by Bill Ayer
American LaFrance sold many fire trucks to the U.S. armed forces during WWII, but not many of them seem to be preserved. Bill Ayer of Seattle, Washington, has a 600-series pumper that was bought new by the U.S. Navy in Keyport, WA, early in 1942. It later served nearby Port Townsend, who sold it to Bill in 1989.
Bill’s fire engine was ordered and bought by the Navy just after WWII began. American LaFrance-Foamite Corp. of Elmira, NY built the truck and delivered it to the Torpedo Station in Keyport, near Bremerton. At the time, American LaFrance (ALF)was one of the oldest, largest, and most famous builders of fire apparatus in the USA, tracing its history back to the 1830s.
UNIQUE PAPER TRAIL
A remarkable set of documents preserved with the truck provides a provenance rarely found with any military vehicles. The paper trail starts with a letter from the manufacturer in response to an inquiry from the Navy. It is dated December 12, 1941—just five days after the war began! Several more letters cover the negotiations and purchasing arrangements, and the contract that was signed in late January.
This truck was bought alone, on a one-truck contract A copy of the actual contract includes the purchase price of $9,100 as well as several pages of technical description, largely copied from the ALF catalog and sales literature. A shipping report shows the truck’s serial number and weight, along with the railroad routing from Elmira to Keyport. Finally, a hand-signed delivery receipt (including the boxcar number!) shows that it was unloaded on Mar 24, 1942.
Several subsequent papers show the Navy used the truck until at least 1950, but there is a gap in documentation until 1967 when Port Townsend had the truck serviced. So, it is hard to tell when Port Townsend acquired the truck from the Navy. Regardless, there were only about 18,000 miles on the odometer when Bill bought the truck so nobody had used it very much in 47 years of service!
FIRE TRUCK DESCRIPTION:
The truck is a 600-series “triple combination hose car” (pumper) including a pump, water tank, and hoses. It is basically the same as civilian pumpers, with a 500-gallon water tank (rather than 100- or 200-gallons) and a third hard-suction hose evidently being the only options specified by the Navy. The 600-series trucks were lower-cost, simplified vehicles compared to the 500-series top-of-the-line trucks being made in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. They were the last “conventional” fire trucks built by ALF, replaced by the famous cab-forward 700-series that transformed fire apparatus design in the late 1940s.
These trucks were completely fabricatedby American LaFrance, including chassis, body, engine, pump and most accessories. The truck is powered by the original ALF V-12 “small” gas engine, displacing 491 cubic inches and rated at 190 horsepower. This engine was originally designed by Lycoming, and all of ALF’s products using it have an “L” prefix in their serial number. (Bill’s truck is L-1684). Apparently the Lycoming V12 displaced 391 cubic inches in the Auburn automobiles, but American LaFrance re-designed it to 491 c.i.d. when they took over the design.
The “large” American LaFrance V12, in comparison, displaced some 750 cubic inches and was used in some pumpers and most ladder trucks of the same vintage. Bill’s V12 has two Stromberg carburetors, dual ignition with two distributors, four coils, and 24 spark plugs. Also under the hood is a 15-gallon radiator and a 4-speed Brown transmission. The truck also has a 750-gpm American LaFrance “Centraflow” (two-stage, series/parallel) pump along with a 500-gallon water tank. The hose bed included both 2-1/2-inch and 1-1/2-inch fire hoses, along with four 1/2-inch hard suction hoses for drafting water and a reel of 1-inch hose mounted at the rear.
The truck has always been red, specified as “official fire department red, with fine coach colors.” Fire apparatus built during WWII was generally devoid of chrome and other bright trim, due to wartime restrictions of strategic metals. But this truck was supplied before those restrictions, so it has chrome lights, siren, and other trim, and the instrument panel is stainless steel rather than painted like on later deliveries.
No photos were supplied of this truck as it was originally built for the Navy, although Bill has found some from the years it served Port Townsend. Some time after delivery, it was modified with a post-mounted red flashing light and a rear-access ladder on the water tank. After Bill bought it, he added a bell in front, two more red flashing lights, and a small seat behind the cab with seat belts, suitable for carrying children.
Presently it does not carry hoses, but has seats for passengers over the hose bed (on top of the water tank). And though it evidently was delivered with wooden ladders, by 1989, it carried aluminum ladders. Since Bill preferred the traditional look of wood ladders, he removed the aluminum ones and replaced them with wood replicas. He repainted the truck and lettered it “U.S. Navy” on one side and “Port Townsend” on the other.
CONNECTION TO THE GREEN RIVER KILLER
Bill’s acquisition of the truck became an interesting story. Having retired it in 1988, Port Townsend advertised the truck for sale in a sealed-bid auction. The ad appeared in Fire Apparatus Journal as well as in the Seattle Times, under “Antique and Classic Cars.” Bill mailed his bid, without going to Port Townsend to see it first. A few weeks later, he received a letter stating that he was not the successful bidder, and the truck was sold to “Jon Martin of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.”
Bill figured it wasn’t meant to be and gave up thinking about this truck. But then a few months later, he got another letter, telling him that his bid had been accepted, and to come and pick up his truck. Calling Port Townsend, Bill was told that there were only three bids; one had been withdrawn and Jon Martin was “under investigation for criminal activity.”
So, Bill headed to Port Townsend with a cashier’s check to see his truck for the first time. Led to a barn at Fort Warden where the truck had been stored, he saw it for the first time when it was driven out of the barn. The Fire Department took it to their headquarters station where they washed it and filled the truck with used hoses that they donated.
Luckily for Bill, the truck still had ladders, suction hoses, extinguishers, and other accessories that frequently are missing from old fire trucks. He paid for it, got the title and historical paperwork, and drove it (50 miles) back to Seattle.
Shortly after getting the truck, Bill found an article in the newspaper that said a fellow named Stevens had been suspected of being the Green River Killer, since the high-profile investigation was going on at the time. Stevens had been buying, collecting, and reselling equipment and vehicles at government auctions using the alias “Jon Martin of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.” and possessed police cars and uniforms, among other things!
Apparently he had bid on Bill’s truck about the same time he was arrested. Of course, it later became clear that Stevens wasn’t the Green River Killer after Gary Ridgeway confessed and was convicted. So Jon Martin’s loss became Bill’s lucky break.
BILL’S FIRE TRUCK ADVENTURES
In addition to parades, Bill has brought the truck to car and truck shows over the 26 years he has had it, including two national conventions of the American Truck Historical Society. He drove it over Snoqualmie Pass on I-90 in 1994, headed for a national ATHS show in Spokane, but broke down in Ellensburg with a bad bearing. His mechanic, Ben Keith, was able to fix it so they could drive home, but they never made it to Spokane. He will try to get it hauled to Salem, OR in May 2016 for the next ATHS convention, because the 200 mile drive is probably too much for the 73-year-old truck.
The original Navy facility that owned this truck was called the Keyport Torpedo Station, and it still functions but now is called the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. Bill was granted permission to visit the base with his truck, and brought it to the fire station where it first served, for photographs.