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75 Years of Jeep - Blooding the Jeep: Forging the Legend

Posted in Features on January 27, 2016
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Photographers: R.P. AllenMaurizio BerettaU.S. GovernmentHerb HuddleSteffen Hellem

Even before Willys-Overland started production of the first standardized jeeps on November 18, 1941, military planners realized demand was going to exceed that first 16,000-unit contract. That realization was emphasized by the December 7, 1941 start of attacks on United States installations in the Pacific, starting with Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by the Empire of Japan. Their declaration of war was followed soon by Germany's and the USA was suddenly waist deep in war doo-doo.

There was also a need for redundancy... an alternate source of supply in case of bombing or sabotage. The two other companies involved in the development of jeeps were considered, Bantam and Ford. Ford's diverse production bases around the country, prior jeep experience and vast capacity put it at the top of the list. Bantam, the originator of the jeep, was never given much consideration as a source of standardized jeeps. Yes, they were a small company in a somewhat shaky financial condition, but they had lived up to the letter of every contract given them. Probably the biggest practical reason they were not given a standardized jeep contract is due to their inability to tool up at a reasonable cost. It was pragmatism over loyalty that left Bantam in the cold. And a little politicking, but we won't go there. Bantam got some war production "bones" tossed their way in the form of 1/4-ton jeep trailers and other contracts, but that did not put them in a good enough financial situation to survive long after the war.

By way of finding suitable contractors for jeeps, it was clear war production was going to tax the suppliers that made jeep parts. This was just one example of the production juggling act the government had to constantly monitor and control. In the case of Willys, most of the parts for the jeep came from outside firms. They were built to Willys designs and assembled in Toledo, but the chassis, bodies, transmissions, transfer cases, axles, springs and many other small parts came from outside vendors. Many of those companies were maxed out just keeping up with Willys, let alone any other jeep builder, so the car companies that could produce the most in-house were going to get priority consideration for a jeep contract.

By October of '41, Ford had been contracted as a second supplier. That deal included a bit more than $2 million for tooling up to build many of the special parts, including the Willys engine adopted as part of the standardized design. In the end, it cost Ford more like $4 million because they ended up having to tool up for producing Warner Gear transmissions, Spicer axles and Spicer transfer cases when those companies could no longer keep up with demand. Ford had to eat a good deal of those extra costs but when spread across the billions they were making in every aspect of war production, it was a recoverable loss.

If they gave medals to vehicles, these three WWII American trucks would get them. The 1/4-ton jeep, the 3/4-ton 4x4 Dodge and the 2-1/2-ton GMC put the American forces at the top of the logistics food chain during the war.


Willys MB Slat Grille

The Willys Slat-Grill was very much an evolutionary model with many ongoing changes. The most common differences between Slat-Grilles and later MB/GPWs included the grille, "Willys" stamped into the rear panel, one piece wheels and a squared-off fuel sump. They also didn't have a trailer electrical plug, glovebox, jerry can rack or front blackout light.

The slat grilles were the first standardized jeeps issued and many stayed with Stateside units. When we started moving units overseas for offensive operations, these units usually had been activated later and had the latest-greatest equipment. There are plenty of images of Slat-Grilles overseas in combat zones, however, mostly notably Alaska, North Africa and Italy. There are images of Slat-Grilles in USMC livery as well in the early battles. Given the life of a jeep on the front lines was measured in weeks, they were replaced with newer rigs pretty early on.


The standardized Willys MB (M=military contract, B= model B) started rolling off the line November 18, 1941 and they were put into service almost before the paint was dry. These were the first standardized jeeps many GIs saw and they were the first standardized jeep to see combat, both in American and Allied hands. The equipment requirements and production changes decreed by the military had brought the jeep back up to almost a 2,500 lbs. curb weight and that was justification for Willys' determination to keep their money on the bigger Go Devil engine. The 2,160 lbs. prestandardized MA had been pretty zippy. The 2,500 lbs. production MB was merely adequately powered... but that's all it had ever needed.

These early production MBs were considerably different than the later evolutions. Because they had a welded grille similar to all the pre-standardized jeeps, they have come to be known as Slat-Grilles. About 25,808 units were produced to about March 6, 1942. There were many ongoing changes as Willys fine-tuned the design and responded to specific requests from the Army. The most noticeable features of a very early production MB include the slat-grille, lack of a glove box, stamped "Willys" on the rear panel, solid wheels and a squared-off fuel tank sump. The first 3,545 MBs also used the short MA-style windshield.


Willys MB Stamped Grille

Features of the later standardized jeeps included the so-called "combat wheels," evidenced by the ring of bolts around the circumference of the inner flange. This allowed the rim to be taken apart for easy tire changes in the field. WWII jeeps were also equipped with an axe and shovel. In back a 5-gallon jerry can was carried, offering a 50 percent increase in range (up to about a hundred mile increase). In early '44, a capstan winch kit had been adapted from the unit used on the GPA amphibian. It was uncommon but found on Jeeps in every theater. It's shown on this MB under a special cover.


The MB still had a lot more evolution to do once it transitioned to the stamped grill in March. Much of that was due to ongoing changes requested by the military and some was simply to streamline production or improve the product. Among the first of those upgrades were combat wheels, an oval muffler, a torque reaction spring and a glove box. Shortly thereafter, a fuel can rack appeared as well as a trailer electrical socket, front blackout lights and the elimination of a key-type ignition switch. Many small detail changes served to eliminate the differences between the Willys and Ford products. At the beginning of 1944, a composite body was developed with features of both the Ford and Willys variants. The Willys MB remained in production to September 21, 1945 and the last of the military MBs ran down the line alongside the first of the civilian Jeeps that started production in June of 1945.


Ford GPW

The Ford GPW introduced the 9-slot stamped grill. This is a very early GPW, built in March of 1942. It's one of the so-called "Script" models with the Ford logo on the back panel. It's also unusual because it's a matching number GPW. With Ford, the engine and chassis numbers matched and this one has its original engine. This is no hanger queen. Owner Fred LaPerriere drove this rig from Colorado to Alaska and back on the ALCAN Highway.

Ford made engines to the Willys design. They varied in small ways, though everything interchanged. For one thing, the proper Ford engine color was grey while the Willys engines were green. Ford engine and chassis number matched. Always! To Ford, the engine was the vehicle and the chassis number followed the engine number, not vice versa. Very few surviving GPWs have their original numbered engines, however, due to mix-n-match rebuilding programs after the war and the availability of cheap used, new or government reman engines to private owners after the war. There are ancient tales about Ford blocks being prone to cracks. The kernel of truth to that was that a month's production in 1944 could have an issue if certain bolts were overtightened.


Ford began production of the GPW (G= government contract, P= 80-inch reconnaissance car, W= Willys engine) on January 6, 1942. They would be produced at five Ford plants; Dearborn, Michigan, Chester, Pennsylvania, Dallas, Texas, Louisville, Kentucky, and Richmond, California. By this time, of course, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was a smoking ruin and so were many of the USA's outposts in the Pacific.

According to strict instructions, every part of the GPW had to be interchangeable with the Willys MB, but that is not to say they were exactly alike. In the early days, there were considerable differences but as the war ground on, they became more homogenized. To test interchangeability, Willys and Ford jeeps were dismantled, the parts shuffled randomly and reassembled to make two (hopefully) operational jeeps. Ford marked nearly every part of the GPW with a script "F," even the bolts. Legend has it old Henry Ford himself decreed this practice so as not to pay a warranty claim on a Willys part.

The most noticeable difference between an early MB and a GPW was the grille. The Ford GPW emerged with a stamped, 9-slot grill. In tooling up, Ford engineers had noted the onerous process of welding up the slat-grille and designed a sheet metal grill that could be made in a single stamping. It required a special design variance from the Army but it didn't take long for all parties to agree this was a great idea. Isn't it ironic that the iconic jeep look started as a production expedient by a company that built jeeps for only four years?

Ford started GPW production using chassis supplied by A.O. Smith, the same company that produced them for Willys. As soon as they completed tooling up, they built them in house. Though interchangeable with the Willys/A.O. Smith chassis, the Ford built pieces had some distinctive differences and it's how you can rapidly tell a Willys built from a Ford built jeep. The Willys unit has a round front crossmember and the Ford a stamped u-section. Ford built it's bodies in house while Willys contracted with American Central Manufacturing. Again, though interchangeable, they had many detail differences. Starting about January 1944, American Central starting building a composite body with features of both their own and the Ford bodies. Both Willys and Ford utilized these composite bodies until the end of the war. Ford stopped production of the GPW on July 31, 1945.


Ford GPA

The Ford GPA was either a boat with wheels or a car that floated. It was intended for the reconnaissance role but the need for a compact amphibian did not arise as often as anticipated, making it a bit redundant. Weighing in at 3,400 lbs., the 60 hp engine was not quite enough.

A classic GPA water entry. Engage four-wheel drive low range. Engage the propeller and bilge pump. Select second gear, release the clutch, then mash the gas pedal hard and go. Banks steeper than 30 degrees are not recommended but the GPA can enter from a 45-degree slope with some extra care. In the water, keeping the wheels turning will aid propulsion but the combined load will increase fuel consumption and may cause the engine to run hot.


In the rearmament push of 1940, among the many things on the American military wish list was amphibious vehicles. Recommendations were made for the development of a few sizes and types and the marine architects at Sparkman & Stephens were given a contract to design the hulls. Marmon-Herrington (M-H) was first on the job of creating an amphibious jeep in March of 1941 and was given three Willys MA jeeps by the War Department from which to salvage components. The original concept was for a unitized hull structure to which jeep components were added. This proved to be a formidable engineering task that moved slowly.

In December of '41, not long after being given a large contract for standardized jeeps, Ford was also given a chance at building the amphibious jeep. As usual, they had a better idea and, despite starting later, they unveiled a prototype on February 2, 1942, more than a month earlier than M-H. Both units were tested and the Ford design was adopted because it was simpler, lighter, easier to manufacture and outperformed the M-H design. It featured a hull made of stamped steel sections that were welded together. A conventional chassis, similar to the GPW, was inserted into the hull and mostly standard GPW components were used.

Production was rushed so that some were available for the North African campaign that started in November of '42. Plenty were available for the invasion of Sicily and Italy in the Summer of '43. They were also used in the invasion of France in the summer of '44 and for crossing the Rhine River in '45. By May of '43, 12,778 GPAs, nicknamed "Seeps" (for Sea-Jeep), had been produced.

The GPA performed well according to the design parameters it had been built under, but proved to be redundant in the actual prosecution of the war. Because their cargo capacity was limited, Seeps weren't as generally useful as the larger 2-1/2-ton DUKW "Duck" for most beach landings. They were also not as seaworthy as the Duck and a handful in the surf. They were too ungainly to be used extensively on land so after use in the various beach landings, many were held in reserve until needed for waterborne operations, such as when large rivers were encountered.

Probably the best use of the GPA in WWII was made by the Soviet Union, who received 3,500 of them. Rivers were a common terrain feature on the Eastern Front and the GPA was very useful in it's intended reconnaissance role. The Russians also used them for river assaults and ferrying large number of troops for flanking maneuvers. Britain, France, China, Brazil and the Netherlands received a combined 4,400-plus between them.


Variations on the Theme

At the beginning of the war, a jeep pulling an M-2 pack howitzer seemed like a good idea. Designed in 1937, this lightweight 75mm field piece was designed to break down for transport by mules. A battery of jeeps with pack howitzers could be a fast moving, highly maneuverable outfit but prewar plans were soon broken by wartime realities. In Europe there was plenty of room to operate larger and more effective howitzers, so this capability was redundant. The USMC did have some units equipped like this in the Pacific early on.

One of the more interesting but very rare jeep adaptations was for increased mobility. It's often called the Desert Kit, but it could be used for any type of soft ground. It included 7.50-16 tires, an underhood T-1 belt driven compressor with an airing up kit, a speedometer adapter, a special fender-mounted storage box and a spacers for the spare tire mount. With the larger tires, the road inflation was 15 psi (vs 25 PSI) and the sand and mud inflation was 10 psi. Normally the kit also included a radiator overflow tank that mounted outside the grill but the owner of this '45 GPW, Steffen Hellem of Norway, didn't want to drill the OE grille. With the factory 4.88:1 ratios, these 32 inch tall 7.50-16s push the stock engine a bit. Nobody would know if you installed 5.38:1 ratios. That's sorta period correct because that ratio was developed for the Super Jeep 6x6 developed for WWII. That is also a period correct WWII era tow bar setup.

The military belt-driven T-1 compressor was built by Westinghouse's WABCO (Westinghouse Air Brake Company) and was mainly used as part of a high mobility kit that included oversized tires. It cranked out 3.27 CFM at 600 rpm and 6.5 CFM at 1200. It was designed for an operating pressure of about 75 PSI. Kit's were available to mount it on a variety of WWII military vehicles but it was seldom seen.

Ambulance conversions took many forms, some more field oriented than others. The Marine Corps had approximately 200 jeeps converted by Holden (a GM subsidiary) in Australia in '42. They were designed to carry two patients on litters and two attendants. Part of the conversion included a stowage box replacing the passenger seat. These conversions were so successful that not only did the Navy Department have another 250 converted by Holden, but they build some at Camp Pendleton. In all, approximately 700 were made and used all over the Pacific, this being one of the few survivors.

Two USMC favorites. While the Marines sometime "inherited" jeeps from Army orders, USMC-spec'ed jeeps differed in small ways from Army version. For one, they used a different flavor of Olive Drab paint. The Marines preferred a deeper green. They also lettered their vehicles in yellow, versus blue or white for the Army, and used a completely different numbering convention. The Marines specified front and rear lifting rings on their jeeps so they could be more easily loaded aboard ship. Here a USMC MB is posed with a LVT (Landing Vehicle Tracked, A.K.A. "Amtrack"). This LVT was used in the Pacific miniseries on HBO.


The military jeep was one of the most modified vehicles in the inventories of every service or nation that used them. The mods done by GIs without official permission are legendary and in the spirit of the postwar jeep craze. In fact, some of the enterprising GIs who cut their teeth "customizing" their jeeps during the war became the foundation of the first generation of recreational jeepers after the war.

Official field mods were done at the unit level and sometimes theater-wide to meet specific needs. One of the most common was the ambulance conversion. Jeeps made handy frontline ambulances that could carry two to four patients in litters to a field hospital, usually just a few miles back from the front lines. They were particularly useful in the tight jungle warfare of the Pacific Theater.

Another common and useful conversion in Europe was for rail use. Despite the extensive aerial bombing of Europe, there was still a lot of rolling stock and rail lines left. With flanged wheels and some added weight, the jeep was capable of pulling a big rail load as a shuttle engine. In one case, a jeep was recorded to have regularly pulled 52-ton ammunition trains. Another common conversion was for laying telephone cable. In those days, field radios were very short-ranged and unreliable, so field telephones were still in common use. Jeeps laid cable quickly, sometimes under fire.

Another of the more common modifications is Europe was the anti-decapitation device. Because jeeps were often operated with the tops and windshields down, Nazis would string wire across the road at neck height. Yikes! Some unknown GI came up with a field fix. It was a piece of angle iron mounted vertically on the front bumper and extended higher than the top of the jeep. It was notched and bent near the top to slip the wire.

The use of jeeps as weapons platforms was everpresent. A pedestal mount for light machine guns was part of the original design and a mount for the deadly .50 cal. M2 heavy machine gun followed quickly. A cowl mount for a light MG was also in common use. Both setups gave the jeep a tremendous amount of "shoot and scoot" firepower or anti-aircraft protection. Guns were not usually fitted for jeeps used far behind the lines in logistical roles but reconnaissance jeeps or those attached to frontline combat units often were. Ditto for jeeps used as convoy protection.

The jeep could tow either the M3 37mm anti-tank gun or the wheeled version of the 75mm M2A1 pack howitzer. Both of these were artillery pieces developed before WWII and were quickly rendered obsolete by advances in Axis weaponry and changes in American tactics. When the M20 75mm recoilless rifle (a low recoil cannon that could be mounted on a .30 cal. MG mount) was developed at the end of WWII, jeeps were a perfect platform. The bad part of having heavy weapons on jeeps was that they then became a magnet for enemy fire and that's where the jeep's legendary ability to scoot came in handy.


Foundation of the Legend

For a brief moment in early 1943, Amchitka Island, Alaska, was a hot spot as American Forces drove Japanese forces from the Aleutian Islands. Here, and in the construction of the ALCAN highway, American logistics was put to test. The terrain was roadless, the weather miserable and the jeep faced some of its most brutal field tests. The lack of a jerry can rack and glove box indicates this is a Slat-Grille MB.

Barney Armbruster was in the 326th Airborne Engineer Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division and is shown here in Bastogne, Belgium, sometime in December 1944 when the German Ardennes Offensive was in full swing. The GI's holding that otherwise unknown town slowed that offensive by refusing to leave that vital crossroads... in the vertical position at least. From December 19, 1944, to January 6, 1945 the 101st, A.K.A. "The Battling Bastards of the Bastion of Bastogne," held the town against forces that outnumbered them five to one at times. The 101st lost 341 killed, 1,691 wounded and 516 missing. Barney wasn't among them and lived to the ripe old age of 94. When he passed away in 2008, he was one of the last members of the 326th. Barney landed at Normandy, participated in Operation Market Garden and ended the war at Hitler's mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden. If you saw the Band of Brothers miniseries, you saw some of what Barney lived.

In the buildup to the famous 1944 battle of Monte Cassino, heavy rains assaulted Italy and the armies that could still navigate got to start the battle in the best positions. This heavily loaded, chained-up jeep has a field modification called a "bustle basket" that increased the carrying volume with a rack mounted at the rear.

Past military service echoes with old jeeps just like it does with old men. Very seldom do you find WWII era jeep survivors wearing original paint and markings.


War can make or break the average human. While only a small percentage of those in uniform in wartime see combat, the hard work of supporting those who do can also take a toll. The situation is similar for a vehicle. While you can write off a damaged or failed vehicle a lot more easily than a damaged human, the performance and durability of a vehicle can directly affect the health and welfare of the humans using them. Whether in brutal combat or the endless toil supporting the battle, it was the jeep's ability to make wartime life easier and safer for humans that made the legend.


Writing on the Wall

When the war in Europe ended, the Americans were left with huge equipment stockpiles. Return shipping didn't make financial sense but using it to help rebuild Europe did. Allied nations were re-equipped, and European economies were boosted through massive rebuilding programs to refurbish the tired equipment. For It was just about impossible for GIs in the Army of Occupation to find personal transport, so some of the refurbished jeeps were offered through the Post Exchange (PX). These jeeps were typically painted black with red wheels and sold for $400. This one is shown in Vienna, Austria, in 1946 and belonged to a friend of the author's late father, R.P. Allen, who was serving in Counter-Intelligence at the time.

For how many decades did we vintage jeep buffs search for the mythical jeep-in-a-crate? Oh, they existed. That's how many jeeps were shipped overseas but were uncrated ASAP upon arrival. In the '90s, the Georgia Chapter of the Military Vehicle Preservation Association created a great display using a restored GPW and step-by-step WWII training images from Ford.

Americans aren't the only people that love jeeps. The little Yankee four-by became a symbol of the sacrifices made by the Allies in the liberation of Europe. Tens of thousands of jeeps were left behind in Europe and England. Italian collector Maurizio Beretta's 1943 MB is shown on Arromanches-les-Bains, called Gold Beach in 1944, in front of one of the caissons that formed the "Mulberry" artificial harbor built after D-Day. Beretta's '43 is a genuine combat veteran that served in Italy and stayed there after the war. It's wearing Canadian markings but actually served under an American star during the war. It has a hot weather kit installed, indicated by the overflow tank outside the grille.

This WWII MB jeep is so rusty it's positively artistic. It's pretty much beyond any help so the owner brings it to military shows as-is. If we recall correctly, it was reputed to still be running.


By 1943, it was clear to Willys-Overland that the jeep had become an official "big deal" and they moved to trademark the name "Jeep" for postwar use. Once the military production line was humming, Willys took time to start developing civilian variants. By war's end, Willys had built 335,339 standardized jeeps and they were in every corner of the world as free advertising. Yeah, Ford built another 276,614 but with Willys being the best-known jeep builder, they worked to Willys advantage too because most people couldn't tell them apart!

Stay tuned for Part 3 of the Jp Magazine 75 Years of Jeep Series and you'll learn what happened when the jeep shucked its fatigues.

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