June 6 marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day – a key event in World War II. Starting that day, wave after wave of Allied troops (approximately 156,000) invaded the Axis-held beaches of Normandy, France. A product made by Racine’s Twin Disc was there, too.
Virtually every marine gear used by the Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel (LCVPs) that carried troops and equipment to the Normandy beaches was produced at Twin Disc’s manufacturing plant at 14th and Racine streets. The lightweight, 36-foot LCVPs saw action at battlefronts throughout the world, including Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific.
The Marine gear produced for the LCVPs, as well as other landing craft designed to transport tanks and other equipment, had its genesis in the Twin Disc Clutch invented more than 25 years earlier by Thomas Fawick (1889-1978). That revolutionary clutch design proved extremely successful in the higher-speed gasoline engines being produced for farm tractors.
The Twin Disc Clutch Co. was incorporated in September 1918 to manufacture the new product, Co-founders were Percy H. Batten (1877-1960), Arthur B. Modine (1885-1981) and Fawick. Early investors included local business leaders Henry Wallis Jr. of the Wallis Tractor Co. and H.F. Johnson of S.C. Johnson & Son.
In addition to its wide use in farm tractors, the Twin Disc clutch was modified for heavy-duty construction equipment and oil field equipment. Twin Disc first developed a clutch product for boats (marine gear) in the 1920s. By the late 1930s, this product was used in fishing boats and work boats.
The U.S. military specified the Twin Disc Marine Gear for a landing craft that was based on a shallow draft boat originally designed by Higgins Industries for operation in swamps and marshes. The military buyers saw the landing craft as somewhat disposable by calling for the transmissions to last no longer than 50 hours and not be able to reverse. However Twin Disc’s engineering team, which included World War I veterans, wouldn’t hear of it. They insisted on delivering a more durable marine gear that included reverse to bring troops back safely.
Twin Disc started producing the Marine Gear for LCVPs and other landing craft soon after the U.S. entered World War II in December 1941. The marine gear was built in Racine and shipped to Detroit where it was attached to a 225-horsepower diesel engine. The power units were then sent to Louisiana for the boat assembly by Higgins Industries and licensees for the U.S. Navy.
Twin Disc produced nearly 100,000 marine gear for military craft during World War II. Employees at the Racine factory worked 12-hour shifts to meet the production demands. In recognition of its excellence in production, Twin Disc received the Army-Navy “E” Award, supplemented with four stars, at a Memorial Hall presentation in September 1943. Just 5 percent of all manufacturers in the war effort earned the “E” Award flag.
While the LCVP use in the D-Day invasion is vividly remembered (approximately 5,000 were used at Normandy), the craft played in even bigger role in the Pacific Theater where Allied strike forces hopped from island to island doing battle with Japanese forces.
The war’s end in August 1945 forever changed Twin Disc’s business profile from a U.S manufacturer to a truly global company. “When the war ended, there were lots of landing craft, engines, transmissions and parts all over the place. It all became military surplus,” said Tim Taggart, Twin Disc’s warranty manager, who helped assemble the company’s 100-year history book and the Twin Disc Heritage Gallery at company headquarters.
Some military surplus landing craft were converted into the ferries or fishing boats. Surplus transmissions, engines and parts were used in tugboats, fishing boats and other commercial watercraft for many years after the war. Twin Disc parts and service had to be available internationally, Taggart explained.
Twin Disc’s post war activity included forming a joint venture with Japan’s Niigata Engineering Co., a manufacturer whose facilities had largely been destroyed in the war. The new business, Niigata Converter Co. Ltd. (NICO) expanded the availability of Twin Disc transmission components into the farthest reaches of the world.
Meanwhile, Twin Disc introduced the next generation of hydraulic actuated marine gear in the 1950s. Electronics were added to the marine gear products by the 1990s. The marine products, used on a variety of watercraft throughout the world, account for about one-third of the company’s sales.
Seventy-five years later, the bravery of the Allied troops and the hard work stateside at Twin Disc have never been forgotten.
(Material for this story came from “Twin Disc 100 Years” (privately published, Twin Disc Inc., 2018), Twin Disc Heritage Gallery, Racine Heritage Museum archives and Wikipedia.)
Gadgets and Geeks is an ongoing series of stories that highlight inventions from Racine County. Pay close attention, because the Racine County Eye will hold a Gadgets and Geeks Trivia Night in the near future. Trivia answers will be gleaned from these stories.
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