The Mighty Jeep

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A few weeks before Pearl Harbor, the highest ranking officer in the Armed Forces, General George C. Marshall, described as our main contribution to modern war a new, small, bouncy army vehicle with the official designation of truck, quarter-ton, four-by-lour, but better known to practically everyone, then and now, as the jeep.

No one is certain exactly where the name “jeep” came from. The most widely accepted theory is that it originated in the pronunciation of the army designation G. P., meaning “general purpose,” but at one time or another it has been used to refer to an experimental railroad engine, a three-ton tractor, an autogyro, and a careless soda jerk. The question is further confused by the fact that in the prewar army, especially in the Armored Force, the quarter-ton four-by-four was called not a “jeep” but a “peep,” the former term being reserved for a larger command-and-reconnaissance car.

At any rate, this diminutive, versatile, and supremely practical machine became one of the memorable symbols of American participation in World War II. It was a kind of military Model T, embodying the best elements of Yankee tinkering and functional design. Little in civilian life could have prepared the millions of soldiers and sailors for the jeep’s uniform olive-drabness, its squat boxy shape, and its stripped-down simplicity; yet none could have failed to recognize it immediately for the characteristically American product that it was.

The jeep was a no-nonsense solution to a specific wartime problem. Its low silhouette, when the canvas top and the windshield were put down, was meant to make it usable in the front-line area. Its four-wheel drive enabled it to negotiate soft ground and climb grades that would have defeated an ordinary car. It could operate without strain from three to sixty m.p.h. and climb a forty per cent grade; and it was virtually indestructible. Major General Eugene Reybold, Chief of Engineers, a notoriously conservative branch of the Army, once said that in all his travels he had “never seen a jeep that wouldn’t run.”

In its first large-scale maneuvers, in Louisiana in September, 1941, the jeep completely stole the show, pulling antitank guns into positions where “enemy” tanks had not expected to find them; and in the North African landings—the first major combat operation for the jeep—it proved itself time and again. It was the only fast vehicle that could operate in rough desert terrain. Perhaps the most dramatic jeep offensive action of the war was an attack on enemy aircraft led by David Stirling, the “phantom Major,” commander of a British raiding force organized around the jeep as basic transportation. The target was Landing Ground 12 at Sidi Haneish, seventy miles west of El Alamein.

Each jeep was armed with four Vickers K machine guns capable of firing one thousand rounds a minute. Formed in flying wedge, the jeeps charged out of the desert onto the airfield between the rows of parked planes, all guns blazing. After one complete circle of the airfield they attacked planes parked on the perimeter; then they roared away into the comparative safety of the desert. The score: twenty-five planes destroyed, and a dozen damaged. The attacking force: seventy-five men and eighteen jeeps.

As the war progressed the jeep’s versatility seemed endless. Fitted out with stretchers, it became a frontline ambulance. A jeep plus a radio was a mobile command post. Jeeps hauled planes to dispersal bunkers. Soldiers raced them uphill, as in a famous cartoon by Bill Mauldin, to get hot radiator water for shaving. In the Philippines a jeep equipped with flanged wheels pulled a fifty-two-ton railroad supply train for nineteen miles at twenty miles an hour. When Patton’s armored divisions raced across France the lead vehicle, out in front of the foremost tanks, was often as not a jeep.

One of the permanent items of wartime mythology is the odyssey of two reporters, Daniel DeLuce and Darrell Berrigan, who drove their jeeps 1,300 miles out of Burma into India after the Japanese capture of Mandalay. On their arrival in Imphal, it was pointed out to them that there must be some mistake, since there were no roads in the area they had crossed. “Sh-h! Not so loud,” the Chicago Daily News quoted one of them as saying. “Our jeep hasn’t found out about roads yet, and we don’t want to spoil it.”

All things considered, it is not surprising that the jeep attained a unique place in the affection and confidence of the men who used it. What is surprising, and gives a special flavor to the jeep legend, is the intensely personal quality of the feelings it aroused. There is even a story of a corporal, found sitting in the charred wreckage of a jeep that had been shelled, who refused to be comforted by assurances that he would get a replacement, “But you don’t understand,” he said, between sobs, “I loved this one.”

The jeep was a vehicle for the young. At least you had to be limber and resilient to get in and out. or to survive many miles of jeep-borne travel. (The contortions required to climb into a jeep, for tight-skirted WACs and WAVEs, were a source of never-failing interest to admiring GIs.) There were only two ways to sit in a jeep, either bolt upright or slouched down to the middle of the backbone, and after a few hours neither was particularly comfortable. But jeeps were treated like treasured possessions, nonetheless. You couldn’t lock a jeep, since it had a small ignition switch in place of a key, and so you either had to chain it up or remove the distributor head. Enterprising jeep thieves were likely to carry spare distributor heads of their own.