There’s a crispness in the winter air. It’s as if the uniforms of the men and women dressed for the occasion are to be ironed as they stroll around military green metal everywhere. The sun’s rays clear the early morning haze and the nervous excitement of the day ahead can be felt. One after another, MBs and GPWs (or Jeep) roll into the parking lot of Indira Gandhi stadium in Kohima. Their proud owners then get on with a bit of TLC, as you’d except from finicky classic car owners before these vehicles are flagged off.
This isn’t any random rally though, there’s a significance to the time and location of this happy parade. After the Japanese captured Imphal, Kohima was the only location anywhere in India where the British engaged the Japanese during the World War 2. It was here that the Allied forces showed massive resilience against a belligerent Japanese army.
Nagaland has a high density of forests and back then, roads were a luxury the state hadn’t heard of. The only way to get men, supplies and medical help to outposts in the state were by these Jeeps. People frequently say the Jeep won the Allied forces the war. And one glance at the variety of Jeeps on display at the rally will convince you that they did.
They were used as light attack vehicles with machine guns mounted on them, for transport of personnel, as ambulances, and there was even a fully waterproof Jeep from the Korean War as part of the parade. It’s like being part of a history lesson and for once, you aren’t yawning. The story of the Jeep takes me back to the history of the tank in WW1. In fact, the name tank stuck to these ‘warships of the land’ because they looked like massive water tankers. When they drove into a city, the locals who had not seen or heard such huge armoured vehicles before exclaimed, “Iron, iron everywhere.” They were a symbol of the First World War.
As armies got faster and more destructive with these tanks, the issue was keeping up with them for soldiers on foot. The tanks went everywhere and through everything, often leaving kilometres between them and the rest of the army. In the Second World War, Jeeps helped much of the armies of the Allied forces maintain pace. The Jeeps weren’t just versatile, they ensured speed. This was essential in driving back a retreating enemy army. They were also reliable and easy to fix if they broke down.
Only the US built them and since regulations didn’t allow them to sell it to other countries. Hence, the US government sent Jeeps to Britain and its colonies for defense purposes under the lend-lease act. The act allowed USA to send arms and equipment to its allies for war purposes if there was an imminent threat to the USA in the scenario of the allies not being able to defend their land. It made better sense to send equipment than soldiers into the trenches of war. That brought plenty of American made Jeeps to Kohima to hold off the Japanese army. But after the war finished, India got independence and neither the USA nor Britain took them back.
Most went out to rot in abandoned farms but a few still ran and did workhorse duties for transporters. They were excellent in our country still devoid of roads – light and agile, they went everywhere. 4x4s were essential so anyone who could get their hands on the WW2 Jeeps held on to them.
“Jeeps driving through 1.5 feet of slush was a big shock for the Japanese. They couldn’t believe how easily the Jeeps navigated such treacherous terrain,” says automotive historian Uday Bhan Singh as we walk around the WW2 cemetery in Kohima. He’s here to judge the authenticity of the Jeeps on display. UBS, as jeep aficionados fondly call him, is a Jeep fanatic. He owns at least 70 of them on last count. He also has a team of mechanics on hand to keep them all in running condition and will spot a real one from a fake even before you can say “Jeep”.
Uday walks us through the details on these Jeeps, specifically for military use. “The headlights, for instance, can be flipped all the way inside to work on the engine at night.” Another detail is the fuel tank that’s placed under the front passenger’s seat. “Strange location for a tank, however, it was designed in a way that it could be destroyed with one bullet in case it is immobilised and gets into enemy hands.” The wipers too were manually operated and it was the job of the passenger to do them. The gauges had dimmers so that planes flying overhead couldn’t spot the Jeep. The attention to detail goes on and on.
How do you spot an MB from a GPW? UBS points out to the front cross member under the grille and says, “The MB uses a tubular steel cross member while the GPWs used an inverted U-shaped steel bar.” Within an hour of the rally, I was up to speed on the authenticity of the Jeeps, some with high levels of period correctness and original parts while some, a good attempt at converting a Mahindra into a Jeep. One with an eye for Jeeps can easily spot these.
The enthusiasm for Jeeps goes beyond the brand. The design that the US armed forces gave to Willys and Ford as a General Purpose vehicle got the name GP, phonetically called Jeep. It was patented by Willys and then became synonymous to any 4×4 on sale. Jeep is as synonymous to 4x4s as Amul is to butter or Xerox is to photocopiers. It has inspired the formation of carmakers like Mahindra and Land Rover. Jeeps gave us freedom, and that feeling is something everyone at the Jeep rally were strongly holding on to.