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.
February 1946 photo showing a small part of the U.S. Army’s enormous surplus vehicle pool at Mourmelon, France, near Reims.
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.
A very interesting story. As with many things governmental, there is surely some explanation that made sense on a micro (if not on a macro) level.
That, or some grunt did another kind of “liberating” and sent this jeep on a different path from its brothers…
Under the terms of Lend Lease nothing was to return to the US to depress new vehicle sales at wars end and lots of brand new equipment was dumped at sea at least in the Pacific it was, ex army equipment got a new lease of life where it was left in other countries being sold off to the civillian population, a Jeep cost the NZ govt 7pounds 10 shillings new but sold for many times that amount used.
And surplus jeeps in the Philippines were turned into public transport called jeepneys, which have become a localized model to this day.
When I visited Carrara, Italy to pick up some small pieces of marble with a friend who did sculpture, I was told that these WW II beasts left behind served the Italians very well for many years moving large pieces of Marble out of the Carrara quarries.
My Uncles family used WW2 Studebaker 6x6s right up to the 80s hauling logs until they lost their native timber leases nothing else could haul logs over the terrain.
My grand dad told me he was instructed to fill up DUKWs (Ducks) with equipment and whatever would fit on the thing, pull the drain plug, brick on the gas, and set her to sea. When it ran out of gas it sunk. Along with all the equipment, some Jeeps too. -Louie
If I was around in 46 I would have rather bought a “new” post war car than a used Jeep so I wonder how much damage flooding the U.S market with Jeeps would have caused? I bet part of the reason for dumping items at sea and leaving items behind was to save money by not having to bring them back.
Not just Jeeps cars trucks motocycles they were all built down to a disposable price NZ GM assembly plant reconditioned engines for the Pacific theatre and many ex army vehicles were found to have one oversize piston or undersize bigend done just to make em run again long enough to get hit by a shell only they didnt and we were doing them up to install in old Fords and Chevies that were still roadable years later due to import restrictions Kiwis kept old prewar dungas on the road literally for ever with army surplus parts.
You are right about the armed forces not wanting to shlep it all home.
There was no damage to the car market at all when used surplus jeeps entered the market in 1946. As there were more perspective car buyers then cars to be had. The American car industry would not fully be able to ramp up production of cars until the late 1940’s(say 48 and 49) while metal needed to make cars was no longer rationed, it was still hard to get hold of so it was not until a few years after the war that things were ramped up.
As for the Jeeps, they were bought for folks in the back woods/rural areas but most were scrapped or mothballed as nobody really wanted them, yes they helped the allies a lot and with them they were able to move things to the front quickly but they were extremely crude and most returning G.I.’s were ether coming home to start a family or help raise the family they left behind and a family was not exactly going to do well in an open topped Jeep in 20 below weather.
Keep in mind that there had been a short-lived but rather sharp depression (recession? panic?) from 1919-1921 after all the WWI government spending stopped. The government was really afraid of that happening again, and went to somewhat extreme lengths to make sure it didn’t. Thus the ‘nothing comes home’ edict. There was some fear that all those surplus Jeeps would negatively impact automobile sales.
Excellent story. My paternal Grandmother worked for Willys on the Toledo line during this period. My understanding is that she sewed canvas tops for everthing Willys and after the war migrated over to the civilian side and did upholstry for the company up into the early 60’s. The real shame is that Daimler tore down that site in 1999 after they aquired Chrysler. Kind of ironic in a warped way I guess. Another real shame is that our current wimp of a commander in chief finished demolishing the Arsenal of Democracy just after he took office. One of the many coffin nails of the legacy that The Greatest Generation left us.
Another car related in the news this week http://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/index.ssf/2014/03/rosie_the_riveters_attempt_to.html
For those of you not familiar with Willow Run they built B-24s and Buick screwed together the Pratt & Whitney radials that went on them, umongst other things.
Interesting story. After 20+ years in the Navy I’ve seen a lot but don’t think I recall Chinese writing on our stuff. Normally it was the other way around as we gave our submarines away.
The Aussie Navy has just replaced their WW2 U boats everyones surplus stuff was repurposed out this way.
Anyone remember the like-new surplus Jeeps advertised in Popular Mechanics? What were they- $99?
I think those ads fueled automotive fantasies of many a Baby Boomer, as well as tales of the rumored Jeeps-in-a-box, perfectly preserved in Cosmoline.
Here’s a nice webpage, devoted to surplus Jeep stories: http://olive-drab.com/od_mvg_jeeps_50dollars.php
U.S. postwar military surplus had interesting effects, such as jump-starting commercial aviation at the expense of the aircraft industry (why buy a new airliner when there were cheap surplus C-47s & C-54s?), equipping air forces like France’s & Italy’s, providing the Israelis with tanks from Italian scrapyards which they turned into Super Shermans, & thanks to the Kuomintang’s defeat in 1949, arming the Communists with Tommy guns which were used against G.I.s in Korea. So I wonder how many Chinese-spec Jeeps found their way into the PLA? Incidentally, the not-especially-beloved M5A1 Stuart had its finest hour when they were used by the ROC in the Battle of Guningtou to wipe out a PLA amphibious invasion.
Based on movies made in the PRC that I have seen, military jeeps and other equipment sent to Nationalist China have survived in large numbers. A movie that I saw recently (can’t remember its name) had the following:
– jeeps, and many of them
– 2.5 ton trucks
– Johnson semiautomatic rifles
– Thompson submachine guns (again, many)
– M1903 Springfield rifles
Interestingly, the PLA unit that was the center of this Chinese Civil War story in 1948 was shown using almost entirely American equipment, including uniforms, with some Chinese uniforms and equipment here and there. I assume that the filmmakers did their historical research and that their use of captured American-made equipment in this particular unit was realistic.
Japanese Army equipment, including tanks and all sorts of other vehicles, seems to especially abound in China. This is not surprising, since hundreds of thousands of Imperial Japanese troops surrendered in China at the end of WWII.
Many on-the-mark comments here about how US military vehicles and other equipment were disposed of at the end of the war. They were sunk at sea, burned (I have seen photos of fields in Europe full of P-51s and other aircraft being torched – astounding waste), and otherwise destroyed, with a small number of survivors given away to armies or individual people in Europe and Asia.
In the interest of full disclosure, I found these wartime photos while doing research for a book on a particular US military vehicle of WWII, and I am now finished with it and wrestling with the process of publishing it as an e-book.
Interesting details, thanks! And best wishes in your venture. Warren Bodie said that many P-38s were landfilled in Japan just prior to 1950, tragic considering how much more effective they might’ve been in ground attack than P-51s.
Ironic that so many American airmen died airlifting materiel ultimately used against American interests. Chiang hoarded much of this, for he believed (perhaps correctly) that his greater enemy was Mao & the PLA, not Imperial Japan, much to the consternation of Gen. Joseph Stilwell.
GMC and REO 6×6 military trucks were converted into dump trucks in the decades after WW2. That’s how off-road specialists Ginaf and Terberg started.
They certainly weren’t destroyed, they got a civil task. (rebuilding the country)
Like this one:
Those jeeps really was very cool in their time. Now many people are using armor vehicle which is strong and ballistic protection.