On this day 72 years ago, a Willys MB Jeep rolled off the Willys-Overland assembly line in Toledo, Ohio. A routine event during a war in which 653,568 jeeps were manufactured from 1941 to 1945, the making of this Jeep was the start of a sequence of events that sent it overseas to war, but to the wrong continent. It created a mystery that may last to this day.
The unusual feature of this Jeep was its dashboard data plates, written in Chinese characters. The use of Chinese indicates that the Jeep was part of a production run intended for shipment to Nationalist China as military assistance under Lend-Lease. The location of this December 1942 dated photo was Tidsworth, England, however, where the jeep belonged to the 29th Quartermaster Company, a unit of the 29th Infantry Division. The 29th Infantry Division, a National Guard unit from Maryland and Virginia, had deployed to the U.K. in October 1942. After two years of training in the U.K., it landed at Omaha Beach in the first wave on D-Day, alongside the far more celebrated 1st Infantry Division. It then fought across France and into Germany, reaching the Elbe River in April 1945. It performed occupation duty in Bremen until it returned to the U.S. in January 1946.
So we can be quite certain that this jeep, originally intended to be shipped to China, instead went to the U.K. with the U.S. Army, landed in Normandy, and headed inland as part of the liberation of Europe. The diversion may have been intentional, caused by a shortage of jeeps in the U.S. Army’s inventory, or it may have been a mistake, one vehicle in a huge inventory sent the wrong way and then sent further down the chain, a small instance where “some one had blunder’d,” to borrow a line from Tennyson. The soldiers to whom the jeep was issued found it strange enough to be worth photographing. There may be veterans still living who rode this Jeep across Europe and remember its odd foreign-language data plates.
The insignia of the 29th Infantry Division then and now has been a yin and yang, in blue and gray to symbolize the division’s combination of both North and South, so a Jeep originally intended for China being in the division’s inventory seems oddly appropriate.
Since Jeeps typically had very short life expectancies in combat, this jeep quite likely did not survive the war, but if it did, it may have been in the photograph above, taken shortly after the 29th Infantry Division departed from Europe. If it then beat the odds by avoiding being scrapped in Europe during the disposal of vast fleets of U.S. military vehicles made surplus at the end of the war, then surviving civilian use in Europe and making it into preservation, it presents its current owner with a first rate novelty item. Intended to go to Asia for use by a foreign army, it instead ended up with the U.S. Army and used on D-Day and in the liberation of Europe. Its story is likely a mystery to its current owner, so if you see a Jeep curbside or at a show in Europe with these plates, tell the owner that you saw them here.
Photo 1 is from http://sphotos-f.ak.fbcdn.net/. Photos 2 and 3 are from the National Archives, where the author discovered them while researching another subject.