Willys World War II Jeep

Twenty years ago, this story appeared in a longer version in Road & Track magazine as a way of commemorating the 50th anniversary of D-Day. We present it here to make note of the 70th year since that famous landing in Normandy.

Jeeps? For the most part, we saluted Jeeps.”
Don Horton – Silver Star Recipient

It’s impossible to imagine the hell of D-Day.

I vividly recall what it meant to take cover behind a smelly, snot-slick rice paddy dike in Vietnam while bullets whistled overhead and 500-lb bombs were being dropped what seemed much to close for our own good on the other side of the dike. Yet it is still so difficult imagining the hell of beaches with names like Utah, Sword, Gold, Juno and, of course, Omaha. Even after all the books and movies, it’s tough to picture trading the pitching deck of an LST for the surf, heavy pack on your back, an M1 in your hands, facing German gunfire. The GIs making that landing were the true heroes of a lifetime.

When we headed for France’s Normandy coast, site of the D-Day landing 50 years ago, we thought we were going to do a story on Jeeps. But it became much more, beginning in St. Mere Eglise, the first town in Europe liberated by the Allies in World War II. John Steele is the name of the American paratrooper whose chute got caught in the spires of the local church, and hung there watching the fighting below. Steele still dangles–in replica–from the church and has a hotel named after him in this small village that also includes a “6 juin bar,” streets named for Allied heroes and an excellent museum. We traveled from Cherbourg along many of the famous miles of beaches, much of the journey with Jean Laurent in his Jeep.

These machines are mechanical legends to us all, but much more to people like Jean, who also owns one of the big ex-Army deuce and a halfs. Jean’s Jeep isn’t a perfect example, but he did the restoration himself, and he’ll tell you he isn’t a mechanic, just a do-it-yourselfer. Besides, he and his wife put several thousand kilometers on the Jeep each year, driving to military vehicle events, oftentimes dressed in any of the many World War II uniforms they own, remnants of a very special time in their life. Their liberation.

In the early 1930s, the U.S. Army used a motorcycle and sidecar combination as its light recon vehicle, but as the war in Europe expanded, it was decided to find a replacement. American Bantam, which had spent the late 1930s trying unsuccessfully to interest U.S. car buyers in small automobiles, plus Willys-Overland and Ford were the only serious combatants in a competition to design the new Army vehicle. Originally, the Army was looking for a 1300-lb, 4-wheel-drive machine with a wheelbase of no more than 80 in., a track no wider than 47 in., a minimum of 85 lb-ft of torque from the engine and a fold-down windshield. There were also very tight requirements on delivery schedules.

By September 1940, Bantam had its “Blitz Buggy” ready for testing, but soon after both Ford and Willys had their own prototypes available, respectively named “Pygmy” and “Quad.” Because the Army had released the Bantam blueprints, there were charges that some ideas were pirated, but the three machines had their differences. Bantam also suffered from its limited produciton capacity.

Still unready to settle on one of the machines, the Army ordered 1500 vehicles from each of the three companies for field testing, but put a more realistic 2160-lb weight ceiling on the delivered machines. After the testing, the Army settled on the Willys-Overland proposal with its 2.2-liter “Go-Devil” engine and 105 lb-ft of torque. Willys won the initial contract, but as the war expanded so did the need for Jeeps and Ford began producing to the Willys design plans. Between 1941 and 1945, roughly 640,000 Jeeps were built to the final Willys MB design, just over 360,000 by Willys, just under 280,000 by Ford. Bantam built 2,605 of its BRC design.

There is the question of the origin of the name. Some say this moniker means General Purpose–the Army’s designation–distilled to GP and finally slurred to Jeep. Others claim the name refers to a character from the Popeye comic strip called Eugene the Jeep. To Chrysler, which owns the name through a lineage that reads Willys-Overland to Kaiser Jeep Corporation to American Motors to Chrysler, the term is one it will protect as fiercely as any in its dictionary.

That final Willys design had a basic frame with a sturdy open body that featured a folding canvas top and no doors. Nothing beautiful here, just straight metal and glass with no compound curves. Pure function and the ability to be anything from a beast of burden to an ambulance to a mount for a machine gun, a recoilless rifle…or an officer. When I asked my father-in-law, Don Horton–another WWII real hero, having won a Silver Star as a medic–what he recalls about Jeeps, he smiled and said, “Jeeps? For the most part, we saluted Jeeps.”

Jean Laurent was a 16-year-old on D-Day in 1944. They knew all about the landings days before, but the Germans were still around their village. So when they heard a great mechanical commotion out on the road, Jean’s father wanted him to stay home. But the young man and two of his friends crawled out to see what was happening. It was an American convoy, the first time the young Frenchman had seen a Jeep. GIs nabbed them, found out they were French and asked them to verify the convoy’s location on a map. When they did, they were rewarded with cigarettes and chocolate.

Jean still remembers the exact time, 1:45 pm, and one of the cartons of cigarettes he was given over the next few days remains unopened today, another memory of liberation…as is his Jeep. Why? His wife pointed out that they had lost four years, a quarter of their lives and important formative years, to the occupation. To depravation and, in the case of Jean, German soldiers who lived on two of the four floors of his school. Soldiers to whom a young teenager could strike back with nothing more than small acts of sabotage, like a little sugar in the gas tank. They recalled that their village, La Haye du Puits, changed hands five times between the Americans and Germans in those days. “It was very confusing,” his wife said, then added with a smile that after the liberation was complete they danced for the next 17 nights straight.

As we were leaving dinner with the Laurents, Jean stopped us and very proudly said of his Jeep, “Remember, I am not a collector. I am a conservator.” That put a lump in our throats.
We finished with a visit to the U.S. cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, near Omaha Beach. Beautifully designed and immaculately maintained, the place looks as though the meanest drill sergeant in the world was looking over the shoulders of the men who erected the field of graves, making damn sure the crosses and Stars of David were lined up straighter than a private’s gig line. The same proud sergeant who was going to make certain his recruits would be prepared if they ever had to face their own Omaha Beach. Standing there with tears in my eyes, I wondered how many of the men buried here were, like me, alumni of the 9th Infantry Division, and which of these fallen GIs lived through the parachute jumps, beach assaults, or the glider landings only to be killed the day the Allies had consolidated their line in France and began another big push forward…on July 25, 1944, the day I was born.