“My memory is fading very fast and I forget
easily but I remember the heroes...all of them,” old man Yizamo Kikon says. He
has a faraway look in his eyes as he sits near the kitchen window and gazes out
at the deep green valley yonder. He points to my muddy boots and says “…those
days were just like today, rainy and muddy. Men and machine were all caked in
Sitting beside him, Lirumo Kikon,
nods in agreement. He doesn’t talk much. Although they fought in the same
battle but under different regiments and in different areas, they share the
same stories of valour, glory, desperation, heartbreak and joy.
Yizamo and Lirumo of
Longsachung village in the district of Wokha in Nagaland, are veterans of World
War II who fought in the battles of Kohima and Imphal and in the ensuing
campaign in Burma.
Talks of the war bring back
too many sad memories for him but as soon as I mention ‘jeep’ in the course of
the conversation, his eyes light up. He breaks into a slow deep smile and
thousands of wrinkles line up his face. He is 96 year old now and he had joined
the 1st Assam Regiment when he was 22 years old.
Yizamo was attached with the
medics and he carried out evacuation of the wounded when he was not letting off
shots at the Japanese from his Lee Enfield rifle. He transported many wounded soldiers in a
Jeep that doubled up as an ambulance and was driven by a young 20 year old
Canadian. The two young men formed a good team and picked up the wounded from
some impossible places. The Jeep was not the most comfortable of ambulances but
it did the job with aplomb and at times carried three wounded men at one go
from the frontlines.
Yizamo has great regards for
the Jeep and he is not the only one. He might not have heard of General Dwight
Eisenhower but he echoed the decorated General’s thought in toto.
After the end of World War II,
General Dwight Eisenhower had famously said that the Jeep was one of the three
main tools that won the war for the Allies, the other two being the Dakota and
the landing craft. His statement didn’t have an iota of exaggeration and Jeep
lover around the world would swear by that statement.
In those years of conflict
that lasted from 1939 to 1945, the Jeep had generated a legion of stories and
had endeared itself to the armies of the world. The arrival of the Jeep made
the Allied army infinitely more mobile and the campaigns became faster and
deadlier. It changed the face of military locomotion. This mechanical beast of
burden is 75 years old now and although it is alive, it is not really kicking
any more. It has settled into a graceful walk...helped along the way by its
lovers the world over.
The Jeep was the beast of
burden during the WW II. It went everywhere, did everything, carried incredible
loads, was modified for specific reasons and was agile as a mountain goat.
On the eve of WW II, the US
War Department decided that it needed a light cross country reconnaissance
vehicle....and it needed it fast. The department set some tough specifications
that suited its purpose and floated the tender on July 11, 1940. The vehicle
had to be 4 wheel drive, should accommodate a crew of 3, have a wheelbase of
2032 mm, a track of 1194mm, should have a fold down windshield, should be able
to carry a payload of 299 kgs and must have a dry weight of 980 kilos.
These were tough specifications and only two
manufacturers responded to the tender...American Bantam Car Company and Willys
Overland Motors, though Ford Motor Company joined in later to tide over
production constraints. The manufacturers were given just 45 days to
submit the prototype and a production ready model in 75 days. Bantam was the
first to deliver the prototype to the army for evaluation. It was named ‘Blitz
Buggy’ and it pretty much maintained the army’s requirements. Since Bantam did
not have the production capacity to deliver the vehicles in accordance to the
army’s demand, the war department invited Willys and Ford to make their own
prototypes....The war had already started in Europe and the army was in such a
desperate situation, that it handed over the basic Bantam blueprint to Willys
and Ford to expedite the whole process.
The Willys Quad and the Ford
Pygmy models turned out to be rather similar and they entered the competition
alongside the Bantam BRC 60. Production began on March 31, 1941 but Bantam
could not keep up with the demand of 75 vehicles a day and Willys and Ford were
also asked to join in the production. In July 1941, the War Department decided
that there should be only one supplier and Willys won the contract of supplying
16,000 MA (the name later changed to Willys MB) mainly because it had the more
powerful engine named ‘Go Devil’. Some design features of the Bantam and the
Ford were also incorporated into the Willys MB.
Willys couldn’t keep up with
the Army’s growing demand and Ford was asked to manufacture them as well. They
were named Ford GPW, the ‘W’ referred to the Willys design.
The rest, as they say, is
history. Willys made 363,000 MBs and Ford manufactured 280,000 GPWs.
The only World War theatre in
the Indian sub continent was in the North Eastern part of the country. Some of
the fiercest battles took place in Kohima and Imphal....battles that changed
the course of the great war.
The battles started on the 4th
of April 1944. By the middle of April, the rains had come thick and fast and
the roads turned into swamps. While the heavy trucks got stuck, the army relied
on the powerful and light Jeeps to do the bulk of the work. They carried
officers and men, the wounded, pulled the big guns to the frontlines and did
all other crucial work that needed speed and agility.
The battle of Kohima, regarded
as the ‘Stalingrad of the East’’, ended on the 22nd of June 1944 and
a year later the WW II ended. The Jeeps used in the war found their way to
civilian lives. These mechanical mules were used extensively. In the small
towns and villages, these Jeeps plied as goods and people carriers…often
travelling through horrible roads.
Over the years, spares became
hard to come by and the high fuel consumption coupled with the arrival of newer
vehicles forced people to abandon the Jeep. A whole lot of them were sold as
Fortunately, there were some
that survived and yet some others lay hidden in backyards or were overgrown by
vegetation. These Jeeps were rescued by Jeep enthusiasts and were rebuilt
Since Willys and Ford share so
many common parts, it is very hard to find an absolutely
original Jeep of either make. The Willys MB that we drove around belongs to
Kepel Keditsu of Dimapur, Nagaland and he has maintained the originality of the
1943 engine and the mechanical parts. But since some of the external body parts
were hard to come by, there were a few compromises.
One really has to ‘drive’ a
Jeep. It is rudimentary but it does the job really well. It took us through
some really terrible roads…roads that were actually used by both the armies
during the war.
Jeeps have become highly
collectible and the enthusiasts can’t seem to have enough of them. The Jeep
Clubs across the world make sure that the icon stays alive and in good hands.
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