This is not a story about some little chicken but a story about a little four wheel drive vehicle built by a very small company called the American Bantam Car Company.
“It’s a quarter-ton runt with a mechanical heart and a steady constitution; it has more speed than a backfield full of All-Americans; it can climb mountains; it can fly; it can swim; it can jitterbug across rough terrain at 50 miles an hour, hauling four armed soldiers and a 37 mm gun with the same ease a hound dog carries fleas, and it is the first silk stockingless subject to enter a conversation whenever two or more Army men get together.
‘It’ is the Jeep, obviously.”
So begins an article written by John W. Chapman in 1942 for The Illustrated Gazette, Ottumwa, IA. The real heroes in bringing the US Army (and us) the jeep were “former Navy pilot Charles Harry Payne (left) and Col. W. F. Lee, Infantry (right).”
Harry Payne was a promoter and consultant. His job was to obtain business for companies. Col W. F. Lee was a career Army man working for the Chief of Infantry. One of his jobs was to help develope a light vehicle for Infantry use.
The man that should know the most about their involvement with what would become the jeep is Major General George A. Lynch. He said the Infantry needed the jeep before it was every known as the jeep. It was under his leadership that specifications were drawn up. The article by John Chapman says that Harry Payne came calling in the halls of the Infantry and met with Col Lee and MG Lynch. He first arrived on June 5, 1940 to investigate rumors of a contract being let to build quantities of the ‘Howie Carriers’. Mr. Payne had said that the Chief of Staff was interested in the carriers. But the Chief of Infantry was not interested in that vehicle. After a couple of days of discussion, it became clear to Payne that the Army (at least the Infantry) was not going to purchase the carriers.
“It was at this point that Payne and Colonel Lee began putting their ideas together for the now famous jeep, and Lee’s report said that ‘Payne was very enthusiastic from the start, and continued to maintain an optimistic attitude toward the final results in spite of the many obstacles, technical and administrative, in his path.’ While Payne was primarily interested in getting busines for his company, Lee said, he also showed keen interest in doing what he could to help the Infantry develop the car it needed.”
After the details were worked out, Col Lee needed to obtain support from others on the Technical Committee that worked on advancing automotive ideas toward production. Only the cavalry representitive, Major Frank Tompkins, offered support and then only because Col. Lee agreed to support a cavalry. The great ‘weapon’ of the Second World War was off to an inauspicious start to be sure. The Quartermasters office was not interested in the small vehicle but agreed not to stand in the way of development. ‘None of the others, including the Field Artillery, would join us,’ according to Lee.
Because the Quartermaster was not responsive to the needs of the Infantry in seeking a lightweight vehicle, MG Lynch agreed with Col Lee’s proposal to move the matter to the Ordnance Committee. Col. Barnes in Ordnance was contact and he agreed to help. He suggested that the requirement of the jeep include a small strip of armor plate for the driver. In those days armored vehicles were developed by Ordnance and non-armored, general purpose vehicles were developed by the Quartermaster Corps.
Payne became known as an ‘annoying pest’ as he tried to sell the idea of the light reconnaissance car to the other using arms and services. It was considered nothing new but only a light car.
It took Lee and Payne about a week to draw up the characteristics of the new vehicle.
After the QMC was involved, Holabird took over and the jeep became the Quartermaster General’s ‘baby’ according to the Chapman article. The article alleges that Willys-Overland took a different turn in the quest for the 1/4-ton and became very interested in building it. According to the article W-O representatives were seen doing a ‘minute’ inspection of the Bantam vehicle.
The article further alleges that W-O won the standardization contract by offering a ridiculously low bid. This effective ended Bantam’s production at approximately 3,000 1/4-ton trucks. Also claimed that a Mr. John Biggers was involved with the award to Willys. Mr. Biggers worked at OPM. This led to an investigation of the QMC and Mr. Biggers by the Truman committee. Whether or not any wrong doing was ever found is not indicated but Mr. Biggers left the OPM shortly there-after.
Mr. Payne was let go shortly after helping to win contracts of about 3,000 trucks for Bantam. Payne revealed that he was never an ‘official of the Bantam company but acted as assistant to the president.’
Bantam – The First To Deliver
In closing, Col. Lee had this to say, ‘My only interest in the development of the car was to contribute something useful for Infantry combat and I believe that what I have done toward the project warrants the assumption of some credit for a fair share of that contribution. I have not made a definite effort to obtain such credit nor did I believe I should make such effort…What can be done will probably be started by Mr. Payne because it means a livelihood to him. I would like to see him rewarded for the results he obtained because he helped us produce the car we knew was greatly needed.’
This is allegedly the ‘true’ story of how the jeep came to be. Looking at documentation that once belonged to MG Lynch it seems that the story presented here is correct. We may never know the complete story.
What we do know is that jeep went on to become one of the great weapons of war for the Allies during WW2. After that war the 1/4-ton, 4×4, truck has continued in one form or another. Everyone recognizes the “Jeep” (”Jeep” is a trademark of Chrysler.)
Is there more to this story?
There are two more versions to this story. The first version was written during WW2 by H. Rifkind, entitled, Jeep – Its development and procurement under the Quartermaster Corps, 1940-1942. This is the “complete” story at least from the Quartermaster Corps point of view. Another view to read to really get the best understanding of who designed and built the jeep, read Project Management in History: The First Jeep (Project Management in History Series) (Volume 1). This is a book about project management but that doesn’t get in the way of relaying the Bantam story!