An American in Normandy: Following the Path of the Original Jeep® 4×4

Categories: Jeep® Life 

A lone bugle bellows out the somber notes of “Taps”. Ragged soldiers stand at sloppy attention in a line, their American Army uniforms aged with dirt. The beach air feels unseasonably warm in France’s rural Norman province, roughly 150 miles east of Paris.

When the mournful song ends, the horn player pulls the instrument from his lips. But the sad notes honoring the dead weren’t coming from him, but from a wireless speaker placed on the hood of his vintage Willys Jeep® 4×4, covered in military insignia, and draped with drab satchels.

military jeep vehicle

A cell phone rings in one of the soldiers’ pockets. He answers in a thick Czech accent, laughs from the deepest part of his belly and then takes a hit off a vape pen. This isn’t the Normandy of 1944. This is Normandy now. It’s the site of the most ambitious military invasion ever undertaken, one meant to free the world from Hitler’s tyranny, and currently it feels like the movie set of a World War II drama.

The 75th Anniversary of D-Day took place in Normandy, France, on June 6, 2019. Three quarters of a century prior, over 150,000 soldiers had boots on the ground in France that day as part of Operation Overlord. One need only travel there to see the deep gratitude still pulsing through the veins of the French. Memorials and plaques can be found in every village the allies liberated.

However sobering the occasion, though, it is also a celebration, not just for the American, British and Canadian soldiers, but also for a certain plucky, ¼-ton 4×4 truck that was instrumental in helping the good guys pry victory from the talons of a tyrant.

military jeep vehicle

Army officials understood Europe’s terrain, knew that the roads, particularly in France, were rudimentary and surrounded by a combination of woodland and pasture sectioned into a patchwork by impenetrable hedgerows that grow well overhead. They knew they’d need a reliable and efficient way to get around.

man driving a military jeep vehicle

In 1940, Willys Overland presented them with a small 4×4 prototype called the “Quad”. It made a scant 60 hp but, with 105 lb.-ft. of torque, blew away the competition from both Bantam and Ford. Winning the Army contract, Willys began production on 1,500 original units of the Willys MA. It was time to go to war.

Further refined after wheels hit the ground from 1941 through 1945, the MB, nicknamed “Jeep®” after a character in a Popeye cartoon, stormed Europe. General Dwight D. Eisenhower said the uber-tough, indestructible little vehicle was, “one of three decisive weapons the U.S. had during WWII.”

military jeep vehicles

October 1941 – The first of two Willys Jeep® 4×4s was delivered to the military. Both had a short MA-style windshield and the early slat grille. By December of that same year, for chassis numbered up to 108172, the windshield got taller and new hood latches were put on to accommodate for it. As production and the Jeep® 4×4’s service rolled on, Willys continued to make many tweaks and improvements.

After the allied victory, for logistical reasons, many Jeep® 4x4s were simply abandoned on battlefields across Europe or even dumped off the sides of boats mid-journey back home. But what the Americans left behind, the rest of Europe, grateful for those Yankee boys coming over and raising hell, took in and took care of.

Seventy-five years later, love for the Willys MB is alive and well where it originated. If you’re a military Jeep® 4×4 enthusiast, mark D-Day down on your calendar, and go to what might just be the biggest gathering of MBs on the planet.

man driving a military jeep vehicle

During the week-long celebration and memorial surrounding June 6th, from Carentan to Saint Marie du Mont, Cherbourg to Caen, driving down the narrow, single-lane roads of the French countryside is like being in a traveling military car show. If you’re fortunate enough to be driving your own Jeep® 4×4, get your left arm ready for a workout, because you’ll be flashing the V for victory sign to every Jeep® 4×4 you pass.

February 1942 – The chassis plate changed and was the first to feature the MB designation. This happened somewhere between chassis MB1221162 and MB122632. Brackets were added to the side of the Jeep® 4×4 to hold stretchers for wounded soldiers. In April of that year, a new speedometer was integrated that included one-mile increments instead of a simple hash mark for every 5 and 10 mph increase. 

military jeep vehicles

When you go, make a point to find Sainte-Mère-Église, the town infamous as the place where 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper John Steele got his chute caught in the church’s steeple. Steele was captured by the Nazis, but famously escaped. Now the town hoists up a mannequin during the week to recreate Steele’s iconic landing. Just past the town square is Camp Geronimo, one of the largest of the historic vehicle expos, a living diorama of wartime France.

military memorabilia

Jeep® 4x4s sit among old canvas Army tents. Re-enactors dress in period costume, reading old newspapers and serving up meals to soldiers. Even visitors dress in period Army uniforms, with insignia from the 101st Screaming Eagles to the 29th Infantry who stormed the beach at Omaha or dropped in behind enemy lines to defy Hitler’s desire for world domination. Parents thrust smiling children onto the gun turrets of tanks. The contrast of historical and modern feels jarring at times; the make-believe appears so real.

military jeep vehicle

April 1943 – In addition to the ignition switch being changed earlier in the year from a key-type to a toggle and the wood hood block – which was prone to drying out and splitting – being replaced with one that included metal fill, the accelerator connector link changed. The original rubber one was replaced by a sturdier all-metal version.

There are 9,388 souls buried at the American Cemetery high above the soft sand of Omaha, the beachhead most heavily fortified by the Germans. Civilians dressed up as though for Halloween and motoring their way around sacred battlefields may not feel respectful, but veterans and surviving relatives are pleased at the remembrance. Major Thomas D. Howie was an officer and battalion commander in the 29th Infantry Division who was killed in the line of duty while liberating the town of Saint-Lô. Asked if the reenactment seemed an appropriate tribute, his niece reflected that any way people can learn about this history and remember it was, in her mind, a good thing.

December 1944 – By the time chassis number MB400676 rolled into active duty, the lube chart holder was introduced to make service records easy to find when the hood was open and upright. By this time, the rear spring bracket was reinforced, the shipping plate introduced, showing the ¼-ton truck’s dimensions, and the clutch and brake pedal pads were now being made out of pressed steel and coated with a coarse, grippy paint to avoid slippage.

military jeep vehicles

Historic military vehicles comprise a special niche in the world of automotive enthusiasm. It doesn’t take much effort to find organizations that champion vehicles such as the Willys MB, encouraging restoration and repair. The Military Vehicle Trust, an ardent British contingent of war vehicle devotees, claims to be the world’s oldest and largest military vehicle club. Certainly, if you find them at their campsites during D-Day festivities, they’re the ones who will invite you in, hand you a pint, and ask you about your Jeep® 4×4.

The Invicta Military-Vehicle Preservation Society boasts members from England, France, the Czech Republic, Germany and even as far afield as Malta. The group organizes drives that follow soldiers’ advancements and visits to significant monuments such as Pegasus Bridge, a strategic stronghold that the British 6th Airborne Division took pre-dawn on June 6th and held valiantly until reinforcements landed on Sword Beach later that morning.

March 1945 – The Willys name was removed from the top of the nomenclature plate. Lower down on the plate, the words “Willys Overland Motors Jeep Division” now appeared. Later that year, the exhaust changed to a deep mud variety and moved underneath the truck from its previous position protruding from the passenger side of the vehicle. By September of 1945, four months after the Nazis’ unconditional surrender, chassis number MB459875 rolled into action.

military jeep vehicle

The Willys-Overland Jeep® 4×4 played a crucial role in crushing Hitler’s Third Reich, whether travelling between command posts with orders or transporting wounded soldiers to safety. During the course of World War II, Willys produced over 300,000 MB vehicles, and happy are we to see many of them still alive and well, tramping over the small European roads where they first made such an impact.  

“I don’t think we could continue the war without the Jeep® 4×4. It does everything. It goes everywhere. It’s as faithful as a dog, as strong as a mule, and agile as a goat. It constantly carries twice what it was designed for, and still keeps going.” Famous World War II news correspondent Ernie Pyle may as well have been talking about today’s Jeep® Wrangler. From its inception, the Jeep® 4×4 has been purpose-built. And even if that purpose is to save the world, clearly a Jeep® 4×4 is ever up to the task.

military jeep vehicle

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