Tracing the Unit Assignment History
Former Military Vehicle
Some military vehicle owners ask how to trace the history of their trucks.
Note: This information is based on procedures in effect from from the early days of World War II into the middle 1980's and applies to Dodge military trucks up to and including the M-880 series used by the Army. This information generally applies to all other US Army tactical vehicles in use during that same period.
There are two sets of numbers on an Army vehicle. The number on the hood is the Army Registration Number. It is assigned to the vehicle when it is procured and remains with the vehicle throughout its entire "life". This number is assigned at the time of procurement and does not necessarily have any relationship to the manufacturer's serial number. It is used to account for the vehicle and is reflected in all general inventory records. On trucks that come from the manufacturer with camouflage, these numbers may be in subdued paint or may be painted on the underside of the hood.
The other numbers are the Unit, or Organizational markings. They are used to identify the unit or organization to which a vehicle is assigned at any particular time. These markings are changed each time the vehicle is transferred from one unit to another. Starting in early World War II, standardized marking regulations call for the organizational markings to be on the bumpers or a like place on vehicles without bumpers such as trailers, tracked vehicles, etc. - and we know them as "Bumper Numbers". Prior to this, unit markings were done in compliance with local command policies.
The picture below is believed to have been taken at the "Louisiana Maneuvers" before World War II. The Army Registration Number can clearly be seen on the hood. Notice the unit markings on the cab skirt below the driver partially hidden by the stalk of grass. registration.
It is a standard practice for all markings on military vehicles that are being disposed of as surplus to be obliterated by painting over them. Careful removal of that last layer of paint may restore those markings. The registration number usually also appears on the data plate. From time to time, there was a requirement to remove data plates and to use only the manufacturer's serial number for accountability purposes.
There are two sets of records that tell the story of an Army vehicle. The first is the Vehicle Log Book used to record everything from the vehicle's procurement to its final screening for disposal. This is the permanent record of all maintenance, replacements of major components, and any vehicle modifications. It uses the Army Registration Number and it, too, remains with the vehicle throughout its entire "life".
The second set of records is the Unit Property Book and is used to maintain accountability. There is a "master property book" at the Department of the Army level. Vehicles are transferred down through subordinate levels, each with their own subordinate level property book. I was the Property Book Officer (PBO) for a Company level unit. I literally signed for every accountable item in that unit. Some items were accountable by a component list. An example was the maintenance section Master Tool Kit. I had to personally inventory every tool against the component list - like going to a particular tool set in the Sears Tool Catalog and inventorying every socket, wrench, etc, against its individual part number. Any time a tool, typewriter, or truck was transferred to another unit, the transfer was effected by having the PBO of the gaining unit do a joint inventory and then signing a transfer document with a complete listing of the items being transferred.
Because equipment transfers between units was common place, many transfer documents were continually being generated. The only information from these records would be that "Truck, Cargo, 3/4 ton, 4x4, M-37, 20955876" was transferred from XXXXXX (Unit ID) to YYYYYY (gaining unit ID) (Julian date). To the best of my recall, the Unit ID was the DODACC which would require a cross reference to find a unit designation such as, "B Company, 163d MI Bn". Army records disposition standards would have required all these short term records to be destroyed within three years of the actions being completed. Additionally, records showing vehicle transfers to the various subordinate levels of the Army were constantly being "refreshed" so the longest "histories" would have reflected only the last several years in a vehicle's "life".
When a vehicle was released from the inventory, all permanent records such as the Log Book were permanently retired to a record holding facility for a specified number of years and then, most likely, destroyed.
This item was updated April 5, 2011, and contains the response to this question about a former Air Force M43 procured in 1954.
The Tracing the Unit Assignment History of a Former Military Vehicle item in Frequently Asked Questions on my web site was primarily written as applicable to Army vehicles.
For three years I was assigned to a Joint Command activity (DOD Level) that was located on McGuire AFB, NJ, and was supported by the Base Transportation Motor Pool. That DOD activity had its origins in the Air Force and generally followed their procedures.
In those three years, I observed that the Army and Air Force policies were very similar. The greatest difference was that the Air Force used the year in the vehicle registration number, i.e., the registration number started with the last two digits of the procurement year. Under that system, your vehicle's Air Force registration number would have been 54X9999. However the procedure for unit markings - and identification of the vehicle's history - was generally the same as the Army procedure for "bumper markings". The use of the procurement year as part of the Air Force registration number did not start until some years after the Air Force came into existence. I cannot say for certain if that procedure was in effect in 1954. Even if you have the Air Force registration number - found on a data plate, or in vinyl lettering on a door - you will have little chance of learning much about your vehicle's history.
From what I have observed at military vehicle shows through the years, it appears that the Navy/Marines also displayed the vehicle registration number permanently and separate from any unit assignment markings which were changed as appropriate.
This question often comes up and the replies by knowledgeable folks in all services seem to be about the same. I believe that the records management procedures for all the services were generally the same since each service followed "next higher" policies. In this case the "next higher" for each of them was DOD.
The M37 series vehicles had a unique "second life" in that they were redistributed to many civilian agencies such as civil defense, volunteer fire departments, forestry service, and others. Many of them remained with these agencies for many years before they were released to the general public. This seemed to apply mostly to these vehicles that were being replaced in Europe. According to European collectors I have had contact with, surplus M37 series vehicles are relatively rare, while WWII vehicles are comparatively plentiful. It is rare to find any M37 series vehicles that have any recoverable unit markings.