1942-1944 Jeep: Jeep Enters World War II

The World War II jeep saw action in Eastern Europe, North Africa, and China. See more Jeep pictures.
©Chrysler LLC

The 1942-1944 jeeps proved successful for the U.S. Army in World War II battle. Yet jeeps had proven their worth in battle all across the globe even before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

The speed and ease with which German troops were able to sweep through the low countries -- Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg -- and on into northern France was a stunning blow to the Allies. Commencing on May 10, 1940, the Nazi forces moved so rapidly that within 16 days British and French troops had been driven almost into the sea.

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Had it not been for the remarkable evacuation at Dunkirk, thousands of Allied troops would have surely been captured. On June 14, the Germans occupied Paris; eight days later France fell. For all intents and purposes, Britain stood alone, facing the advancing Nazi war machine.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was more acutely aware than most Americans of the gravity of the situation -- especially regarding our own national security. So, on June 10, he pledged that the United States would "extend to the opponents of force the material resources of this nation." America had become, in Roosevelt's words, "The Arsenal of Democracy."

By the following March, "Lend-Lease" had been authorized by Congress, providing war materiel such as airplanes, tanks, and trucks, along with food and other supplies and services. The primary recipient was Britain, though the program was soon extended to China, and then, in September, to the Soviet Union. The legislation allowed the President to accept repayment "in kind or property or any other direct or indirect benefit that the President deems satisfactory." Of course this meant much of the total -- which eventually exceeded $49 billion -- was actually an outright gift; though, the Allied nations gave U.S. troops stationed abroad some $8 million in "reverse Lend-Lease."

Of all the items of equipment supplied to the Allies under the Lend-Lease program, none was more enthusiastically received than the jeep. On September 19, 1941, American diplomat W. Averell Harriman and his British counterpart, Lord Beaverbrook, were sent to Moscow to confer with Russian dictator Josef Stalin. The purpose of their meeting was to discuss further supplies and equipment that might, under the Lend-Lease program, be placed at the disposal of the Soviet Union.

In stark contrast to the cordiality he had manifested on an earlier, similar occasion, Stalin was curt, blunt, even rude. Harriman, the quintessential diplomat, reviewed for Marshall Stalin an impressive list of goods and services that the United States and Britain were prepared to supply to the Soviets, who at the time were locked in a desperate struggle against the advancing German Wehrmacht.

Stalin remained unimpressed, almost hostile. Finally, running down his list, Harriman came to what was obviously the key item: 5,000 jeeps.

Old Joe Stalin's eyes lit up. "Good!" he is reported to have exclaimed. "But I want more. This is a war of motors. It is impossible to have too many of them, and the side having the largest number of motors is bound to win."

Find out the Russian Army's reaction to the jeep, and learn more about the jeep's versatility on the next page.

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Jeep's Versatility

The jeep's light weight and high ground clearance allowed it to be driven directly off of a landing craft.
The jeep's light weight and high ground clearance allowed it to be driven directly off of a landing craft.
©Chrysler LLC

Of course everybody else wanted jeeps too, largely due to the jeep's versatility. For the time being, 5,000 was all "Uncle Joe" got, though eventually he received several thousand more. Reportedly, Soviet propagandists were at pains to inform the home folks that these remarkable little machines were Russian-built, in a secret factory.

However, the Russian soldiers evidently knew the source. In fact, the Russians became so fond of the jeep that, according to Doreen Canaday Spitzer, daughter of Willys-Overland Chairman Ward Canaday, they referred to the jeep as the "Ooeelees!" Correspondent Henry Cassidy cabled from the Russian front that "the American jeep has met the Russian mud and the situation is well in hand."

In his book, Lend-Lease, Weapon for Victory, Lend-Lease administrator Edward R. Stettinius Jr., later to be Franklin D. Roosevelt's secretary of state, relates the following story:

"The Russians early learned the value of our jeeps...They had asked for motorcycle sidecars, but as I wrote Ambassador Litvinov late in January 1942, our own Army was using jeeps almost entirely instead of motorcycle sidecars...The Russians decided to try the jeeps and soon found that our Army had good reason to rely on them...They worked so well in the mire and rough going on the Russian roads that the Red Army quickly asked for more. Since then we have shipped thousands of them to Russia.

"Last year when an Associated Press correspondent visited a Soviet artillery regiment on the central front, he was driven in a jeep through deep mud and across rough fields to the regimental headquarters. Between jounces he turned to the Red Army driver and asked him how he liked the car. The driver answered with one word: "'Zamechatelno!' That is the Russian equivalent for 'swell!'"

Later, Britain's General Sir H. Maitland Wilson, the soldier with the longest continuous service in His Majesty's Army, sent a jeep to Yugoslavia's Marshal Josef Broz Tito. "My representative tells me that the Marshal is delighted with it," General Wilson later recalled, "and was amazed by the performance it put up during his first trip across the very bad roads of that country."

On every fighting front the jeep proved its versatility. Major General Courtney H. Hodges, chief of infantry, called it "the most useful motor vehicle we've ever had." As a troop carrier it took three men easily, six in a pinch. As a reconnaissance car it could go anywhere a cycle could, and a lot more places besides. Fitted with a .30- or .50-caliber gun in the back seat, the jeep became a mobile ack-ack unit. Equipped with a two-way radio together with C-rations and some blankets, it became a mobile command post.

Jeeps were converted into highly mobile reconnaissance and radio units, capable of traveling into enemy locations, reporting troop strength, and returning unnoticed. Jeeps were converted into highly mobile reconnaissance and radio units, capable of traveling into enemy locations, reporting troop strength, and returning unnoticed.
Jeeps were converted into highly mobile reconnaissance and radio units, capable of traveling into enemy locations, reporting troop strength, and returning unnoticed.
©U.S. Army Transportation Museum

In the island-hopping Pacific war it ran supply convoys along bulldozed tracks from coral beaches to the front line. Equipped with an improvised platform, it slipped through enemy territory in order to evacuate the wounded to forward aid stations. The jeep's low silhouette enabled it to operate closer to the front line than a regular ambulance.

The jeep was outstanding at scattering clusters of planes or hauling some of them away to revetments when an alert was sounded. It could pull a 37-mm antitank gun with comparative ease. It was excellently suited for night patrol work.

At one point, there was a rumor to the effect that a jeep was about to be equipped with a 75-mm gun. Since the quarter-tonner's practical load limit was no more than 800 pounds, the idea of its carrying a 3,900-pound gun was absurd. Yet, the fact that the rumor received wide circulation says something about the confidence the men placed in the stout little machine.

Find out more ways in which the jeep was used in the next section.

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Uses of the Jeep

Medics soon found that the jeep, with minor modification, could be converted into a field ambulance and a Red Cross Unit.
Medics soon found that the jeep, with minor modification, could be converted into a field ambulance and a Red Cross Unit.
©U.S. Army Transportation Museum

Uses of the jeep were endless. Oftentimes the jeep's hood served as a chaplain's altar, or as a card table for the more secular-minded. Suitably equipped, it could become a portable powerplant for aircraft searchlights, floodlights, shortwave radio sets, radar equipment, even welding apparatuses. It could be used as a field telephone exchange, a food supply unit for front-line fighters, or a medical unit for front-line first-aid.

Popular Mechanics reported in the November 1942 issue, "In Australia our soldiers were given the difficult task of laying an underground cable at an aerodrome without interrupting field operations. By pick and shovel it would have taken several days. But the jeep sped in, hitched to a plow, and the ditch was dug at ten miles an hour. Behind it came another jeep, towing a reel of cable, and next a third jeep pulling a roller that covered the cable and flattened the ground. The job was finished in two hours while Australians gaped."

The next page provides success stories and war feats of the World War II jeep. Read on to learn more.

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War Feats of the Jeep

Some jeeps saw duty as railyard locomotives.
Some jeeps saw duty as railyard locomotives.
©U.S. Army Transportation Museum

The many war feats of the World War II jeep made history. Fitted with flanged steel wheels, jeeps were used on railroads in virtually every theater of operations. In the Philippines a little quarter-tonner pulled a 52-ton supply train for 19 miles, averaging 22 miles per hour. In France, they ran along the main rail lines, while in Australia they were used as switch engines.

Easily transported by amphibious landing craft and by air, the jeep went everywhere. It was reported that a jeep was the first motor vehicle to conquer the steep climbs and dense jungles of a new India-China route supplanting the Burma Road.

The jeep garnered quite a reputation as the first vehicles to pass the treacherous Burma Road. The jeep garnered quite a reputation as the first vehicles to pass the treacherous Burma Road.
The jeep garnered quite a reputation as the first vehicles to pass the treacherous Burma Road.
©Chrysler LLC

At Rangoon, as the Japanese advanced, hundreds of China-bound jeeps stood on the dock, awaiting delivery to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. To keep those jeeps from falling into enemy hands, authorities turned them over to British troops and to anyone else who would drive them north. The story is told by A. Wade Wells:

"They slogged through glue-like rice paddies on liaison missions; they yanked stalled trucks and guns out of ditches; they carried machine gunners to front-line positions; and, peppered with sniper bullet dents, they came back for more. They carried panic-stricken women and children to points of comparative safety. In short, they made history."

Altogether, the jeep's performance bordered on the incredible, prompting one high Army officer to comment that the quarter-tonner could "do anything except swim or climb a greased pole." War correspondent Ernie Pyle once observed, "It does everything. It goes everywhere. It's as faithful as a dog, as strong as a mule, and as agile as a goat. It constantly carries twice what it was designed for, and still keeps on going. It doesn't even ride so badly after you get used to it."

Stories of the jeep's wartime feats have long since become a part of American folklore. There was, for instance, an incident that took place in 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. A Belgian sentry at a checkpoint stopped a jeep carrying three men wearing U. S. Army uniforms. Speaking German, he immediately demanded their surrender. Asked afterwards how he knew they were Germans, the Belgian replied, "One, the colonel was riding in back and the aide was driving. The real American colonel drives and the aide rides next to him. Besides, the American colonel never rides in back because it gives him -- how you say? -- the piles!"

Generals never rode in the back of the jeep because the front seat had more room and offered a much better ride. Generals never rode in the back of the jeep because the front seat had more room and offered a much better ride.
Generals never rode in the back of the jeep because the front seat had more room and offered a much better ride.
©Chrysler LLC

One of the more hair-raising jeep stories was reported by Homer Bogart, of the New York Herald Tribune. It took place during General Douglas MacArthur's march on Manila. A patrol consisting of one light tank, six jeeps mounting machine guns, and a half-track was driving south on the Manila Road, headed for Angeles, some 48 miles from Manila.

"I rode in the half-track," Bogart reported, "with the tank and two jeeps out in front and the other jeeps bringing up the rear. A short distance beyond Mavalacat airfield, with its heap of wrecked Japanese planes we passed the front line and sped on across a no-man's land of dried-up rice paddies and occasional clusters of grass huts.

" 'O.K.' shouted Corporal Bob Lucked, of St. Louis. 'From here on it's all Nips! Shoot anything that pops out!'

". . .At the edge of Quail the road curves gently. Around the bend we saw the lead tank come to an abrupt halt. Its crew radioed back a message: 'Roadblock 200 feet ahead.'

"A stout red-faced second lieutenant hopped into the half-track and grabbed the radio mouthpiece. 'That block wasn't there yesterday,' he grumbled. 'Send jeep five ahead to investigate.'

"... Then it happened. We saw the tank lurch in a cloud of black smoke and dust. Its radio went dead.

"... Instantly, from every thicket and shed in front and on either side came the whine of snipers' bullets and the sharp explosions of grenades. A mortar shell burst 100 feet behind the half-track.

"There was a frantic moment of indecision. The red-faced lieutenant wanted to pull out and bring up mortars. Sergeant Ralph Nyquist, the radio operator, who hailed from Marquette, Michigan, was for racing up the road and saving the tank crew.

"'Well, hell,' shouted the lieutenant, 'get that No. 5 jeep up there. It's their job!'

"And he waved frantically at the three men in the jeep, who had no armor protection, urging them into the enemy fire."

Incredibly, Bogart's story has a happy ending. While the jeeps covered the action with a curtain of machine-gun fire, the half-track moved up to the stricken tank, and the entire crew was saved.

Yet despite its incredible versatility and amazing war feats, the jeep still had its shortcomings. Learn more on the next page.

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Shortcomings of the Jeep

One of the shortcomings of the jeep was its nearly useless handbrake.
One of the shortcomings of the jeep was its nearly useless handbrake.
©Vince Manocchi

The jeep did have its share of shortcomings. The hand brake, for instance, was all but useless. Also, Ernie Pyle's comment aside, no matter how one sat, it was impossible to stay comfortable for very long. Only two positions were at all feasible: either bolt upright or slouched down to the middle of one's spine. Either way, the ride tended to encourage the development of hemorrhoids. Army medics referred to the malady as "jeep disease."

Given the jeep's lively performance and remarkable maneuverability, there was always the temptation to push it beyond any sane limits. Mishaps were not uncommon. Bill Mauldin, in one of his priceless Willie and Joe cartoons, depicts his two GIs surveying wrecked jeeps in a junkyard. The caption reads, "I'll be darned! Here's one wot wuz wrecked in combat."

Experienced soldiers appreciated the fact that the jeep would go places that a mule would not. "Lots of times a mule will balk if he doesn't think his leader is using good judgment," one GI observed. "But a jeep will always try!"

Predictably, the enemy undertook to emulate the little general-purpose machine, most notably with the Kubelwagen from Germany. Yet, this militarized version of the Volkswagen lacked the jeep's four-wheel drive, and its engine generated only a fraction of the "Go-Devil's" power. So it was never much of a success.

Sometimes, military exploits involving the ubiquitous jeep seem, in retrospect, to have been downright foolhardy. There were, for instance, the lightning strikes led by a British officer, Major David Sterling. One of these attacks was directed against a German airfield in North Africa. Under Sterling's leadership, a party consisting of 18 jeeps and their crews made its way through the desert, somehow escaping detection, until the perimeter of the airfield was reached. Then, in flying wedge formation and with machine guns blazing, the jeeps roared down upon the base, catching the Germans totally unaware.

In a matter of seconds the jeeps were gone. They vanished into the desert, leaving behind them an airfield littered with the wreckage of 25 aircraft destroyed and 12 more seriously damaged.

As far as the North Africa campaign is concerned, it is to Britain's Major General (later Field Marshal) Bernard Montgomery to whom much of the credit must go for the defeat of the brilliant Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Montgomery knew the value of the jeep and made good use of it. Once, in an effort to minimize casualties, he employed several jeeps to put Rommel's tanks out of action.

Circling wide under cover of darkness, the small fleet of jeeps made its way deep behind the German lines. Traveling by night and lying low during the daylight hours, they came to a point on a Nazi supply artery where an ambush appeared to be feasible. The target was a group of fuel tanks carrying gasoline for Rommel's tanks.

There the jeep force waited for the approaching convoy to rumble into its section of road. When the trucks reached a given point, the jeeps drove at them at high speed. Weaving in and out of the string of vehicles, the jeeps left a trail of havoc, the entire line exploding into flame as they passed. Before any effective action could be taken against the jeeps, they were gone into the night.

The following morning, the tanks arrived at their appointed station, expecting to refuel from supplies that should have arrived during the night. As the result of the hit-and-run raid by Montgomery's jeeps, fuel was in such short supply that there wasn't even enough remaining to permit their retreat, much less to check the Allied advance.

Thanks to the destruction of many aircraft and the immobilization of the tanks, Germany lost the crucial battle of El Alamein, a critical turning point in the North Africa war. Two and a half weeks after this Allied victory Montgomery was knighted by King George VI.

The jeep had proved its worth. Squat, stubby, and so ugly as to be almost cute, this remarkable product of the combined genius of Karl Probst, Barney Roos, and no telling how many others was, in Ernie Pyle's words, a "divine instrument of wartime locomotion."

Lieutenant Colonel Manuel Conley summed up the record of the wartime jeep: "Versatile, reliable, and virtually indestructible, this magic motor vehicle bounced to glory as one of World War II's most enduring legends." Little did anyone know that the successes the jeep had in war were the first of many to come.

On the next page, learn about the jeep built for the sea: the Seep Jeep.

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1942 Seep Jeep

The GP-A (General Purpose-Amphibious) was nicknamed the Seep Jeep.
The GP-A (General Purpose-Amphibious) was nicknamed the Seep Jeep.
©Vince Manocchi

It was an intriguing concept: a seagoing jeep. The Army had flirted for years with the idea of an amphibious vehicle. Then during World War II, several types were actually built -- among them the GP-A: General Purpose-Amphibious, or the 1942 Seep Jeep.

Designed by the Marmon-Herrington Company in cooperation with the boat-building firm of Sparkman and Stephens, the GP-A was based on the GPW-Ford's version of the familiar World War II jeep.

Several distinct hulls were built and tested, first in scale model form and then at full size. Somehow, while this was going on there was no jeep available for use in the experiments. All the engineers had to work from was a table of specifications, and those specs understated the jeep's weight by about 30 percent. This factor had a serious negative effect upon the performance of the end product.

When the pilot vehicle was ready, tests were run in the Huron River, at Dearborn. Ranking officers from the various branches of the service made comments, although adequate endurance and performance tests had never been made. There were those who expressed concern over this seemingly premature standardization of the design.

However, it was February 1942 by this time, two months after the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor. The need for water-going jeeps was declared by field generals -- General George Marshall in particular -- to be urgent. Besides, Ford was pressuring the government for a contract, even suggesting that production facilities might not be available unless the project got under way immediately.

The potential seemed enormous. Popular Science, describing the Seep as "essentially a specially equipped jeep with a steel hull built around it," noted, "This seagoing jeep operates on either land or water, and can pass from one medium to the other with a single minor adjustment by the driver, during which the car doesn't have to stop. Its possibilities as a reconnaissance vehicle are startling. With it an advance patrol can creep up back roads to a river, scout along the shore, cross at any point to investigate the enemy's territory. It can race back with its information about as fast as any other jeep -- upwards of 60 miles an hour on good roads. Twenty of them can ferry 100 fully armed men across water to strike the enemy from the rear."

The World War II Seep Jeep was a seagoing jeep. The World War II Seep Jeep was a seagoing jeep.
The World War II Seep Jeep was a seagoing jeep.
©Vince Manocchi

Controls were identical to those of the land-based jeeps, with the addition of two more handles, located just behind the transmission lever. One of these engaged the propeller, while the other operated the bilge pump.

A letter of intent was issued on April 11, 1942, calling for an initial production run of 5,000 of the little amphibians, and the project got under way. Then, suddenly, after only 12,778 had been built, production was halted.

Why? What had gone wrong? The Germans were apparently doing well enough with their Schwimmwagen, though their seriously underpowered Kubelwagen was a bust. Denfield and Fry, quoting from a 1971 Army Materiel Command pamphlet, explain: "Insufficient testing of early production models, inadequate inspection and supervision of production, failure to provide for a continuing development program, failure to provide adequate training, and, particularly, failure to consult the using services before production began resulted in early rejection of the project as a technical and tactical failure."

Civilians, however, appear to have seen no end of possibilities in the GP-A. Especially Ben Carlin, an Australian engineer, who made a nine-year, round-the-world trip in one of them. According to Bart H. Vanderveen, writing in Challenge, "Carlin first saw the vehicle when he was in the forces in India, and said, 'You know, with a bit of titivation you could go round the world in one of those things.'"

After demobilization, Carlin went to the United States, where he purchased a GP-A at an Army surplus sale. He named it, appropriately enough, Half Safe. After spending considerable time adapting the amphib to his purposes, Carlin, with his American wife, set out from Halifax, Nova Scotia, in July 1950.

As Vanderveen recounts the story, "They crossed the Atlantic, sailing via Madeira to Cap Juby, Spanish Sahara. From (here they drove and sailed by way of Gibraltar and eight West European countries to London. There, during a two-year stay, the vehicle was extensively rebuilt and modified for the second lap -- London, India, Australia, Japan, San Francisco, New York."

Meanwhile, Elinore, Carlin's wife, jumped ship in India and made her way back to the United States, where she filed for divorce. Carlin flew to his hometown of Perth, Australia, where he recruited a young yachtsman, and the voyage continued. However, Ben Carlin evidently had an irascible disposition. Upon reaching Kagoshima, Japan, in late 1956, his young helper also took his departure.

Early in 1957, accompanied this time by an American named Boye Lafayette DeMente, Carlin took to the sea once more. Four months later, Half Safe put in at Anchorage, Alaska. DeMente, who had quite enough of Carlin's nasty temper, flew home to Phoenix. Sometime later he learned that Ben Carlin had made it to New York, completing his globe-circling tour.

Accompanied by Half Safe, Carlin later took to the lecture circuit, eventually returning to Perth, where he worked at a yacht harbor until his death.

Too small and too slow to be much of a boat, yet too big and too clumsy to serve as a jeep, the GP-A appears to have represented the worst of both worlds. One wonders if it might have been more successful had normal development and testing procedures been permitted to take place.

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