Motorcycle, Chain Drive, Solo (Harley Davidson Model 42WLA)
Ordnance Supply Catalog G523 dated 15 September 1944

 

Harley-Davidson produced about 70.000 WLA and WLC military motorcycles for the US Army and their Allies during WW2. Spare parts for an additional 30.000 bikes were also produced.
WLAs were used extensively by US Troops for messenger and Military Police duties and thousands were supplied to other countries thru Lend Lease Agreements.
These bikes were nicknamed 'Liberators' in Europe since they were ridden by troops liberating their towns and countries from German occupation. The name has stuck ever since....

One of Belgium's most remembered 'Liberators' is commemorated every year in the Belgian town of Peruwelz where James Carroll of the 628th Tank Destroyer was the first GI to enter the village on 3rd September 1944 after 4 long years of German occupation.


Photo from an unknown source


James Carroll's WLA surrounded by overjoyed locals in Peruwelz, Belgium, on September 3rd, 1944.
This Liberator Story was published in the November 1998 edition of the 'American Motorcyclist' magazine.
Read the complete story: Click Here!

 

42WLA Origin & Production

During the first half of the 20th century, the Motorcycle was a common means of transport for both civil and government use. The US Army had fielded motorcycles since the Great War and had continued to use them as the ideal transport for messenger, reconnaissance and traffic control purposes...


Photo: Harley-Davidson

Cpl Holtz on his Harley-Davidson: the First Yank to Enter Germany at the End of the Great War
Read the complete story: Click Here!

In 1937, Harley-Davidson introduced the W-series models fitted with a 45 cubic inch engine whose most notable feature was the recirculating oil system, which greatly reduced maintenance. Earlier motorcycles had been equipped with a total-loss oil system which made the rider responsable for checking the oil, adjusting the oil pump or even using the hand oil pump to properly lubricate the engine while riding. The US Army ordered the 1937 WL Model to replace the Model RL Motorcycle then in use...
In 1939 the US Army purchased the 39W model. And in August 1939 two prototype 39WL(A) Models were shipped to the Mechanized Cavalry Board at Fort Knox, Kentucky. These were the first true 'WLA' Models having the typical military look. The engine may have been numbered 39WLAxxxx, but this is not sure.
The 39WL(A) was a straight adaption of the civilian Model, still retaining the I-beam type front forks.



The 39WL(A) as it is shown in US Army Technical Manual TM10-1510 The Motor Vehicle, Page 52.

When war broke out in Europe in September 1939, Fort Knox began an extensive testing program on motorcycles from different manufacturers, amongst which the two protoype 'WLA' Models, competing with Indian and Delco. The Harleys came thru these tests with flying colors.
Between January and March 1940, the US Army ordered more than 400 40WLA Models. The 40WLA Model was the first type of which it is certain that it was delivered with the term 'WLA' in the Engine Number. This makes it the 'Father' of the 41WLA and the 'Grandfather' of the Model 42WLA. These 40WLA and 41WLA served alongside UA, ELA, Indians, etc......


Photo: Harley-Davidson

The 40WLA as it was delivered to the US Army in 1940: the beginning of an American Icon...

By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, 41WLAs were a common sight in the Armed Forces. With the outbreak of war, Harley Davidson rapidly geared up for war production as the US Army required a rugged mass-produced model.


Photo: Harley-Davidson

The 41WLA which would equip US Army Armored Units from the summer of 1940 onwards...

The 41WLA would soon evolve into the 42WLA of which thousands were manufactured between September 1941 and August 1945.


Photo: Harley-Davidson

The 42WLA as it would go into combat around the globe...

Meanwhile the Army was impressed by the German BMW motorcycles and at the end of 1941, Harley Davidson built their 45-ci opposed twin, shaft driven 42XA model. Only 1.000 of these were manufactured and very few, if any, saw overseas use....


Photo: Harley-Davidson

The 42XA with opposed cylinder engine

The WLA motorcycle was soon recognised as a sturdy and reliable vehicle and for their Excellence in Production, the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company received the Army-Navy "E" Award on May 12th, 1943. Only industries that participated in wartime production were eligible to receive this award. The award ceremony was elaborate, with high-level officers present and airforce fly-overs. William H Davidson received the banner from Colonel Otjen, who called the Harley Davidson workers: "Soldiers of the Production Line". Employees of the company that received the award were entitled to wear an 'E' Pin on the lapel of their jackets.
The award would be mentioned in all future advertising as a sign of support to the War Effort.....

   
Photo: www.ohiomemory.org (left) and pin from the Webmaster's Collection (right)

This Army/Navy "E" Award pennant would have been given to a business that supported the war effort during World War II.
The pennant (left) is approximately 18" x 8" 1/2, while the employee-pin (right) is about 7/8" x 3/8"
The employee pin was issued pinned on a card which mentioned the name of the worker and the company he or she worked for.

   
Front and rear views of an 'E' Pin Award Card from the Webmaster's Collection

The 42WLA would be manufactured over a period of 4 years; yet every bike would receive an engine number starting with 42WLA, even bikes delivered in 1943, 1944 or 1945. This was unique in HD's history. The reason is not very clear, but it sure made Army paperwork easier. Although production details, parts or finishes varied, the overall appearance of the 'Liberator' remained the same throughout production. All 42WLAs were delivered in flat olive drab color.
After extensive vintage HD research, Bruce Palmer devised a unique 42WLA identification system by cataloging total production into 7 different types. This system has been adopted by most WLA fans and these different types are known as 42WLA Type I thru Type VII.
Most common type was the Type III of which roughly 20.000 bikes rolled off the Milwaukee production line.

Below is a chart showing which engine numbers were used in which types and what timeframe they were produced. The chart also shows the US Army Registration Numbers which were assigned to each bike.

The chart was compiled from information in Bruce Palmer's books. I would heartily recommend that every WLA owner gets those books as it will answer most, if not all questions on WW2 military HD's......

42WLA  Date of Manufacture Engine Numbers (VIN) USA Registration Numbers
Type I September 1st 1941-December 10th 1941 42WLA1000-42WLA7000 U.S.A.-W-69888-U.S.A.-W-611203
Type II December 10th 1941-February 15th 1942 42WLA7001-42WLA13650 U.S.A.-W-611204-U.S.A.-W-614257
Type III May 8th 1942-April 1943 42WLA16001-42WLA39229 U.S.A.-W-616923-U.S.A.-637235
Type IV April 1943-August 1943 42WLA39230-42WLA50829 U.S.A.-671621-U.S.A.-683220
Type V September 1943-May 1944 42WLA50830-42WLA60000 U.S.A.-686726-U.S.A.-695901
Type VI June 1944-August 1944 42WLA60001-42WLA62480 U.S.A.-6110920-U.S.A.-6113399
Type VII September 1944-August 1945 42WLA62481-42WLA70681 U.S.A.-6128521-U.S.A.-6133520
U.S.A.-6138558-U.S.A.-6141758

Factory class restorations start from here. If you come across 42WLA10506; it's a Type II and you should not mount a late pattern lipless front fender during restoration if you're going for that 'Factory-Fresh-Straight-From-The-Assembly-Line' look!
Engine numbers and US Army Registration numbers were assigned in blocks and therefore not every number in the chart was actually issued. Starting with your engine number, it's not that hard to find a proper USA number and Date of Manufacture......

There are also HD 45ci engines with WLH and WLJ numbers instead of the usual WLA marking. These were fitted to bikes issued to the Dutch (H for Holland) and Japanese government after WW2 and fall out of the scope of this site. The three-wheeled Servicar had a G numbered engine and the Canadian Army WLC had an engine number starting with either 42WLC or 43WLC. For more info on the WLC models, click Here!

 

 

What does WLA stand for?...... 

Throughout its history, Harley-Davidson has been using a combination of letters to designate the different models it manufactures. The Model WLA is no exception.

The 'W' shows that the motorcycle is equipped with a 45 cubic inch, side valve engine, introduced in 1937 and first used on the Model W bikes.
The letter
'L' stands for High Compression. It is however not indicative of compression on current models.
And finally '
A' indicates a model developed for Army use.

One could argue that the 'A' indicates 'American' because the 'C' in WLC stands for 'Canadian', but when the term WLA was introduced, no-one could predict that Harley-Davidson would be making motorcycles for the Canadian Government a couple of years later....
On a side note the
XA meant a motorcycle equipped with an opposed twin cylinder engine for Army use, The UA was a Big Twin equipped with a 74ci engine....

 

 

42WLA Engine Numbers...... 

WLAs did not receive a frame tag or frame number and were identified by the engine number, embossed on the left side of the crankcase in the following fashion '42WLAXXXXX'. This was the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN).
Furthermore all Harley-Davidson engine crankcases were numbered during their production on the lower front side of both halves by the year of manufacture followed by the sequence in which the crankcases were mated together (ie 42-12345 = the 12345th engine assembled in 1942).
This being said, there's no proof that all 42WLA motors were actually made in succession. So when Motor 42WLA26890 has Crankcase Number
s 42-28352 ; this  does not necessarily mean that Engine 42WLA26891 will have Crankcase Numbers 42-28353.......

45 ci Flathead Engines were also used in Canadian WLCs and Servicars and motors for other models were made during the same timeframe...... Although of course, you shouldn't find a 1944 Crankcase Number on a Type II WLA........

So to accurately date a 42WLA, you need to look at the 42WLAXXXXX engine number and start from there. Only the Types VI and VII had the later style data plate which lists the engine serial number.

   

The above images from Norwegian Steffen Hellem illustrate the correlation between the Engine Serial Number and the Crankcase Production Numbers. The 42WLA26890 motor came from a Type III 42WLA which came off the line in late 1942. This is confirmed by the Crankcase Numbers 42-28352.
This was the 28352th motor built by HD in 1942.

   

The first pattern Data Plate on a Type III (left) doesn't show the Engine Number, while the original Data Plate on Yvon Dincau's Type VII (right) clearly shows Serial Number 42-63442 with a Date of Delivery of October 30th, 1944. Note that 'WLA' is already marked as the model and not marked within the bike's Serial Number on the plate. The late style Data Plate was first used on the Type VI 42WLA.

 

 

US Army Registration and Markings

All US Army vehicles of WW2 were marked according to Army Regulations (AR) 850-5 to allow the vehicle and unit to be properly identified by Military personnel. The National Symbol of the US Army (5-pointed star) was painted in white on the sides of the vehicles with the US Army registration number and unit identification, stencilled on specific locations, either in Blue-Drab or White paint. On some vehicles the registration number was carried on a license type plate.

For the purpose of registration, all US Army Motorcycles were grouped under 'Class 6' vehicles. This means that the US Army Registration Numbers (USA Number) for all motorcycles began with a '6' followed by a numerical sequence in which the vehicle had been added to the type group. So, a WLA motorcycle had a USA Number in the following style: U.S.A. W-6xxxxx (cf: TM10-1510 The Motor Vehicle, October 1st, 1940, Page 46); the letter 'W' indicating a War Department Vehicle.

Looking at period photographs, one notices a rather large variation in markings depending on the unit, theater of operations and even personal taste of the rider....

 

US Army Registration Plates
A complicated subject for WLA-owners...

Quote from US Army SNL G-523 Ordnance Supply Catalog, dated September 15th, 1944, page 2:

"The U.S.A. Registration Numbers have appeared on the rear number plates of 1940, 1941, and some 1942 models. On other 1942 models these U.S.A. Registration Numbers are stencilled on the lower portion of the rear mudguard."

This means 42WLAs had the US Army registration number attached below the rear lights on a 8"x3 3/4" US Army license plate for at least a large part of the production. The debate about the background color of the plate is ongoing; some insist the plate was red while others say the plate was olive drab.

In order to get a clear view on the subject, one needs to look at the different editions of the Army Regulations describing the Marking of Clothing, Equipment, Vehicles and Property (AR850-5). The war years 1941 to 1945 saw three different editions of these regulations (1936-1942-1945).
When the war started the basic regulation describing the marking with US Army Registration Numbers of Vehicles was the September 25, 1936 edition of AR 850-5. The number plates displaying the USA Number were described as follows:

"Section III, § 6 d.

Marking. (1)U.S. registration symbols and numbers.

(a) When marked. -- Motor vehicles will be marked with the U.S. registration symbols and numbers prescribed in AR 850-10.
(b) How marked. -- The marking will be conspicously done on the vehicle with white paint by means of a stencil and on U.S. registration plates by a metal stamping device and white painted figures as indicated in (c) below.
(c) Height of letters.-- The height of the letters and figures will be two inches on trailers, and on U.S. registration plates, and four inches on all other types of motor vehicles."

Changes No. 2 to the above regulations was issued on April 22, 1942, roughly 5 months before the publishing of the August 1942 edition of the same regulations:

"Section III, § 6 d.

Marking. (1)U.S. registration symbols and numbers.

(a) When marked. -- Motor vehicles will be marked with the U.S. registration symbols and numbers prescribed in AR 850-10.
(b) How marked. -- The marking on the vehicle will be with blue-drab lusterless enamel by means of a stencil, and on U.S. registration plates by a metal stamping device and blue painted figures as indicated in (c) below.
(c) Height of letters.-- The height of the letters and figures will be two inches on trailers, and on U.S. registration plates, and four inches on all other types of motor vehicles."

The above Change 2 appears to have been carried forward as far as character and style of marking in AR 850-5, August 5, 1942 shown below. However, in the August 1942 edition, the height was standardised to 2 inches on all vehicles. 

Also in the new edition, the moment of applying the marking was described; the original numbers were now to be applied by manufacturers.

The August 1942 edition of AR850-5 above does not specify where the USA Registration Number should be and there's no mention of a number plate.
On the other hand
Section III, §7, d. indicates the "rear fender only" as correct place for the Registration Markings.......
USA Registration Numbers are to be painted in
"blue-drab lusterless enamel by means of a stencil"

 

The following edition dated February 15th, 1945 states in Section V, §13, b. "the registration markings will be applied with approved white lusterless, stenciling, synthetic enamel".

Figure 5 of the same edition shown left clearly shows the USA Number to be painted on the rear fender in front of the luggage rack...

Note the position and size of the stars in both editions.
In both editions a Model 42XA is used in the illustration!...

So while the color of the actual numbers on the plates changed from white to blue drab in April 1942, and the number was to painted in white again in February 1945, there is absolutely no trace of red plates in any edition of Army Regulations prescribing the marking of US Army vehicle registration numbers. However it would be possible that by order of some unit or post commanders the plates were painted red for better visibility. Most original photographs and a few rare surviving examples of these plates show that they were in fact olive drab with white numbers.
The W-prefix found on early plates, was dropped during production of the Type III. The August 1942 edition of the regulations was published in the middle of the Type III production and could account for the continued use of the plates for that entire production run. However Type IVs equipped with a number plate have also been observed on original WW2 pictures... Photographs of motorcycles in the ETO show these plates in use well into 1944.

 


Photo: Phil Suttile

GI's are cleaning dust and dirt from a Type I 42WLA at Fort Knox in June 1942.
Note the high headlight, buddy-seat and round air cleaner.
Although the picture's quality is poor, the US Army License Plate with number U.S.A. W-610179 is clearly visible. This early plate is bordered in white and shows the dash between the 'W' and the numbers.
The marking AFRTC below the huge '1' stands for 'Armored Forces Replacement Training Center'.

 


 Photo: Sam Cox

A messenger takes aim behind his Type III 42WLA during manoeuvers, late 1942.
The photo gives a clear view of the US Army License Plate showing number U.S.A. W-617078, the dash barely visible.
The War Department 'W' prefix was dropped at some point during Type III production.
The painted markings AGF-15C  A-52 on the rear fender stand for Army ground Forces-15th Cavalry Group-Troop A-Vehicle 52
The meaning of the arrow is not clear.
The bike is equipped with a rear wheel driven sirene, a rare item during WW2, and a pair of brandnew saddle bags.

 

   
Left: from 'In the Field with the 2nd AD' US Army Publication 1942 & Right: from 'Spearheading D-Day' by J. GAWNE

Left: This 2nd Armored Division's motorcycle carries number plate USA W-67975 indicating a 41WLA.
This is confirmed by the handlebars, and combined civilian and military rear lights.
Right: MP's awaiting embarkation prior to the Normandy invasion in May 1944. Note the military license plates, that have been highlighted with white paint, together with the front and rear fender tips. 

 


 Photo: US Army Signal Corps Photo/National Archives

A Reconnaissance unit from an Armored Unit has taken up postions in the garden of a French house in the summer of 1944.
Two WLAs are visible in this shot. Of special interest is the License Plate on the bike on the left and the .30 Cal Ammo Box attached to the rear fender under the seat.

 


 Photo: Tony Tamburino thru Kenton Falerios

4 MP's from the 82nd Airborne Division with their bikes in Liege, Belgium in late 1945.
Note the License Plate on the WLA on the left.
Also of special interest is the number '61985' painted on the rear fender of the bike on the right. Unless there's one digit missing, it is not a correct US Army registration number for a 42WLA motorcycle; maybe it's one of those 'Unit Invasion Codes'??? Who knows?
This picture was published in the excellent book on the 82nd MP Company, written by Kenton Falerios.


Close-Up from the plate: U.S.A. above a 6-digit number, exactly like on the original plate shown further below.

 


 Photo: http://www.2nd-rangers.eu

On 15th June 1945, one of the largest Victory Parades in Europe was held in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia.
The picture above was taken during that parade and shows MPs from the 26th Infantry Division watching vehicles on the Republic Square. The WLA parked on the right clearly has a US Army Number Plate under the rear lights.

 

Original and Reproduction US Army License Plates......

Original WW2 Army license plates are rarer than hen's teeth, and good reproductions are hard to get!
They are however a very nice detail on any bike.



In 1995, Steve Greenberg of Portland, Oregon, discovered this original unrestored Type III 42WLA. It still had the original US Army License Plate attached.
This motorcycle was registered as U.S.A. 627580. A close-up of the plate is shown below right!
I photographed the bike at the 1996 MVPA Convention in Portland, Oregon.

   

Two original License Plates from Private Collections. They are from a 1941Indian 640B and a 1943 TypeIII 42WLA.
Note how the early 1941 plate has the 'W' before the registration number and the difference in size and fonts of the numbers.

   

The repro US Army License Plate on the left is nice and has the 'W' prefix,  but sadly, as most of them, is made in the wrong colors.....
Although the font on the plate on the right is a bit off, it looks very convincing and the number is perfect for Type III 42WLA31854.

 

Painted US Army Registration Numbers

As confirmed by SNL G-523 and the different editions of AR850-5 described above, at some point the USA Registration Number was painted on the rear fender. This was done in standard 1" blue drab letters. No doubt the bikes' fenders were not sufficiently large to use the prescribed 2" stencils.
Although the 1942 Army Regulations do not specify where to paint the USA number, the February 1945 edition clearly shows it painted on the rear fender in front of the luggage rack!? Late 1944 production bikes have been observed with the number painted underneath the rear lights?! To add to the confusion wartime images show USA Numbers on fenders, tanks and even on luggage racks.....

   
Photo from an unknown source

A Military Police WLA in the 'Rue du Chateau' in Cherbourg in the summer of 1944.
Close-up of the bike shows no sign of a License Plate and a blue-drab painted number is not distinguishable from this distance.

 

   
Photos: Yvon Dincau

Yvon Dincau found the original USA number in 1" blue drab letters on the rear fender and marked the restored bike accordingly.
USA-6129483 indicates a Type VII and this is confirmed by engine number 42WLA63442. 

 

There are not many wartime pictures showing WLA motorcycles with the USA Registration Number correctly painted on the rear fender in front of the luggage rack as prescribed in the February 1945 edition of AR850-5. One can only assume the change of location for the painted numbers came too late during WW2 to be applied en masse. However the picture below shows a correctly marked bike in September 1945 in the ETO.

   
Photo from the Webmaster's Collection

This WLA from the 815th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion (815th AAA Bn) was photographed in Antwerp, Belgium, in September 1945. The 815th served as a Military Police unit policing an area where thousands of GI's passed thru on their way back to the USA!
Note how the USA number is painted in white upside down on the rear fender between the battery box and the luggage rack, just as prescribed by the 1945 edition of AR 850-5.
On the detail on the right, you can see the 629xxx, the USA remaining invisible behind the rider's trousers' fabric...
Markings on the front fender are CBS over 815AAA over A-?? which indicates a motorcycle of A Battery of the 815th AAA Bn attached to the Continental Base Section. The windshield apron has been painted over in white, with the words Military Police most likely painted in black.
You can read more about the 815th's MP duty in Antwerp Here and Here.

 

X-Prefixed US Army Registration Numbers

During the Great War some US Army Officers drove their own vehicles and had them serviced by the Motor Transport Corps. Although these vehicles were private property, due to the fact that they were used in the service, they could benefit from official maintenance and parts. To identify these vehicles they were allotted a US Army Registration Number prefixed by an 'X'.

By the beginning of WW2 the official use of privately owned vehicles had disappeared and the 'X' prefix was carried over to identify vehicles which were not (or no longer) officially listed in Quartermaster or Ordnance files. This was the case for vehicles which were leased from non-US sources (e.g. British made American Red Cross buses,... ), completely rebuilt or adapted vehicles which no longer matched the original model (e.g. Long-wheel-base Jeeps), captured enemy vehicles or vehicles of which the original registration number was not or no longer available or had disappeared.

The prefix 'X' indicated the registration number was not the vehicle's original one, but rather a replacement number assigned to this vehicle by the Ordnance Corps during overhaul or maintenance.  The number issued by the Ordnance Corps would be as follows: U.S.A. X-61234
The first or first two digit(s) after the 'X' indicated the Class to which the vehicle belonged (the motorcycle being Class 6) with the remainder being the number of vehicles of the same class having been issued a new number.

Looking at the two pictures below it seems odd that the three WLAs all received X-prefixed numbers in what seems to be the same batch. Seeing other X-prefix numbered vehicles in Britain (Jeeps, Trucks etc...); it becomes clear that the X-prefix numbers were mostly assigned to early vehicles ( Type II WLAs, script Jeeps, etc... ) and therefore one cannot help but wonder if the USA might have shipped multiple numberless vehicles to Britain before they entered the war to have them at their disposal once the troops arrived there. The vehicles could have been shipped in the Lend-Lease program and since they carried no USA numbers wouldn't have been considered US Army vehicles... But of course this is only speculation...

     
US Army Signal Corps Photo/National Archives

 

'Darby's Rangers'

Lt Col Darby, CO of the 1st Ranger Battalion, in front of the City Hall of Arzew, Algeria on November 16th, 1942...
Darby frequently used a WLA Motorcycle for duty trips in North Africa.

The number 'USA X-61447' is painted on the oil tank.
"Loss" of the US Army License Plate possibly resulted in an unidentified motorcycle upon which the Ordnance Corps allotted a new X-prefixed number to the bike, unless of course the bike was delivered to Britain without a number and received the X-number when issued to US troops in England.
Wartime records indicate the original vehicle carrying 'USA-61447' without an X prefix was a 74ci Model UA with Side Car from a 1939 US Army contract.

Also of interest here is the M1938 Leather Rifle Scabbard carried in the provided bracket on the front forks. The rifle is a M1903 Springfield Model.

The Officer talking to Darby has a British Made F-S Commando knife attached to his pistol belt teween the .45 pistol and the first aid pouch. The dagger is no doubt a souvenir from training with the Commandos in Achnacarry, Scotland.
Darby carries an early zippered compass pouch on his belt.

 

'Friendly Invasion'


Photo from the Webmaster's Collection

Two American Military Policemen stand next to their motorcycles somewhere in England in November 1942.

The bikes are Type II 42WLA without Black Out Driving light but both fitted with large pursuit lights.
The nickname on the front fender refers without doubt to Norfolk, Virginia and is probably the home town of the rider. The US Army registration number has been painted on the side of the tank.
Both WLAs carry an X-prefixed USA number ( USA X-6144? )on the oil tank and seem to have been numbered from the same batch as Darby's motorcycle above!

The MPs are wearing the standard Wool Uniform with MP brassard and white leggins.
Curiously they are equipped with a British issue Pattern '39 leather ammunition pouch.
These GIs must have been amongst the first US troops to arrive in England during the 'Friendly Invasion'...

 

The Radio Suppression S Marking

The only other factory-applied marking is the blue-drab letter 'S' on bikes equipped with a Radio Interference Suppression System. It seems this 2" high marking was applied on both sides of the dash cover on all bikes from Type III onwards. These bikes were also equipped with braided ground straps on the coil and later also on the front cylinder head. Bruce Palmer states this 'S' was red, but surviving original applied examples have proved him wrong. Furthermore the 'S' was to be applied in the same color and size as the Army Registration number which was blue-drab until the February 1945 regulations changed it to white again...
Although the 'S' was already being applied to US Army vehicles as early as 1942, the first time the marking appears in regulations is in Changes No. 9 to AR850-5 Dated January 27th, 1944.

"Section III, § 12 f. Letter "S"

(1)The letter "S" will be used on a military vehicle to indicate that a vehicle so marked has been suppressed to eliminate radio interference, caused by the vehicle electrical system, over a frequency range 0.5 to 30 megacycles.

(2) The letter "S" symbol will be placed after the registration number and will be made as conspicious as possible by leaving a space between the last numeral and the "S". This space should be equivalent to the space required for a numeral. Design, size and color of the letter will be the same as that of the digits of the registration number. The character and style of markings of a vehicle suppressed to eliminate radio interference will be as follows:

U. S. A.
123726  S

(3) The letter "S" will be applied originally to a vehicle either by the vehicle manfacturer at the time of assembly or by the authorized persons effecting suppression in the field. If a suppressed vehicle is repainted, the letter "S" will be reapplied in the manner and location described in (2) above.

Although the regulations stipulated the 'S' was to be added to the US Army Registration Number, on the WLA it was stencilled unto the dash cover. One can only assume there was no room left next to the number or the WLAs were still equipped with a number plate...!?!

   

Upon manufacture, a 2" blue drab 'S' was painted on each side of the instrument panel to indicate the motorcycle was originally equipped by HD with a Radio Interference Suppression System.
Above are two examples of original markings with a restored marking shown below.

 

Unit Markings & Stars

Other markings were applied in the motorcycle's unit motorpool (Stars, Unit Codes, Military Police markings etc...) and varied greatly from one unit to another. Although prescribed in the same Army Regulations, Theater or Unit Commanders could order special markings to be applied to the vehicles of the units under their command. Also specific tactical markings were sometimes applied in view of an upcoming operation.

Click Here for an excerpt from the 1942 edition AR 850-5 about Unit Identification Markings.

 


 Photo: Chad Conway thru Kenton Falerios

Cpls Conway and Doubfit of the 82nd Airborne Division' MP Platoon patrol Berlin in May 1945.
 Their bikes are marked as precribed by 1942 AR 850-5, with the National Symbol (star) on the tanks and the unit identity on both the front fender and windshield apron. The US Army Registration is probably painted on the rear fender below the rear lights.
This picture was published in the excellent book on the 82nd MP Company, written by Kenton Falerios.

 


 Photo from the Webmaster's Collection

Two German POWs, wearing US Wool shirts marked accordingly, stand next to a WLA with its GI rider at the US Army POW Camp at Laon, France in 1945.
A white star has been painted on top of the luggage rack and parts of the headlight and horn have been painted white.
Period photographs show that despite of clear regulations, markings were applied in many different ways.....

 

Shipping Markings

Many US Army vehicles were shipped to the theaters of operation in crates where they were uncrated, assembled and issued to the combat units. Some of the vehicles however were shipped fully assembled. In order to use the available shipping space to the fullest, sometimes vehicles were marked with 'Shipping Markings' detailing their dimensions. Initially these markings were applied with paint, but from the spring of 1944 onwards some vehicles were produced with a permanently attached shipping data plate. No plate was made for the WLA and shipping markings were rarely applied to motorcycles, but there are a few examples showing up on period photographs. Shipping details observed describing length, width, height and weight for the Model 42WLA are:

OL 7'5
OW 2'10
HT 3'6
NW 525
5 CWT

 

Preparation for Overseas Movement (POM) Markings

In the build-up to large-scale military operations during WW2, the US Army introduced a system by which all items that were to accompany a unit on an overseas voyage could be correctly identified to their respective units. These items included large personal equipment to vehicles and tentage.
By assigning each unit a 5-digit serial number, all items could be easily identified. To expedite this identifying process in the system, a color code was also devised, with specific colors relating to the final two digits of the 5-digit code. These particular markings, referred to as "Preparation for Overseas Movement" (POM) markings were designed to replace unit idenfication markings, thus making organisation and transportation simple.
Each unit, down to Company level, was issued with a 5-digit code which uniquely identified it. Each number of the code corresponded to a color, which would be painted in the form of three stripes, representing the following: top and bottom bar: penultimate digit, middle bar: final digit. Sometimes the bars were painted on a white square, especially if olive drab bars were used.
The table below shows the digits used and their corresponding colours:

0   1  
2   3  
4   5  
6   7  
8   9  

Below is an example of an original POM marking on a CS-79 Battery Box for an SCR-609/610 Radio Set.
The number 45164 was attributed to the 293rd Joint Assault Signal Company which landed with the first wave on Omaha Beach during the Normandy invasion on 6th June 1944.


Item from the Webmaster's Collection

To learn more about POM marking, please click Here!

 

The picture below illustrates both Shipping and POM Markings

 
US Army Signal Corps Photo via Dave Thomas

'French Summer of '44.....'

This fantastic image shows Pvt Robert J Vance, from Portland, Oregon, riding his bike as a messenger of the 33rd Armored Regiment of the 3rd Armored Division in the fields of Normandy in late July, 1944.

He wears wool trousers and shirt and headgear consists of the Tanker’s helmet. A 3rd AD decal is applied to the front of the helmet. Goggles are the M1943 type. His Lightweight Gas Mask Bag and M3 Binoculars in their M17 Leather Case are attached to the front forks and handlebars. An M1 Carbine is carried in the leather scabbard. Ammo pouches for the carbine are visible on the carbine stock and on the M1936 Pistol Belt. A (British?) shovel is carried between the leather straps of the rear saddle bag….

The bike is a Type IV or early Type V, identified by the low Ammo Box and first pattern front fender. The Army censor has obscured the Regimental markings but the 33rd Armored Regt was part of the 3rd AD. Markings indicate the 22nd Vehicle of the 33rd Armored Regt of the 3rd Armored Division
(3/\33/\ HQ22)…
The POM codebar and unit number 42895 are also visible on the front fender.
The shipping dates are painted on the Ammo Box.

Even in the hot summer weather, the legshields are attached to the motorcycle…. Tire is a Good Year Motorcycle Sport Special pattern…

 

Tire Pressure Markings

During WW2 the tire pressure was not a prescribed marking for US Army vehicles and when it was applied, it was usually in a location in plain view of the vehicle's operator. For a motorcycle this would have been on the inside of the windshield or on the tank. The TP marking on the fenders above the wheels is a post-WW2 marking.

 

 

Standard WLA/WLC Tires in WW2

WLA/WLC Motorcycles came off the assembly line fitted with 'Firestone Sportsman' Type 4.00-18 tires, recognisable by the distinctive cross-lug pattern tread. But other tires have been observed on these bikes, as mechanics would have fitted whatever was available during maintenance or overhaul. Thus far five different types of tires have been observed on wartime pictures of WLA Motorcycles, and they are all illustrated on the ads from 1939 below...
These original tires are made of very hard rubber and are not safe to ride!

   
Ads: Martin Bogaert Collection

Tires mounted on the WLA include the 'Sportsman' and 'All Non Skid' (ANS) type from Firestone and Good Year's 'G3' 'All Weather' and 'Motorcycle Sport Special'. Note that the Firestone 'High Speed' type is sometimes mounted on motorcycles and is generally found on original USMC Ammunition Hand Carts, while the Firestone 'Champion' type has been seen on Indian motorcycles and on one French 'Lend-Lease' WLA.

 

       
Tires from a Private Collection

A clear view of the Firestone Sportsman tires and their distinctive tread pattern
The markings 'MILITARY' indicate its obvious use while the red dot and 'S-3' indicating synthetic 'war-production' rubber.

 

 

How to recognise the different types.....

On original WW2 images, it's impossible to make out the engine number and only typical features of each type can help in properly distinguishing a certain type of 42WLA from another. Again using Bruce Palmer's books, I've compiled  the list below to aid in identification and this chart should enable any WLA buff to distinguish different types....

Type 42WLA

Rapid Identification Distinguishing Features

Type I High Ammo Box, First Pattern Front Fender, Round Air Filter, High Headlight, No BO Driving Light, Natural Finish Crankcase, Transmission and Cylinder Heads, Bicycle Type Starter Pedal, Silver Painted Carburetor Body, Aluminum Carburetor Air Inlet Connector, Early Style Data Plate, H-700 Keyed Ignition, Leatherette Windshield Apron
Type II High Ammo Box, First pattern Front Fender, Round Air Filter, Low Headlight, No BO Driving Light, Natural Finish Crankcase, Transmission and Cylinder Heads, Bicycle Type Starter Pedal, Silver Painted Carburetor Body, Aluminum Carburetor Air Inlet Connector, Early Style Data Plate, H-700 Keyed Ignition, Leatherette Windshield Apron
Type III High Ammo Box, First Pattern Front Fender, Rectangular Air Filter, Low Headlight, BO Driving Light (from approx 42WLA20395), Natural Finish Crankcase, Transmission and Cylinder Heads, Bicycle Type Starter Pedal replaced by Steel Spool Type Starter Pedal (somewhere around mid-Type III production), Silver Painted Carburetor Body, Aluminum Carburetor Air Inlet Connector, Early Style Data Plate, H-700 Keyed Ignition, Leatherette Windshield Apron
Type IV Low Ammo Box, First Pattern Front Fender, Rectangular Air Filter, Low Headlight, BO Driving Light, OD Painted Crankcase and Transmission and Black Painted Cylinder Heads, Steel Spool Type Starter Pedal, Silver Painted Carburetor Body, Aluminum Carburetor Air Inlet Connector, Early Style Data Plate, H-700 Keyed Ignition, Leatherette Windshield Apron (Canvas from June 1943 at approx 42WLA42000)
Type V Low Ammo Box, First Pattern Front Fender (up to approx 42WLA53000), Second Pattern Front Fender (at approx 42WLA53000), Rectangular Air Filter, Low Headlight, BO Driving Light, OD Painted Crankcase and Transmission and Black Painted Cylinder Heads, Steel Spool Type Starter Pedal, OD Painted Carburetor Body, Steel Carburetor Air Inlet Connector, Early Style Data Plate, Keyless Ignition, Embossed OIL Label on oil tank, Canvas Windshield Apron
Type VI Low Ammo Box, Second Pattern Front Fender, Rectangular Air Filter, Low Headlight, BO Driving Light, OD Painted Crankcase and Transmission and Black Painted Cylinder Heads, Steel Spool Type Starter Pedal, OD Painted Carburetor Body, Steel Carburetor Air Inlet Connector, Late Style Data Plate, Keyless Ignition, Embossed OIL Label on oil tank, Canvas Windshield Apron
Type VII Low Ammo Box, Second Pattern Front Fender, Rectangular Air Filter, Low Headlight, BO Driving Light, OD Painted Crankcase and Transmission and Black Painted Cylinder Heads, Steel Spool Type Starter Pedal, OD Painted Carburetor Body, Steel Carburetor Air Inlet Connector, Late Style Data Plate, Keyless Ignition, Deep Water Crankcase Relief Pipe, Transmission Breather Pipe, Embossed OIL Label on oil tank, Canvas Windshield Apron

 

With the above table, it shouldn't be too hard to take a short test.....
What types 42WLA are illustrated below????


Images from Bruce Palmer's 'How to restore your military HD'


You will find the correct answers by clicking HERE......

Of course once motorcycles were in service and in need of maintenance or overhaul, parts of different types were mixed as the US Army Ordnance Dept didn't care to keep the bikes in as issued condition.
That is why sometimes you see early bikes with later features or later production models with early parts.

   
 Photos from the Webmaster's Collection

Three US Army mechanics do a test run on a WLA engine in their workshop in Leghorn (Livorno), Italy late in WW2.
The picture on the right shows many engines awaiting installation and testing. Upon reassembly mechanics would use whatever parts available to put a bike back together, without much thought about how the bike left the factory...

Note the US Army star marking barely visible on the side of the tanks.

 

 

'US Navy and US Marine Corps WLAs'

By 1943 the War Department and the Navy Department were working together and formed the 'Joint Army-Navy Standardization Committee for Vehicles and Construction Equipment'. As a result of this committee, the US Navy used Army specifications for their automotive equipment. One type of standard vehicle obtained by the US Navy from the US Army was the Harley-Davidson 42WLA Motorcycle (another being the famous Jeep...). Several thousands of WLAs were acquired by the Navy Department and most were delivered to the USMC. These bikes were all issued in their standard Army livery, not in US Navy gray.
These bikes, like other Navy Department vehicles, were most likely assigned a US Navy Number.

Only the Big Twins acquired by the Navy and Marine Corps under Navy specifications, were delivered in Navy Gray or Marine Corps Green, since the Army no longer ordered these heavier bikes....

 


 Photo from the Webmaster's Collection

A US Navy Shore Patrol (SP) member on a WLA in a foggy English park during WW2.
 The bike looks like a standard Army WLA, with fenders, apron and horn highlighted in white.
It is not clear whether the bike belongs to the US Navy or is borrowed from a local Army Military Police Unit.
 Note the Fire extinguisher bracket on top of the rear crash bars and the missing 'fin' on the muffler.

 

 

'Lend-Lease' WLAs


Private photo via Martin Bogaert

Look at the image above? Is this a US Army Depot somewhere in Europe at the end of WW2?

No, actually the picture was taken in the early 90's in Russia. There are thousands of bikes still around in Russia, some well restored, other complete wrecks.... During WW2, about half of the total WLA production was shipped to other countries under President Roosevelt's 'Lend-Lease' program, which explains why there seem to be so much more 'Liberators' in countries other then the US.

To read more about these 'Lend-Lease' WLAs, please click
HERE!

 

 

'WLAs fitted with Side-Cars'

Contrary to what many restorers believe, US Army WLAs were never fitted with side cars during WW2.
The WLA frame and engine were considered too light and the US Army always classed their 45ci bikes as 'Solo'. The motorcycles they did order with sidecars from Harley-Davidson were all Big Twin 74ci models.
However some countries who received WLAs under the
'Lend-Lease' act did attach sidecars to the bikes.

 


Photo: Kurt Riffe from '45 Parts Depot'

Pvt Patton and Cpl Grover Pace from the US Army's 32nd Infantry Division pose on a Harley-Davidson equipped with a sidecar in 1941.
While the bike could easily be mistaken for a 45ci WLA, actually it is a 74ci Big Twin Model 39UA fitted with an LE sidecar.
Most if not all of the 39 Models were supplied to National Guard units; the 32nd Inf Div being the Wisconsin and Michigan NG. 

 

 

'WLCs: Canadian Liberators!'

Although not the main scope of this site, the WLC Motorcycle needs to be included on these pages....
The WLC Model differs in many details from its American counterpart. It was mainly used by the Canadian (and Commonwealth) Armies, although a few were also used by the US Army during WW2.

Typical 43WLC 'Export' Model
How many differences with the WLA Model can you spot?......


Official HD Image

Click on the image above if you want to go straight to the Model WLC Pages.....