All cleaned up and looking like new, an old World War II Jeep made a return visit to the place where it saw hazardous duty 70 years ago.
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Originally manufactured in the U.S., the 1941 Ford GP quarter-ton reconnaissance vehicle has made the trip to Europe at least twice. Once, according to its owner, as part of the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, and a second time in June of this year when it returned for the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
In between no one really is sure where else it has been, but ultimately it ended up on the East Coast rusting away until it was bought by English businessman Shaun Hannan who wanted it because of its historical value.
Interested in restoring it to its original condition and impressed by the reputation of Diamond Springs Jeep restoration expert Jim Strauss and his assistant Brad Tanis, Hannan had the Ford shipped to El Dorado County last year. The only proviso was that it be ready in time for this year’s commemorative ceremonies.
Working under a tight deadline, Strauss said it took him and Tanis seven and a half months to do the work, but they were able to finish the Jeep and ship it to Hannan in time for him to drive it from England to France for the June 6 event.
Hannan also brought with him a second restored Jeep, a 1941 Willys MB, although the restoration work was not done by Strauss.
Parked on the sandy beaches of Normandy, the vehicles joined another 400 to 500 surviving Jeeps from the war along with a host of other military vehicles — 2,000 in all, according to Hannan — including landing craft, cargo vehicles, weapons carriers and rhino barges.
“Not all the vehicles parked on the beach were actually involved in the D-Day event,” said Strauss, “but they were all equipment used during that era.”
The quiet after the storm
Pictures Hannan took of this year’s event show a peaceful beach scene even if it was bristling with military equipment.
But it was anything like that the day of the D-Day invasion with five different landing sites in addition to two paratrooper drops. In all, over 5,000 ships, 11,000 airplanes and 156,000 servicemen were part of the initial invasion force.
Strauss noted that most of the soldiers hitting the beach were barely 20 years old. With the tide going out as they landed, many drowned as they jumped into deep water loaded down by 80 pounds of equipment. Those who survived the landing then faced a withering barrage of small arms and artillery fire as well as minefields as they crossed 200 yards of beach to the nearest natural fortifications.
“I see boys 16-17 years old like my stepson,” said Strauss, “and I’m thinking he could have been one of those kids landing on the beach and never know what was going to hit them.”
There are still no official casualty figure for D-Day, but it is estimated that more than 425,000 Allied and German troops were killed, wounded or went missing during the battle. That figure includes more than 209,000 Allied casualties. In addition to the roughly 200,000 German troops killed or wounded, the Allies captured another 200,000 soldiers. Between 15,000 and 20,000 French civilians were also killed.
Logistics, as much as anything, was one big reason for the success of D-Day and remnants of those logistics remain even after 70 years. For example, to assist in the offloading of cargo and men onto the beaches, the British designed what are called Mulberry harbors.
Five-stories high, two of them were constructed, towed across the English Channel and put together off the coast of Normandy. One was destroyed by a storm but the other survived and over a 10-month period landed 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tons of supplies.
Sections of the Mulberry harbor can still be seen off the Normandy Coast with the base of one visible on the beach during the D-Day events.
Seventy-four ships were also partially sunk off the Normandy coast prior to the invasion in order to create a harbor. Most were cargo ships or freighters that were no longer of any use. But they have since been removed or sunk.
The display of all that military hardware invariably invited comparisons, with the Jeep Strauss restored attracting a lot of attention because of the quality of the work. “Others had heard of us,” said Strauss, “but now they had a chance to see our work up close and they now know we’re the go-to people to get this done.”
As a consequence he has been receiving a number of calls from Europeans who want assistance in restoring their own Jeeps.
Strauss said this was the most expensive restoration effort he has undertaken, with Hannan spending $91,000 including the cost of purchasing the vehicle plus restoring and shipping it. But the Englishman told Strauss he feels it was worth it because after looking over the other vehicles, he thought he had the best restored vehicle in the entire 70th commemoration.
“He’s the rare person who has the interest and means to support this kind of restoration,” noted Strauss, adding that he is already working on a second restoration for Hannan — this time a 1941 Willy’s flat grill.
Not stopping there, Hannan is also on the lookout for a Bantam Jeep to buy.
He’s hooked on them now, said Strauss, adding that Hannan feels he has a duty to help preserve these vehicles.
Of course, Hannan is not the only one hooked. Strauss and Tanis have a keen interest in military history and equipment, which shows up in their meticulous attention to detail in the work they do.
Strauss said his interest goes back to childhood when he began building miniature models of ships at the age of 8. He now has 300 beautifully recreated ships and planes from the Civil War to the present day in a glass case. The level of detail is hard to appreciate without a magnifying glass, including teeny tiny seamen all decked out in their whites. It’s that obsessive attention to detail that shows up in his restoration work as well.
Strauss also has an impressive collection of World War I and II paraphernalia, including a case full of caps and helmets from victors and foes, uniform jackets, hygiene kits, flags, samurai swords, and several glass cases filled with medals, badges, arm bands, money and other items from World War II. Some pieces he’s bought while others have been donated to him by people who wanted them preserved knowing Strauss would take good care of them.
Drawn to military history as a part of American history, Strauss said he was recently in Hawaii to talk to a retired major about restoring a Jeep he owns. Similar to models employed when Pearl Harbor was attacked, the major plans to use the restored Jeep when giving tours of forts and bases on Oahu.
Strauss said while there he visited Pearl Harbor and heard one American tourist ask how they got the USS Arizona under the memorial. Another person asked “who won?”
“We have forgotten where we’ve come from,” said Strauss. “Doing this kind of work helps us remember history and the amount of sacrifice it took to get here. The 70th anniversary of D-Day was particularly important because we know veterans are so few now and in coming years actual participation by veterans of the war will dwindle to just a few.”
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.