Weasel Punchers

Sep 22, 2018

When was the last time you saw a weasel? No, not one of the fur-bearing species; we do see them occasionally, furtively. I’m talking about a machine called the Weasel, a rugged vehicle that played a historic role here on the northern prairies.

I learned about the Weasel from a fine book written by David W. Mills and published by North Dakota State University Press - Operation Snowbound: Life Behind the Blizzards of 1949. Mills tells the story of the military mobilizations that helped the people of the northern plains get through one of the hardest winters they ever experienced.

The use of military aircraft for hay lifts and for other emergency transport is a well-known story. Less well-remembered now, but remarkable to residents at the time, was the deployment of Weasels.

“The Weasel,” Mills recounts, “was a fully tracked but lightweight vehicle used in World War II in swampy and snow-covered regions where even a Jeep could not go. The vehicles had tracks, like a tank, and a sixty-five horsepower engine that could propel the vehicle along at thirty-five miles per hour. . . .

“Military authorities used these small vehicles to deliver food, fuel, and medications and to evacuate sick and injured persons. The weasels could not carry much in the way of supplies . . . a few hundred pounds was the extent of the cargo capacity. Often, soldiers rigged a toboggan sled to the back of the tracked vehicle to increase its load.”

Bulldozer operators in the 1949 operations were known as “cat skinners.” Weasel drivers were called “weasel punchers.”

Weasels arrived in North Dakota on 13 February 1949 when four of the vehicles were airlifted into Bismarck, with sixteen more to follow. Altogether 169 Weasels were deployed for winter relief work.

During the worst weather of 1949, Mills recalls, “Weasels continued to prowl the countryside, delivering food, fuel, and feed.”

The Three Affiliated Tribes Museum holds a dandy photograph of two Weasels fueling up in Elbowoods.

Nordic readers in this part of the country will be particularly interested to learn the circumstances that gave rise to the Weasel. A British inventor devised the tracked vehicle for use in operations against the Nazis in Norway. Subsequently they were used at many points on the Western Front.

Do a search online and you will find a confidential OSS briefing film made in March 1943 and entitled, simply, Weasel. The film opens with troops operating on skis, snowshoes, and dogsleds, but quickly observes, “The new demands of modern warfare must be met.”

Developers tried out half-tracks, jeeps with oversize tires, and Louisiana swamp buggies, but none of these met the needs of operations in a variety of snow conditions on rough terrain. Hence the Weasel, purpose-built to be delivered by air and run on the snow.

“The conclusion seemed to be,” intones the narrator of the film, “a track-laying vehicle with controlled, differential steering.” Speed on fresh snow: 25mph. Angle of climb on snow, 30 degrees. Turning radius: 12 feet. “Inaudible on a windless snowfield at 500 yards.”

I know there are folks listening who are just itching to get out on your snow machines. While you wait, look up this OSS film and see what the Weasel could do on snow.

~Tom Isern