Cold War, WW2

The Mechanical Mule: The US Army’s Workhorse

The dependable pack mule is most associated with their use by the British, American and Commonwealth armies. Often they were deployed in the jungles of the Far East during the Second World War. The Mechanical Mule however, belongs to the US.

In the 1950s a new type of mule would be introduced to the American Army. This would see the carrot-hungry workhorses replaced with something much more more mechanical.

The Birth of The Mule

The M274 Half Ton Utility Platform Truck was affectionally dubbed the ‘Mechanical Mule’ by troops. But unlike its four legged counterpart it didn’t need to be led, fed and watered. 

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The concept for a small and practical load bearing vehicle was put into development late in World War 2. This was deployed when larger jeeps and Trucks could not operate.

The versatile M274 seen here with its steering column lowered for transport.

The famous American manufacturer Willys Overland Motors applied for a patent for their new ‘Jungle Burden Carrier’. This was done in December of 1944. The design featured a flat bed with a simple two cylinder engine. The prototype was assembled by the chief engineer of Willys Overland Delmar Gerle Roos co-designer of the famous Willys MB Jeep.

A Pint Sized Buggy

By 1948 the US Army had been trialling a small number of the vehicles. That year’s May issue of Popular Mechanics magazine featured an article on this early version the mule. 

‘A Pint size jungle buggy as versatile as it is small, is the latest addition to the motorised equipment of the US armed forces. Known as the JBC, it can carry half again as much as its own weight and can go places that might drive a mule mad. Powered by a nine horsepower two cylinder engine, the JBC Platform stands about two feet high.’ 

Mule Vietnam
The M274 Mule with a Bell UH-1 helicopter during the Vietnam War. 1966

After initial trial periods a full order for the new ‘Mechanical Mule’ was finally put in in 1956. During its production run until 1970 a total of 11,240 Mules were manufactured by Willys Overland for military use. The M274 Mule being slightly different than the earlier Jungle buggy.

It was driven using a wheel over levers, and giving the driver a proper seat with some basic back support. This was a simple single cushioned pad. With a load bearing capacity of 0.45 tonnes, they were painted olive drab. They could reach a top speed of around 15 miles per hour. 

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The Mule Enters Combat

The conflict that the Mule is most associated with is the Vietnam War. The vehicle saw extensive use by the US Army & Marine Corps over its course, after the American involvement in the war swelled significantly following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1965.

The vehicle proved to be a perfect asset in the rugged and enclosed jungles of the region. The small trucks could easily be airlifted or dropped where it was needed into combat zones or remote fire bases.

The Mule had a multitude of roles in the Army and Marines. It was able to ferry wounded men and carry ammunition and supplies. It was also turned into a bespoke weapons platform by the Army and Marine Corps.

M274 Mule
M274 Mule with a M40 recoilless rifle (American Armoured Foundation Museum)

It was capable of transporting the 106mm recoilless rifle into battle. Mules were also seen fitted with a pintle mounted M60 machine gun. 

Multi Terrain

A June 1965 report on amphibious landing by the 1st Battalion 9th Marine Regiment details how the Mule was deployed in the field by a heavy weapons team in an assault landing scenario. 

The heaviest weapons landed with Wave 1 were machine guns and M20 3.5in Super Bazooka’ rocket launchers. Wave 2 comprised another five LVTP-5 Amtracs. The first of 1/9 Marines’ vehicles, with their crews, came ashore with Wave 2: the two Mechanical Mules carrying the two 106mm recoilless rifles of 2nd Section, 106mm Recoilless Rifle Platoon.

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The use of the Mule as a recoilless rifle platform would come into its own during the battle for Hue. The battle lasted from January 30th to March 3rd. It saw bitter house to house fighting between the North Vietnamese and USMC and ARVN troops. It was one of the bloodiest battles of the entire war.

The Mule Kicks Out

The Marines found the Mule a very useful tool for navigating the streets of Hue quickly. The vehicle was even captured on film during the battle by American news crews. These crews were embedded into the Marines trying to clear the city. It can be seen in various news broadcasts from the time. 

As the bitter street fight went on, tanks could only do so much in the cramped alleyways of the citadel. The Marines needed a way of putting down higher calibre firepower into Vietcong strongpoints. It was a dangerous task of clearing them out with just rifle and bayonet.

Mule Transport
A 1968 M274A5 Mule manufactured by J Baifield Industries (Photo: John Adams-Graf)

USMC Lieutenant General George Christmas describes the use of the Mules helping to turn the tide of the fighting in their favour.

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Vietnamese machine guns had pinned down the troops under his command. While thinking of a solution to their predicament a Lance Corporal approached him with an idea. 

Sir, Ill roll my gun (a 106 mm recoilless rifle mounted on a four-wheeled mechanical mule) right out the door, fire it down the street. You know how big the round is. Theyll pull in their heads, and you can run the whole company across the street, concealed by the guns back blast if you want to.  

The Mule in Hue

The next few moments were captured by combat cameramen. The M274 is set up and the recoilless rifle is fired at the target. An explosion sounds as the Marines follow up the blast with copious amounts of small arms fire from M16s and M60s.

The truck also proved more than satisfactory during the battle for Hue. It was also used for its original purpose of ferrying equipment and ammunition directly to the troops. This and for getting wounded men out of danger fast and back to friendly lines. The deployment of the Mule in Hue is just another instance of the ingenious use of weapons and machines.

The Mule Lives on

After the U.S withdrew its troops from Vietnam in 1973 the Mule was still being used by the U.S Army. This continued into the early 1980s. One of the last pictures of it being operated dates from a 1984 field exercise in Honduras in May 1984.

It was eventually replaced by the Humvee and a militarised version of the M-Gator tractor. This was built by the John Deer Company famous for their agricultural equipment. The M-Gator was adopted by US forces from 1997 onwards and is still in service today. 

M274 in Vietnam. Despite their odd appearance they were popular with the troops.

The Mule also has an iconic appearance as a sentient antagonist in the 1986 film adaptation of Stephen King’s ‘Maximum Overdrive’, in a rare pop-culture appearance for the truck.

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It terrorises the main cast of the film with its M60 machine gun and is ultimately dealt with by Emilio Estivez with a grenade. The Mule in the film being sourced for the production from the North Carolina National Guard. 

They also appear in Vietnam War movies such as 1987s ‘Full Metal Jacket’. Today Mules have found a second life within military vehicle ownership community. M274 Mules can cost between 5 to 12 thousand dollars on the private buyers market, however reproduction Mules can be bought from specialised restoration companies. 

During a lifetime that spanned over 30 years in hotspots all over the world, the Mechanical Mule was well liked by the men who worked with it in Vietnam and beyond. It has since become one of the most iconic and unique vehicles of the US Armed Forces arsenal.