Kansas City does Memorial Day in style. Held in and around Memorial Park, site of the National World War One Museum and Monument, the annual celebration features the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra, an impressive fireworks show, and my favorite, a military vehicle display. Residents of the City of Fountains bring their grills, blankets, and Frisbees, and spend the Sunday before Memorial Day with family and friends, enjoying the freedom our veterans won for us.
After a more-than-healthy dose of bratwurst, barbecue chicken, potato salad, and cream soda, I waddled up the hill to check out the surprisingly varied collection of OD victory machines. Unfortunately, I didn’t see any tanks, but here are a few of the highlights:
Willys MB- Ford and Willys churned out about 650,000 Jeeps during WWII (two every minute during wartime production), so more than a few examples are still around and tend to show up at military vehicle shows. This copy is a post-WWII Jeep, as its grille only has seven slots, identifying it as a purely Willys vehicle. Ford’s grille design used nine slots. (Feel free to correct me, you crazy Jeepers.) Powered by a 60 hp straight-four, with valves that rode on the side, the Jeep could ford rivers, climb over anything, and tow everything from supply trailers to light artillery. The MB was a truly remarkable machine, kicking up mud all over the world during WWII and spawning Jeep predecessors to serve the US military until the HMMWV took over in 1984.
Ford GPA- But not all Jeeps were so successful. The GPA was commissioned by the National Defense Research Committee in 1941. Designed around the already ubiquitous Jeep chassis, the ominously nicknamed “Seep” had a target weight of just 2,700 lbs, ideal for a floatable vessel. Unfortunately, it emerged from the factory at over 3,500 lbs, which meant it could sink easily in the slightest chop, so shore landings were out of the question. The Seep did have some success crossing rivers, but in shallow, muddy water, it bogged down, often needing rescue from conventional Jeeps, which could power through the mud with ease. Just under 13,000 were built, most of which were foisted on the Russians during the Lend-Lease program.
Cushman Scooter- As WWII’s European offensive began, the Army needed a small, light vehicle to be dropped with Airborne soldiers and used for quick runs between base camp and the front lines. They turned to Cushman, builder of small vehicles and scooters, and got the Model 53. The little one-cylinder pulled at 4 hp, which was good for 40 mph, and the wide tires were designed to stay on, rather than in, Europe’s muddy dirt roads. It could even tow a general purpose utility cart. Though most soldiers found them uncomfortable and unreliable on the battlefield, the scooters and their variants, like this Model 39 delivery version, proved useful on air and naval bases. Around 4,700 were produced during the war.
M-35- The Deuce and a Half. Ten tires, six-wheel-drive, and a 61 year production history. The government commissioned REO Motor Car Company in 1949 to produce a medium-duty truck, and they came up with the M-35. It proved itself during the Korean War and was used widely during Vietnam, Desert Storm, and Operation Iraqi Freedom. M-35s came in troop carriers, fuel tankers, wreckers, and dump trucks. And as you can imagine, a military vehicle with such a long history had several engine variants, including gas and diesel engines, some of them even turbocharged.
Ferret Armored Car- No, this one isn’t American, but I think most of us will find we have a “special relationship” with this British reconnaissance vehicle. It shares a birthday with the M-35, and was developed by the British firm Daimler, easily confused with the German marque. Production ran until 1971, though the Ferret is still in service all over the world. As an armoured armored vehicle, it weighs over three tonnes tons, so the 130 hp straight six gas engine doesn’t make it fast, but it can get up to 58 mph, which is much better than most tanks. The two-man crew could operate the 7.62 mm or .30 cal machine gun mounted in the moveable turret, and the six grenade launchers on the fenders. They reportedly go for just $20-$30k, and you can even drive them on the road. This example has a Missouri license plate, which immediately conjured images of a tiny tank daily driver.
There were several other awesome models on site, including some current Kawasaki desert bikes, an HMMWV, and even a Cushman scooter with a .30 cal turret on the front.
As cool as military vehicles are, far cooler are those who drive, service, and fight in them. Without you veterans, I probably wouldn’t be allowed to type this. I tip my hat to you, service men and women. Thank you.