikely
candidate to play a pivotal role in the momentus years of
worldwide conflict that lay ahead.
The initial catalyst for the chain of events that led to
Donald Roebling's invention of the amphibian Alligator was an act
of nature, the Great Lake Okeechobee Hurricane of l928.7 As
noted earlier, Donald Roebling's father, the financier John A.
Roebling II, owned a lavish winter retreat in Lake Placid,
Florida, just thirty-five miles northwest of Lake Okeechobee.
Lake Okeechobee, 730 square miles of largely swampy water in the
central Florida Everglades, lies forty miles inland from West
Palm Beach, Florida. Throughout the 1920s, unscrupulous Miami
real estate speculators aggressively developed new towns on the
banks of Lake Okeechobee, promising the new residents, mostly
northerners, that the traditional flood control problems of the
region had been solved.8 On 16 September 1928, a monster hurri-
cane packing 128 m.p.h. winds crashed into the eastern Florida
coastline at West Palm Beach and rushed inland toward Lake
Okeechobee. Already, the same hurricane had left 600 people dead
in Guadeloupe and 300 people dead and 200,000 homeless in Puerto
Rico. The storm swept across Lake Okeechobee and drowned the
newly established lakefront hamlets. The boom towns of Belle
Glade, Pelican Bay, and Clewiston were demolished. 1,836 area
residents were drowned. Some particularly unfortunate folks were
killed by fatal water moccasin bites as the snakes and the people
struggled to reach the same trees and housetops.9 Nearly all the
loss of life and the $25,000,000 in damages occurred in the Lake
At the time of the hurricane a group of John A. Roebling's
employees were working at Roebling's estate at Lake Placid.
These men formed a team and for several days following the hurri-
cane assisted in rescue efforts in the nearby Lake Okeechobee
towns. Most likely because of the participation of his own
workers in the relief effort as well as concern over his own
Florida property, John A. Roebling became keenly interested in
the disaster. When his team of workers returned from their
mission they reported on the details of the rescue operation.
They highlighted the fact that many victims drowned in the hours
and days following the hurricane because rescuers could not
traverse the miles of flooded, muddy morass created by the storm.
One of the men suggested that a vehicle or boat that could travel
on land and through mud, and also negotiate deep water, would
have helped immeasurably. They all agreed that hundreds of lives
could have been saved if only the rescuers had been given the
means to reach the victims in time.
John A. Roebling, humanitarian, financier, and shrewd busi-
nessman, recognized the need, and perhaps a potentially lucrative
market, for a land and water dual capability rescue vehicle.11
Fourteen years before Marine amphibian tractors would first crash
through the surf at Guadalcanal, the concept of an amphibian
vehicle rose out of the hurricane flooded swamps of Lake
John Roebling's son, Donald, became the agent for trans-
forming the idea of an amphibious rescue vehicle into reality.
It remains unclear when or how the senior Roebling first sug-
gested the amphibian concept to Donald. But by early 1932 the
twenty-three year old Donald Roebling had completed his mansion
in Clearwater and possessed both the means and the time to
address a serious project. John Roebling clearly recognized the
requirement to set his eccentric and hitherto unproductive son to
work on a useful and possibly profitable activity. He challenged
his mechanically gifted son to build a reliable and commercially
useful amphibious rescue vehicle, a vehicle that, in his words,
"would bridge the gap between where a boat grounded and a car
flooded out."12 He offered to pay all the design, development,
and production costs and the father-son deal was sealed with a
handshake. Donald Roebling accepted his father's challenge with
gusto. The amphibious vehicle became the primary focus of young
Roebling's creative energy for the next eight years.
By January 1933, Donald Roebling had his amphibious vehicle
production project in full gear. He hired Earl De Bolt, Warren
Cottrell, and S.A. Williams as his technical staff and set them
to work in his personal machine shop at Spottis Woode, his Clear-
water estate.13 From the outset of the project, Roebling focused
on the two major problems of building a durable and versatile
amphibious rescue vehicle. First, the vehicle had to be light
enough to provide safe buoyancy in the water yet sturdy enough
for rugged land use. And second, the propulsion systems for
water and land could not be so complicated or space-consuming as
to render the vehicle useless. Donald Roebling's innovative
approach to these problems provided the conceptual point of
departure that resulted in the success of his vehicle where
previous attempts at amphibious vehicles had failed. He answered
the weight problem with a relatively new product, aluminum.
Aluminum was much lighter than steel yet provided adequate
strength and rigidity for land operations. The second problem,
the issue of dual propulsion, was addressed with truly revolu-
tionary imagination. Roebling proposed to devise a single pro-
pulsion system for both land and water rather than trying to
somehow simplify and coordinate two separate propulsion systems.
The result was Roebling's creation of a paddle-wheel track sys-
tem, a commercial crawler type tractor track affixed with cleats
that would work much like the paddles of a paddle-wheel boat when
the vehicle was waterborne.
Roebling's innovations solved the most basic duality prob-
lems of his amphibious vehicle but created new problems of their
own. Because aluminum was a new material, the technology of
working with aluminum was undeveloped. Metalworking tools proved
ineffective on the soft aluminum and traditional methods of steel
welding and riveting were not applicable. Roebling's crew pio-
neered aluminum working methods as they designed new shapes for
aluminum rivets and discovered that woodworking machinery was far
superior to metalworking tools in manipulating the soft metal.14
The cleated paddle-wheel tracks were equally troublesome. While
the track system on Roebling's first 1935 prototype produced 25
m.p.h. on land, it was heavy and flimsy and quickly broke apart
on rough terrain. And the straight paddle-wheel cleats, set
straight across the track, were extremely inefficient in the
water, producing only 2.3 m.p.h. in the water in the 1935
prototype.15 These track problems would require two more years
of modification and experimentation before the vehicle could
approach an acceptable level of reliability.
Donald Roebling's original goal was to produce a useful
amphibious rescue vehicle in time for the 1933 hurricane season,
less then a year after he commenced the project.16 He soon
discovered that this goal was unrealistically optimistic.
Finally, by 1935, Roebling and his team loaded their first vehi-
cle aboard a flatbed truck to take it beyond the confines of
Spottis Woode for serious testing. So far, the vehicle had seen
only the rigors of Roebling's driveway and swimming pool. The
next proving ground would be a small lake nearby where Roebling
had built a work shed for housing and repairing his vehicles.
Donald Roebling and his men proudly called their invention the
"Alligator." All of Roebling's subsequent models of amphibious
vehicles would retain this apropos label. Later, generations of
amphibian tractor and assault amphibian Marines would proudly
claim the Alligator as their unit mascot and symbol.
As previously noted, Donald Roebling's original 1935 Alliga-
tor was somewhat of a disappointment. The vehicle weighed 14,350
pounds, was 24 feet long, and was powered by a 92-horsepower
Chrysler engine. It would achieve 25 m.p.h. on land, but the
weak tracks invariably broke within just a few miles. And the
biggest disappointment of all was the Alligator's 2.3 m.p.h.
speed and lack of maneuverability in the water. Still, Donald
Roebling offered to sell his original model to both the U.S.
Coast Guard and the American Red Cross. Neither agency accepted
Unwillingly to concede defeat, Donald Roebling stripped his
first Alligator, Model I, down to the ground and vigorously
pushed forward to the task of building an improved version, Model
II. In the many rebuilds of his Alligator, Roebling's free-
wheeling engineering philosophy encouraged maximum innovation and
creativity. Few blueprints or engineering drawings were made
during the development phase (1933-1937) of the first four models
Click here to view image
of the Alligator.18 Donald Roebling and his team of technicians
preferred the workshop to the drawing board. They used
commercially available materials, hardware, machinery, and
engines whenever possible while focusing their creative energies
on making the vehicle simple and rugged.
The Model II Alligator was completed in April 1936. This
vehicle was a vast improvement over the Model I. The new Alliga-
tor weighed 13,110 pounds, 2,240 pounds less than the Model I,
and was equipped with a lighter 85-horsepower Ford V8 automobile
engine. The Model II travelled at 18 m.p.h. on land, 6 m.p.h.
slower than the Model I, but its 5.45 m.p.h. water speed more
than doubled the performance of the Model I. The improved water
performance of the Model II was produced primarily by Donald
Roebling's idea of changing the paddle-wheel cleats to a diagonal
setting across the track. The new cleat angle also helped to
increase stability and steerabillty in the water.19 The Model II
Alligator demonstrated the mechanism's vast potential for
improvement and motivated the Roebling team to continue the quest
for a truly practical amphibious rescue vehicle. Almost as soon
as the Model II was built and tested, it was torn apart to begin
work on the Model III.
The Model III Alligator was finished and tested in September
1936. It was 310 pounds lighter (12,800 pounds) than the Model
II and went slightly faster on both land and sea. But the Model
III was still plagued with the same inefficient suspension system
that handicapped the original Model I. The tracks continued to
break after minimal land use and the Model III developed the
troublesome tendency to get hung up on the bank when entering or
Click here to view image
exiting the water.20 A new track system had to be found before
the Alligator could reliably save lives in Florida's
Finally in 1937, Donald Roebling and his dedicated assis-
tants produced an Alligator that came close to their expecta-
tions. The Model IV Alligator was four feet shorter in length
than the earlier models, thus reducing the length and weight of
the tracks. And, most significantly, Roebling installed a
totally new suspension system. His new system featured roller
bearings built into the chain track rather than bogie wheels, and
fixed idler blocks to replace idler wheels. This new suspension
system was lighter, much more durable, and produced smoother
performance on embankments than previous models. In the Model IV
Alligator Roebling also replaced the straight paddle-wheel cleats
with curved cleats, producing enhanced water speed and maneuvera-
bility. It was the diagonally affixed curved cleat and paddle-
wheel principle that produced the Alligator's only patent.
Several years later, at the height of World War II, Donald
Roebling patriotically turned over his patent, No. 2138207, with-
out fee, to the government.21 The 1937 Model IV Alligator was
lighter, faster in the water, more reliable on land, and more
maneuverable than any of its predecessors. The new Alligator
weighed only 8,700 pounds (5,650 pounds less than the 1935 Model
I) and had a water speed of 8.6 m.p.h. and a land speed of l8
Donald Roebling saw the Model IV Alligator as having real
commercial potential. He decided not to tear down this 1937
version of the Alligator like he had earlier models. He retained
the Model IV and commenced work on building a second copy. He
billed his father $100,000 for the first Model IV Alligator.
This fee covered the costs of the four years of development and
experimentation that produced the Model IV.23 The second copy
was a bargain; it eventually cost Donald's father only $18,000
(the Alligator's distant descendant, the AAVP7A1, was produced in
1982 at approximately $815,000 per copy).
By the time Donald Roebling produced his Model IV Alligator
in 1937, he had spent four years swimming his odd inventions
conspicuously around St. Joseph Sound in the Gulf of Mexico,
Clearwater Bay, and in the lakes and swamps of the Clearwater
area. The sporadic interest of the local press blossomed in the
autumn of 1937 with the arrival of reporters and photographers
from Life magazine. The resulting national publicity was a
dream-come-true for Donald Roebling. A two-page picture story
entitled "Roebling's Alligator for Florida Rescues" was featured
in the Science and Industry section of Life's 4 October 1937
issue. Of particular note, the Life article praised the
Alligator's versatile amphibious qualities, its ability to crash
through mangrove swamps, "grinding whole trees and shrubs to
matchwood," its 40-man capacity, its impressive land and water
speeds and its $10,000 production price.24 As a matter of
historical perspective, the superlative language of the Life
magazine article underscores the truly innovative and
revolutionary quality of Donald Roebling's achievement. The
Alligator was the world's first truly successful amphibious
The Life magazine article undoubtedly gave John A. Roebling
II, Donald Roebling, and his team of assistants good reason for
celebration. The article would surely produce willing custumers
for their Alligator and a long awaited payoff for their labors.
They could not have imagined that their first customers would be
United States Marines.
Click here to view image
The Marine Corps' Amphibian
The Life magazine article telling the story of Donald
Roebling's amazing Alligator became the messenger of good fortune
for a Marine Corps desperately short of the tools of amphibious
warfare. The 4 October 1937 Life magazine article gained the
attention of Rear Admiral Edward C. Kalbfus, Commander, Battle-
ships, Battle Force, U.S. Fleet in San Diego, California. At a
cocktail party Rear Admiral Kalbfus picked up the Life magazine
and showed the Roebling article to Major General Louis McCarty
Little, the Commanding General of the Fleet Marine Force, then
located in San Diego. Major General Little was greatly excited
by Donald Roebling's strange invention and mailed a copy of the
magazine article to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Major
General Thomas Holcomb, in Washington, D.C.1
The Marine Corps' remarkable fortuity of finding the
Alligator in the pages of a popular magazine came none too soon.
The same Life magazine issue that contained Donald Roebling's
Alligator also contained a shocking pictorial essay on the
Japanese aerial bombing of the Chinese city of Shanghai on 28
August 1934. In four short years, Japanese bombs would devastate
the U.S. Fleet at Pearl Harbor. And in less than five years,
amphibian tractors would help the U.S. Marines whip the Japanese
On 4 January 1938, the Marine Corps Commandant, Major Gener-
al Thomas Holcomb, forwarded the Life magazine article he had
received from Major General Little to the Marine Corps Equipment
Board at the Marine Corps' Quantico, Virginia, base. He directed
Brigadier General Frederick L. Bradman, the President of the
Equipment Board, to evaluate Donald Roebling's Alligator and make
a recommendation on the vehicle's use by the Marine Corps.2 Over
the course of the next twenty-four months the Alligator
negotiated a labyrinth of military committees and boards and
almost became a victim of the timeless governmental maladies of
bureaucratic negativism and insufficient funding. Except for the
personal advocacy and zeal of a few dedicated Marine Corps
officers, the Marine Corps' chance to add the amphibian tractor
to their amphibious team may have been lost.
During January 1938, General Bradman routed the Life
magazine article to the several committees of the Equipment Board
for comments and recommendations. After viewing the photograph
of the Alligator provided in the Life article, the Committee on
Transportation and Tanks concluded that the vehicle did "not
appear suitable for Marine Corps purposes ashore" and strongly
recommended against "its adoption by the Marine Corps for use in
operations ashore."3 The main problems noted were the
Alligator's light armor and unproven suspension system. The
Marine Corps' Committee on Boats of the War Plans Section agreed
with the Transportation and Tanks Committee that the vehicle had
"no particular use once it reached the beach," but conceded that
a few Alligators could have some limited use in small unopposed
flanking or covering force operations. The Committee on Boats
concluded that the Alligator issue should be dropped by the
Marine Corps and turned over to the Navy.4 Luckily, General
Bradman directed further inquiry into the Alligator before the
issue was passed to the Navy and forgotten.
On 3 February 1938, the Marine Corps Equipment Board sent a
letter to Donald Roebling requesting detailed information on the
Alligator. Within five days, Roebling enthusiastically responded
to all of the Marine Corps' questions. After describing his
vehicle with obvious pride and some exaggeration, he noted that
"the Alligator may be inspected and we will be glad to demon-
strate it to you at any time."5 Donald Roebling's positive and
timely response impressed the members of the Equipment Board and
on 28 February 1938, General Bradman wrote to the Commandant of
the Marine Corps requesting authority to dispatch a member of the
Equipment Board to Clearwater to personally inspect the
Alligator. Two weeks later, Major John Kaluf was enroute to
Major Kaluf's visit with Donald Roebling marked a signifi-
cant turning point in the Marine Corps' attitude towards the
Alligator. Kaluf meticulously inspected the vehicle and observed
its operation at sea, through the surf and in mangrove swamps.
He took 400 feet of 16 mm movie film of the Alligator in action
and personally drove the Alligator at sea and on land.7 He
immediately saw that the Alligator was a revolutionary vehicle
that represented the essence of what the Marine Corps was striv-
ing to do: project military power from the sea to the land in a
smooth transition. Major Kaluf became a zealous believer in the
Alligator concept and helped to keep it alive until it became a
reality. Kaluf's glowing report on the Alligator led the Comman-
dant of the Marine Corps, on 18 May 1938, to formally request
funds from the Chief of Naval Operations to purchase one Alliga-
tor for testing under military conditions. The tests would take
place during the Fleet Landing Exercises scheduled for the winter
of 1939 (FLEX No. 5).8 On 28 June 1938, the Commandant received
a disappointing response from the Chief of Naval Operations. The
Navy agreed that Alligators would be of some value to the Marine
Corps but the limited funds available for landing craft would
continue to be solely devoted to the development of the Navy's
Meanwhile, Donald Roebling had been hard at work modifying
his Model IV Alligator to satisfy the comments and recommenda-
tions made during Major Kaluf's inspection back in March. In
January 1939 Donald Roebling sent photographs and a general
description of his improved vehicle to the Marine Corps Equipment
Board. The Commandant of the Marine Corps as well as leading
members of the Equipment Board recognized the importance of
maintaining Mr. Roebling's enthusiasm and cooperation despite the
fact that the Navy had, at least for awhile, declined to fund the
Alligator. Major Kaluf again visited Clearwater in February 1939
to review Roebling's latest work and sustain the good will that
the Marine Corps had been able to cultivate with the eccentric
inventor.10 Although the $18,000 price tag for the updated
Alligator caused Kaluf some alarm, his report following this
second visit echoed the enthusiasm of his first report. In this
second report he made the following interesting comment
concerning Donald Roebling's attitude toward cooperating with the
"For the benefit of any officers who have any future
dealings with Mr. Roebling... it should be explained that the
designer, Donald Roebling, and his father, John Roebling, who
furnished the necessary funds, are very wealthy people and are
not developing this amphibian to make money and cannot be
approached on a profit basis. Any additional income would
probably be an embarrassment to them. Unlike the ordinary
manufacturer who has something he is anxious to sell, they can be
appealed to only on the basis of patriotic or humanitarian
motives as far as this amphibian is concerned."11
In October 1939, Donald Roebling was visited by a three-
officer committee headed by Brigadier General Emile P. Moses,
USMC (the new President of the Marine Corps Equipment Board).
The committee came to inspect the Alligator and assure Mr.
Roebling of the military's continuing vigorous interest in his
Following General Moses' visit to Clearwater and his
subsequent glowing report on the Alligator, a second effort was
made to convince the Navy to relinquish the money to buy a pilot
vehicle. This time the Navy finally coughed up the requisite
$24,492 for one Alligator. Donald Roebling received his contract
in April 1940 and the Marine Corps acquired its first amphibian
vehicle in November 1940.12
Click here too view image
The Alligator that Donald Roebling delivered to the Marine
Corps in October 1940 featured many military modifications
resulting from the visits of Major Kaluf and Brigadier General
Moses. The 1940 Alligator was powered by a 120-horsepower
Lincoln-Zephyer engine with a Ford standard transmission.13 It
could achieve 29 m.p.h. on land and 9.72 m.p.h. in the water.
The vehicle weighed 7,700 pounds (1,000 pounds less than the 1937
Model IV Alligator) and had a cargo capacity of 7,000 pounds. As
advertised in a glossy promotional leaflet produced by Roebling
in 1940, "in the open sea, or when landing on a beach through the
surf the Alligator is more seaworthy than a normal boat of com-
parable size. It will not sink, even with its 7,000 pound cargo
compartment full of water; nor will it capsize in a dive into
deep water off a six-foot seawall."l4
On 18 October 1940, at Clearwater, Florida, the Secretary of
the Navy convened a "Sub-Board of Inspection and Survey" under
the direction of Brigadier General Moses, to conduct the final
testing of Donald Roebling's first Marine Corps Alligator. After
the Alligator successfully passed this hurdle, the vehicle was
sent to Norfolk, Virginia, for further testing. On 31 October
1940, the Alligator completed the Norfolk tests and the Marine
Corps finally received its first true amphibian, at Quantico,
Virginia, on 4 November 1940.15
During November the Marines at Quantico extensively tested
the Alligator in the Potomac River and Chopawamsic Creek. The
tests became a popular highlight attracting bigger crowds of
disbelieving leathernecks each day. These tests culminated with
a much publicized formal demonstration for the Commandant of the
Marine Corps. General Holcomb brought along a large party of
high-ranking Army and Navy officers and an assortment of con-
gressmen and reporters. Despite getting embarrassingly stuck in
the mud in Chopawamsic Creek, Roebling's Alligator succeeded in
entertaining and impressing the assembled dignitaries.16
After the Quantico tests, the Commandant shipped the Alliga-
tor to the 1st Marine Brigade on the Caribbean island of Culebra.
The new amphibian would undergo field testing during Fleet Exer-
cise Number 7 (FLEX No. 7) scheduled for December 1940 through
February 1941. The brigade commander, Brigadier General Holland
M. Smith, placed Captain Victor H. Krulak in charge of the
testing of the Alligator. Krulak and his crew, Sergeant Clarence
H. Raper and Corporal Walter L. Gibson, put Roebling's monster
through an extensive series of sea, surf, and sand tests with
In his book, First to Fight, Lieutenant General Krulak
reminisces that every Marine who saw the Alligator was fascinated
by it and wanted a ride. He also relates the humorous story of
his ill-fated attempt to dazzle the Commander of the Atlantic
Fleet, Admiral Ernest J. King, with the new vehicle's capabili-
ties. On General Smith's orders, Captain Krulak brought the
Alligator alongside Admiral King's flagship, the U.S. Battleship
Wyoming, and offered the Admiral a ride. Reluctantly, out of
courtesy to General Smith, the Admiral consented to the demon-
stration. In a surge of enthusiasm and bravado, Krulak headed
the Alligator away from the Wyoming and attempted to breech a
coral reef, only to have one of the Alligator's tracks knocked
off by a jutting coral head. As Krulak and his amphibian wal-
lowed immobilized in the lagoon, Admiral King, starched white
uniform and all, angrily leapt overboard and waded ashore.18
Despite the Alligator's inglorious episode with Admiral
King, both Captain Krulak and Brigadier General Smith praised the
vehicle and, with several modifications, recommended that the
Marine Corps procure the vehicle in quantity. With the
successful Culebra testing of January 1941 the Alligator had won
its well-deserved place in the Marine Corps' amphibious arsenal.
General Holland M. Smith, like Major John Kaluf, clearly grasped
the unlimited logistical and tactical potential of a true
amphibian in the execution of opposed amphibious landings.
On 22 February 1941, the Navy Department contracted with
Donald Roebling to build 200 Alligators. With this order, the
Navy directed two major modifications. First, the new vehicles
would be constructed of welded steel plating rather than alumi-
num. The steel plating would provide some protection from enemy
small arms fire and would make the Alligator more capable of
withstanding the rigors of coral and surf. And second, the 120-
horsepower Lincoln-Zephyer engine would be replaced by a slower-
speed, heavy duty 146-horsepower Hercules WXLC-3 engine. The
engine modification had been recommended by Captain Krulak and
Sergeant Raper after their Culebra tests of the Alligator
indicated that a more powerful, slower speed engine was required
for efficient land operation.19 These changes posed major
challenges for Donald Roebling and his small staff.
Additionally, the construction of 200 vehicles far exceeded the
capabilities of Roebling's personal machine shop. Disregarding
these problems, Donald Roebling signed the Navy's $3,300,000
Click here to view image
contract and set about the task of providing the 200 amphibious
war machines by the ambitious July 1941 deadline.20
Donald Roebling's first step in meeting the Marine Corps'
needs was to subcontract with the nearby Food Machinery Corpora-
tion to build the hulls and assemble the vehicles. The Food
Machinery Corporation (FMC) had a citrus processing machinery
plant in Dunedin, Florida, a small beachfront town immediately
north of Clearwater. FMC had provided many Alligator parts over
the years and Donald Roebling had developed a close rapport with
the Dunedin plant staff. Roebling called on John D. Crummey,
president of FMC, to form a design and production team at the FMC
plant in Dunedin to tackle the Alligator contract. FMC immedi-
ately assembled a top-notch team to spearhead the effort. James
M. Hait, one of the company's most talented engineers, headed up
the redesign project. And Bert Street was transferred from his
top post at the company's Lansing, Michigan, plant to manage the
Alligator assembly line. A large crew of welders and other
skilled technicians were shipped in and hurriedly set to work on
building the Marine Corps' first fleet of amphibians. Throughout
the winter and spring of 1941, Donald Roebling tirelessly labored
alongside the FMC engineers. While his disdain for engineering
plans and blueprints may have contributed to the creative process
that resulted in the original Alligator models, the scarcity of
plans and specifications made the military redesign of the Alli-
gator particularly challenging.
Inspired by the imminent threat of war in the Pacific as
well as the promise of huge wartime production requirements (and
profits), the FMC team succeeded. The Marine Corps' first pro-
duction model Alligators rolled out of the Dunedin plant in
August 1941, only one month later than stipulated in the overly
ambitious Navy contract.21
From the outset of their participation in the Alligator
project, FMC recognized the limited capacity of their Dunedin,
Florida, plant and initiated contracts with the Navy Department
to fund the construction of additional Alligator production
facilities in Lakeland, Florida, Riverside, California, and San
Jose, California. Donald Roebling's construction company was
awarded the lucrative U.S. government contract to build FMC's new
plant at Lakeland, Florida.22
While Roebling may have indirectly profited from the
production of the Alligator through the building of the FMC
plant, he steadfastly refused to accept any direct royalties or
commissions from the government. Despite wholly committing his
energies and resources to the Alligator project, the patriotic
Roebling considered his non-profit work to be his personal duty
in support of the war effort.23
The Marine Corps' first amphibian vehicle was officially
designated the LVT(1) (Landing Vehicle, Tracked, Model 1) by the
Navy. The Marine Corps further designated the vehicle the
"amphibian tractor." The LVT(1) was constructed of 12-gauge
steel plating, weighed 17,500 pounds, and was powered by a 146-
horsepower Hercules WXLC 3 engine. The vehicle, still called the
Alligator by its Marine Corps crewmen, had a land speed of 18
m.p.h. and a water speed of 7 m.p.h. The cargo capacity of the
LVT(l) was 4,000 pounds.24 The vehicle was far from perfect.
The Marine Corps' first amphibian tractor required incessant
maintenance and repair. Every vehicle would break down every
day. But the amphibian tractor was a technological innovation
that profoundly contributed to the Marine Corps' ability to
conduct truly amphibious projection of military power ashore.
When the first production LVT(1) appeared in August 1941,
the Marine Corps was already well established in the Dunedin
area. Major George W. McHenry, USMC, was assigned in February
1941 to the FMC plant in Dunedin to oversee the production of the
first batch of Alligators. On 2 May 1941, a Marine Corps Amphib-
ian Tractor Detachment was activated at Dunedin under the command
of Major William W. Davies, USMC. Major Davies, four other
Marine officers and 33 enlisted Marines of the detachment tested
new LVTs and established the first Amphibian Tractor School.
This first amphibian tractor detachment occupied the Hotel
Dunedin until barracks and maintenance facilities could be
completed. By September 1941, a steady flow of Marines headed
for Dunedin. Upon completion of the training provided by Major
Davies and his instructors they proceeded to flesh out the newly
activated 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion. By 16 February 1942,
the 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion was complete with four letter
companies (each letter company was equipped with 100 LVTs) and a
Headquarters and Service Company and was assigned to the 1st
Marine Division.25 Six months later, in August 1942, the 1st
Amphibian Tractor Battalion supported the 1st Marine Division in
the amphibious assault on Guadalcanal.26 By this time, the 2nd
Amphibian Tractor Battalion was established at Camp Pendleton,
From the pages of a remarkably fortuitous 1937 article in
Life magazine to the tropical sands of Guadalcanal, the Marine
Corps' amphibian tractor evolved from the creative genius of an
eccentric millionaire to a versatile and effective machine of
amphibious warfare. The amphibian tractor became the technolog-
ical symbol of the act of amphibious assault and promises to
remain at the heart of the Marine Corps' amphibious doctrine well
into the twenty-first century.
The Marine Corps' amphibian tractor of 1941, the LVT(1), was
only the first of many generations of amphibian vehicles that
have spearheaded the Marine Corps' surface amphibious assaults in
the four decades since Donald Roebling's Alligator graced the
pages of Life magazine. The amphibian tractor became an
indispensable element of the Marine Corps' successful amphibious
campaign against the Japanese in the Pacific and was widely used
by U.S. Army and Allied forces in amphibious exercises in every
theater of the Second World War. In March 1944, the Commandant
of the Marine Corps, Lieutenant General Alexander A. Vandegrift
chronicled the early Pacific contribution of Donald Roebling's
amphibian tractor in a letter to U.S. Senator Charles O. Andrew
with the words:
"The machine was given its first battle test at Guadalcanal
in 1942 where its contribution was of great dimensions. It has
subsequently been used with great effect by Marines in
Bouganville and again in New Britain. Our success in the bitter
fighting at Tarawa was due in a considerable measure to the
magnificent performance of the amphibian tractor."1
The 1st Marine Division's August 1942 assault on the
Japanese-held island of Guadalcanal introduced the versatile
amphibian tractor as a logistics vehicle. The 1st Amphibian
Tractor Battalion's LVT(1)s performed yeoman work executing
continuous ship-to-shore and inland shuttling of supplies,
ammunition and casualties. In the Marine Corps' subsequent
island-hopping march across the Pacific, the LVT(1) and its
successors (by the end of World War II, the LVT had evolved
through four distinct cargo versions and two versions equipped
with assault guns) quickly transcended their logistical role to
become assault vehicles providing fire support for, and
transporting, the leading waves of Marines and soldiers ashore.
In April 1945, Major General Roy S. Geiger, USMC, then Commanding
General of the III Amphibious Corps, eloquently described the
contribution of the amphibian tractor in a letter to an official
at the Food Machinery Corporation. General Geiger wrote:
"...amphibian tractors are the "work horses" of the Marine
Corps. Except for the 'amtracs' it would have been impossible
for our troops to get ashore on Tarawa, Saipan, Guam or Pelelieu
without taking severe, if not prohibitive losses. But their use
is by no means limited to the assault waves; after landing troops
and equipment, they play an indispensable part in the movement of
supplies, ammunition, et cetera ashore. In fact, the whole ship-
to-shore movement in the normal amphibious operation is to a
considerable extent dependent upon one or more of the 'amtrac'
By the end of World War II, American industry had produced
18,620 amphibian tractors for the allied war machine. During the
war, the Food Machinery Corporation was joined by the Graham-
Paige Motors Corporation of Detroit, Michigan, the Borg-Warner
Corporation of Kalamazoo, Michigan, and the St. Louis Car Company
of St. Louis, Missouri, in the Production of Donald Roebling's
remarkable amphibian.3 Regrettably, the colorful saga of the
Marine Corps' amphibian tractors, the amphibian tractor units and
the gallant men who drove and maintained them is beyond the scope
of this brief study on the origin of the Marine Corps' amphibian.
The fact that the Alligator's direct descendant, the modern
assault amphibian vehicle, remains at the heart of the Marine
Corps' amphibious methodology is an eloquent tribute to the
genius of the Alligator's creator, Donald Roebling.
After the relative fame that he unintentionally achieved
during World War II as the result of his Alligator, Donald
Roebling quite happily returned to his quiet life of wealth and
eccentricity at Spottis Woode. On 15 February 1947, at a
ceremony held at the Naval Air Station, Jacksonville, Florida, he
received the Award of the Medal of Merit, signed by President
Harry Truman and presented by Rear Admiral Ralph Davison, USN,
Commandant of the Seventh Naval District.4 But except for a few
Marines, Roebling's profound contribution to his nation's
victory in World War II seems to have been quickly forgotten.
After World War II, Donald Roebling returned to his favorite pas-
times of HAM radio operating and stamp collecting and established
himself as an influential philanthropist in the Clearwater area.
He built the Roebling wing of Clearwater's Morton Plant Hospital
and contributed the Roebling Hall of Clearwater's Peace Memorial
Presbyterian Church. He also substantially supported the local
Boy Scouts of America, and financed numerous college educations
for needy boys. Roebling's first marriage to Florence
Spottiswood Parker ended in divorce in 1936. But despite his
400-pound physique and eccentric lifestyle, he managed to marry
twice more. He had no children. Donald Roebling died at the age
of 50 on 29 August 1959, at the Lahey Clinic in Boston,
Massachusetts. He died from complications of an earlier gall
The fabulous wealth of the Roebling industrial empire faded
with time. In 1952 the one-time industrial giant, the John A.
Roebling's Sons Company, was sold to the Colorado Fuel and Iron
Company. Colorado Fuel and Iron repeatedly attempted to sell the
unprofitable Roebling plants during the early 1970s. Finding no
buyers, the doors to the Roebling plants closed forever on 30
The Food Machinery Corporation, now officially known as FMC,
continues to produce amphibious vehicles for the United States
Marine Corps and FMC has become one of the world's largest pro-
ducers of military hardware.
The amphibian tractor, now known as the assault amphibian
vehicle (AAV), continues to occupy a prominent and indispensable
place in the Marine Corps' air-ground amphibious combat team.
Amphibian tractors were in the vanguard of the Corps' operations
in the Korean Conflict (LVTs formed the leading edge of the
Inchon landing) and supported Marine Corps amphibious, riverine
and mechanized operations throughout the Vietnam War. Assault
amphibian vehicles transported Marines ashore in Grenada in 1985
and patrolled the streets of Beirut, Lebanon, during the Marine's
peacekeeping mission. In 1984 the FMC Corporation produced the
Marine Corps' newest evolutionary version of Donald Roebling's
Alligator, the AAV7A1 assault amphibian vehicle. While
incorporating state-of-the-art electronics and automotive
technology and achieving field reliability, durability and
maneuverability far beyond the dreams of World War II amphibian
tractor Marines, the AAV7A1 continues to reflect Donald
Roebling's fundamental innovations in the concept and technology
of amphibious vehicles. The AAV7A1's likely successor for the
twenty-first century, the Advanced Assault Amphibious Vehicle
(AAAV) will, like the thousands of amphibians that have gone
before it, carry the legacy of the genius of Donald Roebling.7
Near the center of the area known as "Mainside" aboard
Marine Corps Base, Camp Pendleton, California, stands a curious
collection of relics. The lines of quiet, rusting vehicles that
fill the asphalt acre known as the Marine Corps Amphibian Vehicle
Museum speak eloquently of the profound yet simple genius of
The first thing that strikes any visitor about the fifty or
so vehicles baking in the California sun is their consistent
similarity. While the assembled amphibians represent over thirty
years of constant technological change and seven distinct genera-
tions of amphibian tractors that fought in three different wars,
the vehicles from first to last contain the same basic features
of Donald Roebling's Alligator. Donald Roebling's brilliant
inspiration was the simple recognition of the basic features of a
true amphibian. His understanding of the best approaches to the
compromises of a vehicle of dual purpose has required little
conceptual alteration through the years. The origin of the
amphibian vehicle did not result from a steady line of
technological evolution. Rather, the Marine Corps' amphibian was
born in Donald Roebling's simple understanding of the amphibious
Another feature of the amphibian vehicle museum at Camp
Pendleton is the sharp contrast in how Marines and non-Marines
view the display in its entirety. Marines see amphibian vehicles
as commonplace agents of the routine transition of warfare from
the sea to the land. In sharp contrast, those who have never
witnessed a Marine Corps amphibian emerge from the surf look with
suspicion and disbelief at the huge hybrid machines. They appear
too heavy and boxlike to do anything but flounder at sea and too
complicated and flimsy to be of much value ashore. Perhaps it's
the unlikelihood of the amphibian vehicle that prevented its
invention by the Marine Corps, the real innovators and thinkers
of things amphibious. It took the eccentric mind of a civilian,
Donald Roebling, to conceive of the unlikely amphibian and press
the idea to fruition.
As stated at the outset of this study, the timely appearance
of the amphibian tractor on the embattled beaches of faraway
Pacific islands in World War II required a confluence of many
disparate factors. One factor was the requirement for offensive
amphibious assaults mandated by Japanese expansion in the Pacific
and the perceived Japanese threat to U.S. interests throughout
the Pacific basin. Another factor was the United States Marine
Corps' proprietary involvement in the business of amphibious
assaults. But the fact remains that the Marine Corps had, by the
end of the l93Os, shown absolutely no inclination for
successfully conceiving or developing a truly amphibious
vehicle. Without Donald Roebling there would have been no
amphibian tractor to spearhead the Marine Corps' drive across the
Pacific in World War II.
In conclusion, Donald Roebling's conception and development
of the profoundly simple yet unlikely concept of the amphibian
vehicle was totally unrelated to and uninfluenced by the Marine
Corps. The Marine Corps' systematic evolution of the amphibious
art throughout the two decades preceding World War II provided
the background necessary to recognize the utility of the amphib-
ian vehicle when it appeared. Thus the Marines were ready to
take maximum advantage of the Alligator's versatility as a
perfectly suited instrument of war. But the Marine Corps owes
its possession of the amphibian vehicle to the winds of good
fortune and the unique American experience that produced the
special genius of Donald Roebling.
Chapter 1: Assault from the Sea
1William L. Davidson, Dunedin Thru the Years 1850-1978
(Charlotte, N.C.: Delmar Printing Co., 1978), p. 101.
2Kenneth J. Clifford, Progress and Purpose (Washington,
D.C.: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine
Corps, 1973), pp. 48-53, hereafter Clifford, Progress and
3Allan R. Millett, Semper Fidelis (New York: Macmillan Pub-
lishing Co., Inc., 1980), p. 319, hereafter Millett, Semper
4Ibid., pp. 320-321.
5Victor H. Krulak, First to Fight (Annapolis, Md.: Naval
Institute Press, 1984), p. 15, hereafter Krulak, First to Fight.
6Clifford, Progress and Purpose, p. 30.
7Millett, Semper Fidelis, p. 325.
8Krulak, First to Fight, p. 77.
9Clifford, Progress and Purpose, p. 64.
10Ibid., p. 65.
12Krulak, First to Fight, p. 72.
13Jeffery M. Dorwart, Conflict of Duty (Annapolis, Md.: Naval
Institute Press, 1983), p. 29, hereafter Dorwart, Conflict of
14Clifford, Progress and Purpose, p. 65.
15Dorwart, Conflict of Duty, p. 35.
16Millett, Semper Fidelis, p. 326.
17Clifford, Progress and Purpose, pp. 30-36.
18Krulak, First to Fight, p. 80.
21Millett, Semper Fidelis, p. 330.
22Clifford, Progress and Purpose, pp. 44-47.
23Lt Gen Holland M. Smith, USMC, "The Development of
Amphibious Tactics in the U.S. Navy,"The Marine Corps Gazette,
June 1946-Sept. 1946.
24Clifford, Progress and Purpose, pp. 34.
25Alfred D. Bailey, Alligators, Buffaloes and Bushmasters,
(Washington, D.C.: History and Museums Division, Headquarters,
U.S. Marine Corps, 1986), p.17.
26Ibid., p. 33.
Chapter 2: Donald Roebling's Alligator
1D.B. Steinman, The Builders of the Bridge: The Story of
John Roebling and His Son (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.,
1945), hereafter Steinman, The Builders of the Bridge. The
information on John A. Roebling and Washington A. Roebling
provided in this paper represents selections from Mr. Steinman's
entertaining story of the industrious immigrant and his devoted
2David McCullough, The Great Bridge (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1972), pp. 57-65.
3Steinman, The Builders of the Bridge, pp. 274-279.
4William L. Davidson, Dunedin Thru the Years 1850-1978
(Charlotte, N.C.: Delmar Printing Co., l978), p. 101, hereafter
Davidson, Dunedin thru the Years.
5Most of the biographical information on Donald Roebling
found in this paper results from two telephone interviews that
the author had with Dr. William L. Davidson, Phd., on 19 March
1987 and 20 March 1987. Dr. Davidson is a historian and longtime
resident of Dunedin, Florida. Additional Roebling biographical
information was selected from Dr. Davidson's book, Dunedin thru
the Years 1850-1978.
6Marge Costa, "Roebling Home to Remain Private Residence,"
Clearwater Sun, Clearwater, Florida, 11 June 1980, p. 81.
7Nearly every historical account of Donald Roebling's inven-
tion of the Alligator dutifully notes the fact that a hurricane
motivated the initial idea of building a truly amphibious vehi-
cle. However, there is much disagreement on which hurricane was
responsible. The 4 October 1937 Life magazine article that
brought the Alligator to national attention mentions the devas-
tating Florida Keys hurricane of 1935. However, by the time the
1935 hurricane swept across Florida, Donald Roebling had already
been at work on his Alligator for over two years. The 1935
hurricane is otherwise of considerable historical interest not
only because some 300 World War I veterans of the Bonus March
were among the fatalities, causing a difficult political scandal
for the Roosevelt administration, but because retired Major Gene-
ral Smedley Butler, USMC, was among the most vocal leaders in the
national outcry over the incident. A good source on the hurri-
cane of 1935 and the subsequent government "scandal" and debate
is the New York Times from 2 September 1935 through 18 September
1935. The 18 September issue features excerpts from a rousing
anti-Roosevelt speech that General Butler delivered at the 1935
Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in New Orleans.
8Marjory S. Douglas, Hurricane (New York: Rinehart and Com-
pany, Inc., 1958), p. 268.
9Ibid., p. 269.
10Ivan R. Tannehill, Hurricanes: Their Nature and History
(Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1938), pp. 196-197.
11Davidson, Dunedin thru the Years, p. 101.
12Kenneth J. Clifford, Progress and Purpose (Washington,
D.C.: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine
Corps, 1973), p. 54, hereafter Clifford, Progress and Purpose.
14Davidson, Dunedin thru the Years, p. 102.
15Clifford, Progress and Purpose, p. 55.
16Davidson, Dunedin thru the Years, p. 101.
17Clifford, Progress and Purpose, p. 54.
18Davidson, Dunedin thru the Years, p. 102.
21Clifford, Progress and Purpose, pp. 54-55, Donald
Roebling's personal papers located at the Marine Corps Historical
Center in Washington, D.C., contain a letter written to the U.S.
patent office discussing the details of his track system and
requesting an amendment to his original patent.
22Ibid., p. 55.
23Davidson, Dunedin thru the Years, p. 102, Donald
Roebling's personal papers located at the Marine Corps Historical
Center in Washington, D.C., contain extensive vouchers and
budget reports dating from 1935 through 1949. Roebling clearly
maintained meticulous and detailed financial records for his
24"The Roebling Amphibian for Florida Rescues," Life, 4 Oct.
1937, pp. 94-95.
Chapter 3: The Marine Corps' Amphibian
1Maj Henry G. Lawrence, Jr., USMC, History of LVTs and
LVTAs (Amphibious Warfare School, Junior Course, undated), p. 2,
hereafter Lawrence, History of LVT's.
2Ibid., p. 3.
4Ibid., p. 5.
5Capt James E. Wilson, Jr., USMC, Development of the
Landing Vehicle Tracked and Landing Vehicle Tracked (Armored)
(Amphibious Warfare School, Junior Course, undated), p. 4,
hereafter, Wilson, Development of the LVT.
6Ibid., p. 6.
7Kenneth J. Clifford, Progress and Purpose (Washington,
D.C.: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine
Corps, 1973), p. 55, hereafter Clifford, Progress and Purpose.
8Lawrence, History of LVT's, p. 12.
9Ibid., p. 13.
10Wilson, Development of the LVT, p. 12.
11Lawrence, History of LVT's, p. 14.
12Navy Department Bureau of Supplies and Accounts Contract
No. 73181 dtd 20 Apr 1940 (Donald Roebling's Personal Papers,
Marine Corps Historical Center, Washington, D.C.).
13Donald Roebling ltr to LCdr R.B. Daggett, Navy Dept.
Bureau of Construction and Repair, dtd 29 Jan 1940 (Donald
Roebling's Personal Papers, Marine Corps Historical Center,
14Donald Roebling, "The Alligator: Amphibian Tractor of
Proved Ability," 1940, promotional pamphlet.
15Wilson, Development of the LVT, p. 13.
16Victor H. Krulak, First to Fight (Annapolis, Md.: Naval
Institute Press, 1984), p. 102, hereafter Krulak, First to Fight,
17Sergeant Clarence H. Raper ltr to BGen Emile P. Moses, USMC
Equipment Board and Report of Alligator Tests dtd 21 Dec 1940
(Donald Roebling's Personal Papers, Marine Corps Historical
Center, Washington, D.C.).
18Krulak, First to Fight, p. 104.
19Sgt Clarence H. Raper ltr to BGen E.P. Moses dtd 21 Dec
20William L. Davidson, Dunedin Thru the Years 1850-1978
(Charlotte, N.C.: Delmar Printing Co., 1978), p.103, hereafter
Davidson, Dunedin thru the Years.
22William L. Davidson, author's telephone interview of Dr.
Davidson on 20 March 1987.
23E.D. Lambright, "Practical, Unselfish Patriotism,"
Tampa Morning Tribune, Tampa, Florida, 14 Jan 1943 (Donald
Roebling's Personal Papers, Marine Corps Historical Center,
24 Davidson, Dunedin thru the Years, p. 103.
25Clifford, Progress and Purpose, p. 57.
26A fascinating article containing quotes of amphibian trac-
tor officers who participated in the Guadalcanal exercise as well
as an extensive photographic essay on the Marine Corps training
and testing facility at Dunedin, Florida is contained in Alice
Moore's article, "Yankee Alligators Rolling," in the 24 February
1943 edition of the St. Petersburg Times of St. Petersburg,
27Secretary of the Navy, Continuing Board For The Development
of Landing Vehicle, Tracked, History of Landing Vehicle Tracked,
1 Dec 1945, p. 2.
1LtGen Alexander A. Vandegrift ltr to Senator Charles O.
Andrews dtd 18 Mar 1944 (Donald Roebling's Personal Papers,
Marine Corps Historical Center, Washington, D.C.).
2 MajGen Roy S. Geiger ltr to Mr. S.L. Hanscom dtd 27 Apr
1945, included in Secretary of the Navy, Continuing Board for the
Development of Landing Vehicle, Tracked, History of Landing
Vehicle Tracked, 1 Dec 1945.
3Secretary of the Navy, Continuing Board for the Development
of Landing Vehicle, Tracked, History of Landing Vehicle, Tracked,
1 Dec 1945, pp. 4-6.
4Cdr A.F. Richardson ltr to RAdm Ralph Davison dtd 15 Jan
1947 (Donald Roebling's Personal Papers, Marine Corps Historical
Center, Washington, D.C.).
5William L. Davidson, author's telephone interview of Dr.
Davidson on 20 March 1987.
7At the time of the writing of this paper, the discussion on
the nature and specific technology and capabilities of the
Advanced Assault Amphibious Vehical (AAAV) had just fully
developed. The challenge for the Marine Corps is to find the
technology to economically produce a true amphibian capable of
achieving a water speed sufficient to realistically support the
Over-The-Horizon amphibious assault concept. Detailed
information on the AAAV is available from the Marine Corps
Assault Amphibian Vehicle Program Manager (PMS 310) of the U.S.
Navy Sea Systems Command as well as from the Assault Amphibian
Vehicle Sponsor under the Deputy Chief of Staff, Installations
and Logistics, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, Washington, D.C.
Marge, Costa. "Roebling Home to Remain Private Residence."
Clearwater Sun. Clearwater, Florida, 11 June 1980.
This newspaper article, provided to the author by Dr.
William L. Davidson, reports on the 1980 purchase of Donald
Roebling's Clearwater estate by a Palm Beach developer. The
article contains a detailed description and photographs of
William L.Davidson. Author's telephone interviews of 19 March
1987 and 20 March 1987.
These two telephone interviews were generously provided by
William L. Davidson, Phd., a retired employee of the FMC
Corporation, a scientist and an author. Dr. Davidson is a
long time resident of Dunedin, Florida, and a noted expert on the
history of the Clearwater and Dunedin areas. His book, Dunedin
thru the Years, 1850-1978, contains a facinating chapter on
Donald Roebling. Dr. Davidson provided the author with extensive
biographical information on Donald Roebling as well as historical
information on Clearwater and Dunedin.
FMC Corporation. "Amtracs." FMC Corporation/Ordnance Division.
San Jose, California, undated.
This is an undated four-page promotional pamphlet, produced
by the FMC Corporation, providing a brief history of amphibian
tractors and a collage of photographs of amphibian tractors in
combat. The feature of this pamphlet is a two-page "fold-out"
containing photographs of thirty-six amphibian tractors from
Donald Roebling's 1937 Alligator to the 1972 LVT7. The address
provided on the pamphlet is, FMC Corporation/Ordnance Division,
1105 Coleman Ave., Box 1201, San Jose, California 95108.
FMC Corporation. "Landing Vehicle, Tracked (Experimental) LVT(X)
Executive Summary, December 1983." FMC Corporation/Ordnance
Division Engineering. San Jose, California, undated.
This promotional booklet, produced by the FMC Corporation,
advertises FMC's candidate for the Marine Corps' LVT(X) program.
The LVT(X) program was cancelled in 1985.
Gen Paul X. Kelly, USMC. "Assault Amphibious Vehicle
Development." Memorandum for the Secretary of the Navy from the
Commandant of the Marine Corps, Headquarters, United States
Marine Corps. Washington, D.C., 8 April 1985.
General Kelly's one-page memorandum to the Secretary of the
Navy cancelled the Marine Corps' LVT(X) program and announced the
establishment of the Advanced Assault Amphibious Vehicle (AAAV)
program. This memorandum signalled the Marine Corps' shift in
emphasis from the infantry fighting vehicle concept of the LVT(X)
to the high water speed concept of the AAAV.
"The Roebling Amphibian for Florida Rescues." Life, 4 October
This two-page photographic essay highlights the
technological innovations of Donald Roebling's 1935 Alligator
rescue vehicle. This historic article provided the initial
informational link between Donald Roebling and the Marine Corps.
Marine Corps Assault Amphibian Vehicle Program Manager (PMS 310).
Navy Sea Systems Command. Advanced Assault Amphibious
Vehicle Notebook, February 1987.
The assault amphibian vehicle program manager at the Navy
Sea Systems Command maintains this continuously updated loose-
leaf notebook containing pertinent letters of direction, program
strategy, program milestones and general information about the
Alice Moore. "Yankee Alligators Rolling" St. Petersburg
Times, St. Petersburg, Florida, 24 February 1943.
The purpose of this 1943 newspaper article, provided to the
author by Dr. William L. Davidson, is to tell the story of the
amphibian tractor training detachment at Dunedin, Florida. The
article praises the efforts of the Dunedin Marines, gives
anecdotes from participants of the Guadalcanal operation and
provides nine excellent photographs of the Dunedin facility.
Donald Roebling's Alligators are referred to as "Jap-eating
New York Times. The New York Times Company. New York, New York,
2 September 1935 through 20 September 1935.
The devasting 1935 hurricane that killed hundreds of World
War I veterans participating in government work projects in the
Florida Keys gets front-page coverage, for over two weeks, in the
New York Times. An anti-Roosevelt speech delivered by retired
Marine Major General Smedley Butler is quoted in the 20 September
Donald Roebling Personal Papers, Personal Papers Collection,
Marine Corps Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
The Marine Corps Historical Center's collection of Donald
Roebling's personal papers are a gold mine for any student of the
early years of the amphibian tractor. Included in the collection
are hundreds of photographic negatives of amphibian vehicles from
1935 through 1947, Donald Roebling's original Alligator
maintenance logbook for the period of 26 August 1938 to 5
February 1941, original budgets, vouchers and expenditure reports
from Roebling's Alligator shop and documents pertaining to the
ceremony during which Roebling received his Medal of Merit. Also
included are several newspaper articles pertaining to Donald
Roebling's World War II activities, a letter from Lieutenant
General A.A. Vandegrift praising the amphibian tractor and the
original 1940 Navy contract for the first Alligator. The Marine
Corps Historical Center's Donald Roebling Collection presents a
vivid portrait of Roebling's personal contribution to the Marine
Corps' victories in World War II.
Donald Roebling. "The Alligator: Amphibian Tractor of Proved
Ability." 1940 promotional pamphlet.
This historical gem, published by Donald Roebling in 1940,
is a four-page promotional tract for Roebling's 1940 Alligator.
Along with six photographs of the Alligator in action, mechanical
and performance specifications are provided. An original copy of
this document was generously loaned to the author by Dr. William
Secretary of the Navy. Secretary of the Navy Continuing Board
for the Development of Landing Vehicle, Tracked, History
of Landing Vehicle Tracked, 1 December 1945.
This document, located in the archives of the Marine Corps
Historical Center, Washington, D.C., consists of a brief history
of amphibian tractors from 1937 to 1945 and approximately thirty
photographs of World War II amphibian tractors in action. Also
included is a detailed chronological production record for LVTs
through 1945, and a 1945 letter from Major General Roy Geiger
extolling the World War II contribution of the LVT.
Books and Research Papers:
Alfred D. Bailey. Alligators, Buffaloes, and Bushmasters: The
History of the Development of the LVT through World War II.
History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine
Corps. Washington, D.C., 1986.
Major (USMC, retired) Alfred D. Bailey's 272-page
"occasional paper" on the history of LVTs through World War II is
the most complete history of LVTs currently available. The
paper, originally a master's degree thesis, is particularly
strong in its analysis of amphibian tractor participation in the
Marine Corps' World War II Pacific landings and resultant
Kenneth J. Clifford. Progress and Purpose: A Developmental
History of the United States Marine Corps, 1900-1970.
History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine
Corps. Washington, D.C., 1973.
This expertly detailed and extensively illustrated history
of the development of the amphibious Marine Corps is an
indispensable foundation for the study of the origin and
evolution of the LVT. Colonel Clifford's exhaustive notes and
bibliography were particularly valuable.
Jack Coggins. The Campaign for Guadalcanal: A Battle that
Made History. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Company,
This popular history of the Marine Corps' August 1942
assault at Guadalcanal is an entertaining and inspiring narrative
intended for general readers. The maps and illustrations are
Norman V. Cooper. The Military Career of General Holland M.
Smith, USMC. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Xerox University Micro-
Norman Cooper's lengthy unpublished manuscript, located in
the oral history room of the James C. Breckinridge Library of the
Marine Corps Command and Staff College at Quantico, Virginia,
provides a generally upbeat biography of Holland M. Smith. The
emphasis of the study is on General Smith's World War II
William L. Davidson. Dunedin Thru the Years 1850-1978. The
Dunedin Historical Society, Inc. Charlotte, N.C.: Delmar
Printing Co., 1978.
Dr. William L. Davidson's entertaining and highly readable
history of Dunedin, Florida, contains a chapter on Donald
Roebling, Roebling's Alligator and Marine Corps activities in
Dunedin and Clearwater during World War II. This chapter
constitutes the most complete published biography of Donald
Roebling that currently exists.
Jeffery M. Dorwart. Conflict of Duty: The U.S. Navy's Intelli-
gence Dilemma, 1919-1945. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Insti-
tute Press, 1983.
This intriguing study of the origin and development of the
Office of Naval intelligence includes an interesting account of
Earl Ellis' 1922 intelligence activities in the Far East. This
account differs from the many Marine Corps versions of the Ellis
mystery and adds new questions to the Ellis enigma.
Marjory S. Douglas. Hurricane. New York: Rinehart and Company,
Majory Douglas' scientific and historical review of
twentieth century American hurricanes is intended to educate the
general reader about these devastating storms. The book includes
a valuable overview of the Florida hurricanes of the 1920s and
1930s that played in the Donald Roebling story.
Victor H. Krulak. First to Fight. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval
Institute Press, 1984.
General Krulak was one of the truly influencial pioneers of
the early years of Marine Corps amphibian tractors and his
inspiring book includes a facinating chapter on the origin of the
LVT. First to Fight eloquently discusses the history of the
Marine Corps' unending fight for institutional existence.
J.D. Ladd. Assault from the Sea 1939-45: The Craft, The Land-
ings, The Men. New York: Hippocrene Books, Inc., 1976.
This book by the British historial J.D. Ladd, provides a
broad overview of Allied amphibious operations in World War II.
The chief strength of this book is its excellent photographs,
diagrams and landing craft specification charts.
Maj. Henry G. Lawrence, USMC. History of LVTs and LVT(A)s.
Amphibious Warfare School, Junior Course, 7th Class. Marine
Corps Educational Center, Marine Corps Schools, Quantico,
Located at the James C. Breckinridge Library of the Marine
Corps Command and Staff College at Quantico, Virginia, Major
Lawrence's research paper provides an overview of the history of
LVTs from 1937 to 1950 with emphasis on the 1937 to 1940 period.
Included in the paper are extensive quotes from correspondence
between Donald Roebling and Navy Department agencies dating from
the pre-World War II period.
David McCullough. The Great Bridge. New York: Simon and
David McCullough's entertaining history of the Brooklyn
Bridge focuses on the colorful political scandals surrounding the
financing of the bridge. While they were not central figures in
the scandals, John A. Roebling, Sr. and his son, Washington
Roebling, are prominent characters in the book.
Allan R. Millett and Peter Maslowski. For the Common Defense.
New York: The Free Press, 1984.
This survey of American military history does not directly
address the origin or development of amphibian tractors but
offers a fresh and highly readable overview of the trends of
development in the military services of the United States.
Allan R. Millett. Semper Fidelis: The History of the United
States Marine Corps. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.,
Colonel Millett's thorough and stimulating history of the
Marine Corps can provide a solid foundation and starting point
for any study of Marine Corps issues. The book's notes and
bibliography are extremely valuable. Colonel Millett's
explanation of the development of the Marine Corps' amphibious
doctrine was pivotal to this study of the origin of the AAV.
Capt Tom S. Parker, USMC. Development of LVTs and LVT(A)s.
Amphibious Warfare School, Junior Course, 7th Class. Marine
Corps Educational Center, Marine Corps Schools, Quantico,
This research paper provides a brief review of the LVT's
technological and tactical evolution during World War II.
Written in the early 1950s the paper is located at the James C.
Breckinridge Library of the Marine Corps Command and Staff
College, Quantico, Virgnia.
Holland M. Smith. Coral and Brass. New York: Scribner's Sons,
General Smith's memoir concentrates on his decisive
participation in the Pacific campaigns of World War II. The book
spotlights the general's colorful and contentious personality as
well as his authoritative mastery of the art of amphibious war.
Coral and Brass includes numerous citations of LVT-related issues
and operations before and during World War II.
D.B. Steinman. The Builders of the Bridge: The Story of John
Roebling and His Son. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co.,
Steinman's popular history of the Brooklyn Bridge
concentrates on the characters and careers of the Roebling
family. This book is the best available reference on the turn-
of-the-century history of the Roeblings. Although Donald
Roebling is not mentioned, his father, John A. Roebling II, is
addressed in detail.
LtCol S.C. Stephen, USMC. Employment of the 3rd Amphibian
Tractor Battalion in the Guam Operation, 5 May
1944 to 16 August 1944. Amphibious Warfare School, Senior
Course, 1948-1949. Marine Corps Educational Center, Marine
Corps Schools, Quantico, Virginia, undated.
This operational history of the 3rd Amphibian Tractor
Battalion in the amphibious assault on Guam (May-August 1944) is
a forthright chronicle of many of the issues that are common to
all of the Pacific campaign LVT operational reports. This paper
is located at the James C. Breckinridge Library of the Marine
Corps Command and Staff College, Quantico, Virginia.
Ivan R. Tannehill. Hurricanes: Their Nature and History.
Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1938.
In this book, Ivan Tannehil succinctly reports the
dimensions and resultant damages of American hurricanes of the
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Capt James E. Wilson, USMC. Development of the Landing
Vehicle Tracked and Landing Vehicle Tracked (Armored).
Amphibious Warfare School, Junior Course, 8th Class. Marine
Corps Educational Center, Marine Corps Schools, Quantico,
Captain Wilson's research paper, dating from the early
1950s and currently located at the James C. Breckinridge Library
of the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, Quantico,
Virginia, offers a detailed overview of LVT and LVT(A) history
through World War II. Many documents pertaining to the Marine
Corps Equipment Board's pre-war consideration of Donald
Roebling's Alligator are quoted at length.
Maj J.H. Alexander, USMC. LVTPX-12 Test Program: A progress
Report." The Marine Corps Gazette, November 1967.
Major Alexander's report on the testing of the experimental
amphibian tractor that eventually became to be LVT7 of the 1970s
includes insightful observations on the future utility of
LtCol Victor J. Croizant, USMC. "Amphibian with a Future."
The Marine Corps Gazette, February 1953.
This brief article by a veteran of World War II amphibian
tractor operations reviews the contributions of amphibian
tractors through the Korean conflict and discusses the future
employment of the LVT and LVT(A).
Capt Richard S. Moore, USMC. "Is the Doctrine Viable?"
U.S. Naval Proceedings, November 1984.
Captain Moore's examination of modern and future amphibious
operations provides an excellent overview of the issues facing
the Marine Corps' future amphibious planners.
Konrad F. Schreir, Jr. "Whaleboats to Amtrac." The Marine
Corps Gazette, February 1969.
This article briefly chronicles the development of ship-to-
shore transportation from surf boats of the 1920s to modern
LtGen Holland M. Smith, USMC. "The Development of Amphibious
Tactics in the U.S. Navy." The Marine Corp Gazette,
June 1946 through September 1946.
General Smith's series of articles traces the history of the
development of the amphibian doctrine from ancient times through
World War II. His story of the early years of the Marine Corps
and his review of the pre-World War II Fleet Landing Exercises
(FLEXs) were particularly important for this study of the origin
of the AAV.
Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list