Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Jeep and World War II

“Little Bo Peep has Lost her Jeep….”
            Despite inevitable hang-ups and bottlenecks, the overall record of WWII industrial history suggests that automobile manufacturers and their military consumers created an institutional matrix that resulted in innovation and production. The outstanding example of this process was the Jeep. In June 1940, the army’s Ordinance Technical Committee called for a “low-silhouette scout car.”22 The army invited 135 manufacturers to develop a prototype, but due to short deadlines, only two companies responded – American Bantam and Willys-Overland. The Chief Engineer and Vice-President of Willys-Overland, Delamor Roos, had championed the light automobile for years.23 Bantam developed the original prototype, and Willys-Overland added a number of improvements. The Willys-Overland design was accepted, and Ford agreed to mass-produce the Jeep. In total, 660,000 Jeeps were constructed for the war effort.24 The Jeep came to symbolize mechanized total war. It was unlike any other automobile. Herbert R. Rifkin noted that beyond performance, “In appearance, too, the jeep was radically different.”25 He wrote, “Soon well-known to every school-boy on the street were its squat, rectangular, utilitarian shape and its coat of olive-drab, lusterless enamel that had been develop shortly before, its low silhouette; the flat fenders on each of which an additional man could be carried if necessary; the heavy brushguard [sic] protecting the front; the folding windshield and detachable folding top or canopy, the pintle [sic] and towing hooks; the heavy duty mud-and-snow tread tires, and the front and rear blackout lights.”26
            Beyond the Jeep’s military significance are several less notable social and cultural influences. The outpourings lavished on the Jeep resulted in this machine becoming an indelible part of war-time culture. In Hail to the Jeep, A. Wade Wells wrote, “The Jeep possesses the American flair for getting around.”27 During the war, like many other mass-produced machines, the Jeep was perceived as a liberator. After entering Paris, the Allies paraded along the Champs Elysees in Jeeps four abreast. In rural Sicily, the Jeep liberated a rural town from the malfunctions of water power. At the mill, G.I.s carried a Jeep up a flight of stairs and connected the motor to a failed olive crushing machine, and saved 88,000 pounds of olive oil. The Jeep was heralded as “a top flight ambassador of good will.”28 Soldiers individualized their Jeeps and became attached to them. One author speculated, “The practice of naming vehicles, especially if the solder had a free choice of names, was a great factor in developing this personal attachment.”29 Jeeps were named after women (Alice, Donna, Aloha Betty); terms of endearment (Angel Face, Babe, Honey); men (Jack, Joe, Tony’s Tank); virtues (Duty, Honesty, Vigilant); cartoon characters (Bambi, Batman, Wizard of Oz); music (Back Beat Boogie, Jumping Jive, Sinatra); functions (Surge-on, Buckets o’ Bolts, Low Gear); military terms (Attack, Cannonball, Salute); war locations (Argonne, Berlin Bound, Geneva); and obscenities (Cherry, Hot, Pussy).30
            During the war, the Jeep became an icon of American technology, representing the superiority of mass production techniques and a centerpiece of poems, songs, movies, and books. The Andrews Sisters sang, “Six Jerks in a Jeep” in the 1942 film Private Buckaroo. In 1942, Jerry Bowne and Frank De Val wrote, “Little Bo Peep Has Lost her Jeep.”
            In 1944, children’s book writer Henderson Le Grand penned Augustus Drives a Jeep. The plot of the novel centered on Augustus’ discovery of his neighbor’s Jeep and the subsequent adventure that ensued. To the awed schoolboy Augustus, the Jeep was a conveyance of adventure. Augustus drove the Jeep off road, delivered a sick man to a hospital, and even used the Jeep to replace an obsolete mule in the plowing of a field. The reader wonders whether Augustus or the Jeep is in control: “The jeep adjusted itself to its uncertain driver and rolled easily over the bumps and hollows of the field with a motion like a small boat in a heavy sea.”31 In 1944, actress Carole Landis published Four Jills in a Jeep; a memoir of her 5-month tour of Europe as a member of the Hollywood Victory Committee.32 With actresses Martha Raye, Mitzi Mayfair, and Kay Francis, Landis moved about the front in a Jeep and entertained troops.
            In 1944 artilleryman and newspaper correspondent Fairfax Downey wrote Jezebel the Jeep, a tribute to the Jeeps he drove in the war. Even in the process of mass production, Jezebel was born an individual:
The chief inspector himself took Jezebel off the line. He slapped her on the steering wheel button, and she squawked lustily. He turned her lights on and she wink at him. He twisted on her ignition, and she warmed to him; in fact, she fairly purred at him the second he touch the self-starter. There was nothing backward about Jezebel but her reverse gear.33
Jezebel lavished her affection upon a Johnny, an artillery officer. She saved his life in the Tunisian campaign and helped him invade Sicily. After the war, Jezebel and Johnny went on hunting and fishing trips, and she served him as the ultimate peacetime utility. Downey concluded that Jezebel, the machine, was as much a wartime survivor and veteran as Johnny, the human being.

            To sum things up, Smithsonian writer Doug Stewart noted, “The jeep became the personification of Yankee ingenuity and cocky, can-do determination.”34 After the war, the Jeep became an important utility vehicle for American farmers, and later, with a return to smaller cars from large gas-guzzlers, a preferred automobile of American consumers.

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