From the back seat of a jeep

Published 3:28 pm Wednesday, August 4, 2010

American army jeeps used in Germany during World War II really did not have an actual back seat. There was a pad about 14 square to sit on but with no back support of any kind. &bsp;

The usual posture was to place your body diagonally on the cushion and lean against part of the pipe frame that held up the canvas roof.&bsp; This assumed, of course, that the top was in the up position but it almost never was. Too, in addition to that shortcoming, the windshield was almost never vertical but was usually folded down on top of the hood. &bsp;

Thus, with no support at the front and no frame at the back, the top provided only an occasional shelter.

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A feature added on site by the motor pool mechanics to nearly every jeep in Europe was a metal strut with a sharply shaped front edge applied vertically to the center of the front bumper projecting upward perhaps three or four feet above the hood with an angled hook at the top.&bsp; &bsp;

Its purpose defied normal understanding. &bsp;

Reality was that the Germans had developed a really nasty but effective habit of stretching nearly invisible metal wire across roadways at a height guaranteed to decapitate anyone seated in a moving jeep.&bsp; The lifesaving vertical strut, originally conceived by British troops facing the Germans in northern Europe, was quickly adopted by the Americans in France. &bsp;

Another added protective device was a metal cover applied to the headlights of each jeep, completely blocking passage of light except for a slot across the lens, perhaps an inch high, with a metal shield set above the slot at forty-five degrees to direct the rays downward.&bsp; All this was, of course, to try to avoid detection from enemy aircraft and was fairly successful in doing so. &bsp;

To be a passenger in a speeding jeep moving rapidly down a dark highway with only a minimal strip of light for guidance was a somewhat frightening experience.&bsp; Occasionally, steel sheets were added to the under surfaces of some jeeps for protection against exploding mines buried in the streets. &bsp;

The combat troops discussed by the hour why the top brass, knowing the need for these protective devices, didnt demand changes in design and production to include them.&bsp; I think they actually have at last now implemented these sorts of improvements in army vehicles, but I understand the troops now feel that the vehicles are oversized and bulky as well as far too heavy. &bsp;

The designers must feel they cant win.

Traveling by jeep, alone or in military convoy, often led to unexpected adventures, sometimes even dangerous ones. For example, in the early spring of 1945, our regular jeepload of driver, officer, and aidman had been enlarged by two temporary enlisted passengers perched beside the aidman in the back seat. Our jeep was moving quite swiftly along a wide brick-paved street in a commercial area near the Rhine.

It was late afternoon on a dismal cloudy day; all of us were aware that there had been German fighter planes searching for targets of opportunity in the neighborhood. Naturally they soon found their proposed victims: us. &bsp;

With all its machine guns flashing and firing, the plane came down the street straight at us but, thankfully, his aim was imperfect.&bsp; As he turned steeply to attack us again, our driver stamped on the accelerator pedal, jerked the steering wheel sharply, sped across the wide sidewalk and crashed through the large plate glass window of a retail auto showroom (probably a Mercedes dealer).&bsp; We shook the glass fragments from our clothes, waited several minutes, then with great trepidation drove quickly away through the early darkness without further incident.

The third occasion illustrating travels in a jeep is a completely different sort of affair.&bsp; We were seeing no actual German ground troops but we were still pursuing them as urgently as we could. &bsp;

However, we were nonplussed by a sharp and deep ravine crossing the path of our highway that we could not cross; the bridge had been destroyed by the fleeing German troops. All of us were aware that there was a single track railroad trestle across the ravine a few hundred yards upstream untouched by the Germans who incorrectly assumed that rubber-tired vehicles could not cross. &bsp;

Our jeep driver was an intelligent and intrepid man as well as an imaginative one.&bsp; He suggested we could cross, saying you guys walk and Ill drive the jeep across with the left wheels between the two rails and the right wheels between one rail and the end of the ties.&bsp; I think, he continued, that I can hold the wheel steady. A tense and frightening twenty minutes followed but the crossing was achieved. &bsp;

Army engineers arrived shortly and were able to erect a temporary road bridge, but Ill never forget seeing our jeep and driver navigate that crossing. &bsp;

The flight of the German troops, the destruction of the bridge and further combat engagements in this pursuit were all without success for the enemy.&bsp; They were fleeing for shelter in the Ruhr valley city of Hamm strongly garrisoned by their army but, for these soldiers at least, all was in vain. &bsp;

The Americans pursued from the west and met Russian troops attacking from the opposite flank.&bsp; The Germans were doomed and left Hamm as prisoners.&bsp; Those who were captured by the Americans suffered captivity and a fairly prompt release; those who fell into Russian hands ended up in Siberia and were released eventually into a divided Berlin and its stark and dangerous life patterns.