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The Steel Veteran of All Foreign Wars
By Bob Schmeichel
I think most of the time when people walk up to an old olive drab green military Jeep, they might say it’s just another old Army Jeep. They may not really realize the important role it played in helping America and its allies win WWII. Reality lessons were learned in WWI – hunkering down in trenches to hold an area or riding horses into a jungle were not going to win wars without a tremendous loss of lives. Because of what was witnessed by so many, the United States government decided we needed some sort of a small reconnaissance vehicle and put the idea out there for American auto makers to develop based on specific needs requested. The main objective was to be a lightweight, built tough, 4-wheel drive vehicle that was easy to work on and able to haul four or five people. When others in the high ranks of the fast charging cavalry units were asked their thoughts of what was needed, they said, “It had to be as faithful as a dog, strong as a mule, and agile as a goat along with being able to go where horses couldn’t.” The thoughts and demands were heard loud and clear, so in 1937 the United States Army began to work on specifications to create this 4-wheel drive reconnaissance vehicle with enlisting the American Bantam auto company in Butler, Pennsylvania. Ford Motor Company, Willys, and later Kaiser also jumped at the chance to build their versions for the government with the same guidelines. Four different companies created what they thought was needed. The Army evaluated hundreds from each of the companies and cherry-picked the best ideas from each, which became the standard issue specification they would built by. On November 23, 1940, the first prototype Jeep was delivered for tests. There were still horse cavalries in the Army then, but as Jeeps were rapidly introduced into the picture, their versatility proved to be much more user friendly to work on and with, besides getting more men in and out of places quicker. Horse cavalries quickly became a thing of the past and Jeep production was being pushed to supply what Franklin D. Roosevelt called, “The Arsenal of Democracy.” A comment made by an old maintenance Army guy sounded kind of funny as he mentioned something that was done quite often throughout the years. If something on the bottom side needed repair, two or three guys could lift the Jeep up on its side. The Jeep would sit by itself and do whatever necessary; for example, for a transmission change it would fill all the fluids and it was on its way again. And since everything about the Jeep was built to government specs, every part from any manufacture interchanged without an issue.
On May 1, 1937, President Roosevelt signed the Neutrality Act, not wanting to be involved even though WWII would soon be eminent. Henry Ford agreed with President Roosevelt, remaining quite the pacifist even though he was building Jeeps for the government military. Henry’s son, Edsel, saw more of the possibilities for Ford Motor Company during this time frame and pushed to become a vital supplier of wartime equipment. I have seen it many times over the years and have always said it is really a shame that this country has to be in wars declared, or not as with Viet Nam, for this country to thrive economically. So many lives were wasted as the warmongers promoted to line their pockets while they sat in the safety of this country. Nevertheless, Willys built 362,894 wartime Jeeps, and Ford built 285,660. American Bantam started the Jeep concept, bug got the short end of the stick building only 2,676 Jeeps. Willys got special permission from the government to begin building civilian Jeeps months before other auto makers were allowed to switch from wartime production and resume their usual businesses. Because of this transition from the military Jeep to the civilian public sales, Jeeps are considered the grandfather of all modern day 4-wheel drive SUVs.
From 1972 through 1976, Milo Gunderson served in the Air Force as a maintenance person for medical and dental equipment repair in the Philippines. During his time there, he purchased what he called a flat fender military Jeep (an earlier Jeep) from a DOD teacher there. He used the Jeep for daily transportation until he was shipped back to the states. He said he always liked the simplicity of that old Jeep and how fun it was to drive. Forty years later, Milo purchased a Jeep three years ago from the VFW Legion in Brandon. The 1964 Jeep was pretty much restored as it appears today; however, Milo added lockout front hubs, a new canvas top, and a rear mounted spare tire to complete the image and make it more user friendly. Milo thoroughly enjoys his reconnection with an old memory, along with knowing this is a real piece of American engineering that enabled America and its allies to win wars. Today the Jeep has been replaced in the military by the heavily armored, General Motors built, Humvee with a $220,000 price tag noted from six years ago, compared to a Willys 1941 Jeep price of $648.00.
With GM approaching building 300,000 Humvees since 1989, who said war wasn’t big business?