An ambulance in World War I was meant to carry three patients on stretchers or four sitting up.
In reality, wounded soldiers would climb all over the thing.
“They’d get on wherever they could to get off the battlefield,” said Doran Cart, senior curator of the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial.
The museum on Monday unveiled its latest acquisition, a 1918 Ford Model T that was ordered for ambulance service. The war ended before this vehicle made it to Europe, but the chassis is authentic and the wooden ambulance “box” that was fitted to sit on the flatbed is made to military specifications of the time.
The 15-foot-long vehicle fills a gap in what is the largest repository of World War I items in North America.
“It’s always great when we get iconic additions to our collection,” said Liberty Memorial President and CEO Brian Alexander. “It helps us tell the story.”
The ambulance, which has a crank starter and is operable, was a gift from a donor whose father drove one like it in France during the war. The French ordered 2,400 Ford ambulances and the U.S. ordered 5,340. The Model T was preferred because it was rugged enough to handle the shelled terrain and if it became stuck, it was light enough for a group of men to lift.
Before America entered the war in 1917, volunteers went over to drive ambulances in what would become the American Field Service and the U.S. Army Ambulance Service. Walt Disney and Ernest Hemingway were said to be among the ambulance drivers, but Cart said Disney actually arrived in Europe after the war was over and Hemingway more often drove a candy truck for the Italian Red Cross.
Ambulance work was serious business, as recounted by American driver Thomas A. Wotton. His handwritten journal, already in the Liberty Memorial collection, is displayed with the ambulance.
“Start loading — and God, what a mess,” states the entry from June 13, 1916, as he picked up French wounded. “Bloody from head to foot — and moaning and crying.”
Original, intact Model T ambulances are extremely scarce because the patient areas were removed after the war so the chassis could be used for other purposes. This vehicle was restored by the donor, Preston Heller of Cleveland, Ohio. Heller contacted the museum in September, an indication of the Liberty Memorial’s reputation.
“I wanted one,” Cart said of a World War I ambulance, “but I hadn’t been looking for one.”
The World War I Museum is also preparing to open two new special exhibits in Exhibit Hall and Memory Hall on the memorial’s deck.
One is about the Inter-Allied Games of 1919 that opens April 5 and is timed to coincide with the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Kansas City this summer. The Inter-Allied Games was an Olympic-style competition intended to strengthen bonds between Allied soldiers after the war. They were played in a specially built Pershing Stadium near Paris.
The second exhibit opens April 14 and examines the history of the painting “Pantheon de la Guerre,” which was more than 400 feet long and more than 40 feet high. It depicted thousands of individuals among the Allied powers, but it languished after being exhibited at the Chicago Worlds Fair of 1933-34. The painting was later rescued and donated to the Liberty Memorial, where it was cut down to fit inside Memory Hall.
Both exhibits will be included with museum admission and will be free to members.