The US had not yet entered the war in June of 1940. But to military planners, it was only a matter of time till GIs found themselves staring down the barrels of Nazi rifles. In that month, they put out a call to American carmakers to submit designs for a ¼ ton light reconnaissance vehicle. Three companies submitted bids: Bantam, Willy’s, and Ford. By year’s end the trio of competitors were working together to complete the first prototypes of what would become the Jeep.
By July of 1941, Willy’s had won the contract to build 16,000 units of their MB version of the new vehicle, at a cost to the government of $738.74 each. When the country declared war on Japan in December of that year, the MB hit the beach alongside American soldiers, who quickly developed an affection for the tough-as-nails little vehicle.
During the conflict it served the country that gave it birth in thousands of ways. Jeep were used as ambulances, cargo carriers, fighting vehicles (with the addition of machine gun mounts), and long–range land patrol craft. Jeeps even worked well as light tractors with an attached front blade.
The Jeep fit easily on transport aircraft and even on military gliders. Special wheels were developed that allowed it to drive on railroad tracks. It was the ideal go-anywhere, do-anything vehicle that played a huge role in America’s victory over the Axis. Famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle later said of the Jeep, “It did everything. It went everywhere. It was as faithful as a dog, as strong as a mule, and as agile as a goat. It constantly carried twice what it was designed for and still kept going.”
The origin of the name “Jeep” has been a point of debate over the past 70 years. Some claim that it was derived from the military term “general purpose.” R. Lee Ermey, however, disputes that. He says the Jeep was named after a beloved character from early Popeye cartoons. Far be it from me to contradict a Marine drill instructor, so that’s the story I’m going with.