Willys WWII Jeep: Symbol of Liberation
Willys WWII Jeep: Symbol of Liberation
It’s impossible to imagine the hell of D-Day.While I vividly recall what it meant to take cover behind a smelly, slick rice paddy dike while bullets whistled overhead and 500-lb bombs dropped what seemed much to close for our own good, it’s still difficult imagining the horrors and heroism of the D-Day beaches with names like Utah, Sword, Gold, Juno and, of course, Omaha.
Even after all the books and movies about the landing, it’s almost not possible to imagine myself on the pitching deck of a landing craft, heavy pack on my back, an M1 in my hands, while German gunners played shooting gallery with me.
As I walked out to the end of Pointe du Hoc near Omaha Beach on a quiet, summer morning in 1994, the rhyme “I want to be an Airborne Range, I want to live a life of danger,” ran through my head. I just couldn’t picture how the Army Rangers scaled those cliffs at the base of a fortified enemy lookout. Those are the true heroes of a lifetime.
I was no war hero. I left for Vietnam as an Infantry lieutenant, trained as a platoon leader, but the Army wisely realized I was a better taker-of-pictures than a leader-of-men. Occasionally I traded my 9th Division desk for a Huey helicopter thumping its way down to the paddies on an airmobile assault. But once you’ve been pinned down by the fire of an unseen enemy, hoping for quick air support or artillery, you get a hint of what it must have been like on D-Day. But only a hint.
What does this have to do with Revs Institute? Plenty, for it’s the Jeep we celebrate on this, the 75th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 2019…and a remembrance. A quarter century ago, my old friend, Win Oude Weernink, editor of a Dutch car magazine, and I went to Normandy to do a story about Willys’ famed rugged 4-wheel hero of the war.
It became much more, beginning in Sainte-Mère-Église, the first town in Europe liberated by the Allies in World War II. John Steele is the name of the famous American paratrooper whose chute got caught in the spires of the local church, and hung there watching the fighting below, playing dead, hoping he wouldn’t become target practice. Steele still dangles in replica from the church and has a hotel named after him in this small village which then featured a CAFÉ, BAR du JUIN 6 , a Rue du General D.D. Eisenhower and an excellent airborne museum. Sadly I can no longer find that café on the map, but the town does have a C-47 restaurant, which presumably honors the famed Douglas aircraft that ferried so many paratroopers on D-Day. Again, sadly, it claims its service is Américaine, Restauration rapide.
So it goes.
Sainte-Mère-Église is just a few kilometers south of the famous landing beaches we toured with Jean Laurent in his World War II Willys Jeep. A mechanical legend to us all, the machine is so much more to people like Jean and André Laurent. This couple owned the Jeep in the accompanying photographs, along with one of the big GMC Army deuce-and-a-halfs. Jean’s Jeep isn’t a perfect example, but he did the restoration himself, and he told us he wasn’t a mechanic, just a do-it-yourselfer. Besides, the couple then put several thousand kilometers on the Jeep each year. They drove it to military vehicle events, oftentimes dressed in any of the many World War II uniforms they own, remnants of a very special time in their life. Liberation.
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Military vehicles had been a retirement adventure for Jean, who worked for almost 30 years for the same electric company that employed his father…who told the then-16-year-old to stay put that early afternoon in July 1944. The family knew all about the coastal landings in early June, but the Germans were still around their village just east of Avranches.
So when they heard all the mechanical commotion coming down the road, Jean’s father wanted him to stay in the house. But the young man and two friends crawled out to the road to see what was happening. It was an American convoy, the first time the young Frenchmen had seen a Jeep. He recalls his first impression of the little military machine being, “What’s that?”
U.S. soldiers nabbed them, found out they were French, and asked them to verify the convoy’s location on a map. When they did, they were rewarded with cigarettes and chocolate, the latter gobbled down so quickly the soldiers had to tell them to eat slowly or they’d get sick. Jean and his friends ignored the Americans. They hadn’t had real chocolate in four years.
Jean still remembered the exact time, 1:45 pm, and one of the paraffin-wrapped cartons of cigarettes he was given by GIs remained unopened when we met 25 years ago, another memory of liberation… as was his Jeep. Why? André pointed out that they had lost four very formative years, a quarter of their lives to the occupation. To depravation and, in the case of Jean, German soldiers who lived on two of the four floors of his school. Soldiers to whom a young teenager could strike back with nothing more than small acts of sabotage, like a little sugar in the gas tank.
Dangerous times from which they were now liberated. André recalled that their village, La-Haye-du-Puits, changed hands five times between the Americans and Germans in only a few weeks. “It was very confusing,” she said with a smile, then added with a faraway look in her eyes that they danced for the first 17 nights straight after the liberation was complete.
Their generation had started the war as children and come out of it as young adults. So, André figured, perhaps they derived more joy from the liberation than other age groups… and still did in 1994. At dinner with the Laurents before parting, I told him I admired that he was such an enthusiastic collector. Jean replied, “Remember, I am not a collector. I am a conservator.” That brought a tear in my eye.
We finished with a visit to the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, near Omaha Beach. Beautifully designed and immaculately maintained, the place looks as though the meanest drill sergeant in the world was looking over the shoulders of the men who erected the monument, making damn sure the Latin Crosses and Stars of David were lined up straighter than a private’s gig line. The same proud sergeant who was going to make certain his recruits would be prepared if they ever had to face their own Omaha Beach.
Standing there with a lump as big as Ft. Benning in my throat, I wondered how many of the men buried here were also alumni of the 9th Division. Which ones lived through the coastal battles and were still fighting the day the Allies, having consolidated their line across the top of France, began the next big push forward. And I wondered how many had died that day, July 25, 1944, the day I was born.
John Lamm worked for Road & Track for 37 years and is equally happy behind a keyboard or a camera. He has written ten automotive books and has been honored with the International Motor Press Association’s Ken Purdy award and the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Batchelor award for writing. He is on the organizing committee for the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion and has been a judge at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance for two decades.