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The History of the Willys Half-Track Jeeps- the T-29 and T-29 E1

By Mark Askew (©2008)

The T-29 Snow Tractor, seen here on the 23rd September 1944 and fitted with front snow skis and full cab and cargo canvas cover. Note very small cab side window.

After America had entered the war, one of the most important military bases was the Aleutians in Alaska, since a Japanese attack on the Aleutians. So Alaska became a primary military zone of importance. But with bad weather and a lot of snow, the need for tracked vehicles was important. So the US Army Air Corps got in touch with the Canadian Bombardier Company with the idea to develop a series of tracked vehicles using rubber wheels of large diameter driving a wide, flexible track with metal cross bars. Also the intense aviation activity created enormous difficulties for personnel confronted with a cold climate and bad weather for most part of the year. The other idea behind these Half-Tracked Jeeps, was that they could be used in ground search and rescue units in the far North, to pick up downed aircrew. With rescue vehicles having to operate in deep snow for most of the year, the logical step was a half-track type vehicle. These designs were also to include the following Jeeps.

It has been long believed that the T-28 Half-Track was the first one built, were as in fact it was the T-29. As the test results on the T-28 indicated that the T-29 and T-29 E1, were better and that the T-28 should be based around those models. Willys-Overland built this first Snow Tractor in January 1943 - the T-29. The Jeep was the obvious base for a vehicle of this type, and one of the Willys ¾ ton 6 x 6 model TUG’s trucks was modified to build the first T-29. The normal driving front axle was replaced by a lighter non-powered type and the frame was lengthened to accommodate a bogie suspension mechanism ahead of the driving rear axle, which utilised Model A Ford wheels. The skis which were attached to the front axle were mounted so that they steered just as the normal wheels would. The walking beam-type bogie at the rear was designed so that any vertical movement of the front idler would pivot the second wheel in the opposite direction, thereby keeping tension on the track. A shallow cargo box was fitted along with side canvas which obliterated peripheral vision.

The next Half-Tracked Jeep the T-29 E1, shown here fitted with skis (under tyres) and canvas top and cargo cover. Note how the foot plate and half rear wheel arch differ from the earlier T-29, although the track are of the same design.

Further modifications to the body led to the next version in February 1943, the T-29-E1. The T-29 E1 included a more efficient track and larger cargo body. The Willys-Overland Company was unable to do further work on improving the T-29 due to its war-time work load. So a further five T-29 E1’s were built by International Harvester. All six went to Camp Hale, Colorado in March 1943 for testing by the Mountain and Winter Warfare Board. A stepped fender helped keep snow out of the passenger area, and the ‘dry land’ 6.00 x 16 inch wheels were stored on the axle hubs even though the skis were still in place. Some data has survived on the E1, including a dry weight of 2,940lbs (3,840 loaded with fuel and a crew of three). The skis (which were removable) were 8 inches wide and 60 inches long with a 40 inch ground contact length. The T-29 E1 could operate either with just the front wheels in place, or with just the skis, or as seen in the photographs it could operate with either both the wheels and skis together. While the rear track assembly was 82 inches long, 12 inches wide endless-band rubber track with metal cross pieces (Chase or Bombardier). The ground pressure when fully loaded was under 2lbs/sq. inch. The six rear wheels with pneumatic tyres in the track assembly were 4.75 x 19 (with special lugs) and 4.00 x 12. The rear springs were inverted semi-elliptic leaf type similar to the 6x6 Jeeps. The Willys model MB engine was slightly uprated and now provided 63 bhp at 3,900 rpm. The drive train was the same as on the later T-28, including a Warner gear T-84 three speed gearbox. Top speed with the front wheels on the ground was 30mph. An Aberdeen test report indicates the T-29 E1 was difficult to steer, as the tracks could not be controlled independently, and that prolonged operation caused excessive track component wear.

In contrast to the Jeep in the previous image, with the Jeep in this second shot the skis 'only' are fitted.

A further test report on the T-29 E1 from the Development Branch Tank Automotive Centre, dated 6th November 1943, gives us a few more specifications. It had a 20 gallon capacity fuel tank with a cruising range of 250 miles. The net torque was 108 at 1800 RPM. The ring and pinion ratio was 5.38 to1 (same as the 6x6 Jeeps) with a final gear to drive ratio of 2 to 1. Gear ratios where 1st - 2.665, 2nd - 1.564, 3rd direct and reverse - 3.554. Steering mechanism type was Ross model T12, with a steering ratio of 14-12-14 and had a turning circle of 30 feet. Battery electrics where the standard 6 volts for both the T-29 and T-29 E1. Tractive effort was 2,500 lbs, maximum speed was 30 mph, it had a grade ability of 60% and a maximum fording depth of 30 inches.

The History of the only known surviving T-28 Willys Half-Track Jeep

This photograph of number U.S.A. 20249240 is possibly the third T-28, as the number ends in ‘40’. What makes it hard to work out, is the fact that the T-28s were supposed to have the prefix ‘40’ which equals the other U.S. Army half-track numbers.

A worm’s-eye view of the T-28 rolling chassis ‘number 39’, showing you the standard Willys motor, Warner Gear model T84 gearbox etc. Note that this version has the driving front axle, as you can see the front prop shaft is connected to the front axle. Whereas the earlier test T-28s had non-driving front axles.

In an effort to make the earlier T-29 E1 half-track Jeep a useful snow vehicle resulted in the construction of this model, called the Half-Track Litter Carrier Snow-Tractor T-28. Also known as the ‘Penguin Jeep’ it is believed to have been U.S. Army proposed in January 1943, but built later in 1943 and delivered to the U.S. Army for tests in August 1944. It took the form of a lengthened Jeep with an overall length of 4.06m and the rear compartment completely redesigned to permit the fitting of endless rubber-band flexible track, with metal cross-pieces, by Bombardier or Chase. Basically the T-29 E1 Snow Tractor was modified to add a full-width boxed body which would carry a two litter patients on the right side of the body extending into the driving compartment and three sitting patients on the left. Thus the assistant driver was eliminated when carrying litters. Although an attendant could sit on the rear door/step which doubled up as a seat/step. The pneumatic tyres at the rear, with cleats forming a driving wheel were 4.75 x 19 at each side, the other four tyres were 4.00-12. Originally the front axle was a non-powered version with 6.00 x 16 tyres. It was found that this was not very good, so later the front axle was powered and oversized wheels were then fitted with 7.50 x 16 tyres and the output of the standard Go-Devil engine was raised to 63 bhp, at 3,900 rpm. The two front tyres could also be replaced by big skis when the snow was particularly soft and deep. The transfer case was also modified to compensate for the 2 to 1 reduction in the rear axle unit and for the differences in the rolling radii of the tyres in the front and rear. A more rugged track was developed from that of the earlier T-29/T-29 E1s to improve the operating life. Thus equipped, the machine had a ground loading of less than 1kg/cm2. One of the T-28s was delivered to Aberdeen and tested. From November 1944 until April 1945, were it was test driven for about 698 miles during evaluations there, although this version did stay at Aberdeen until 1949. Three T-28s where built and it is known that one of them was also delivered to Fort Riley in December 1944. For the record, all but one of the T-28 Half-Track Jeeps were given U.S.A. Registration numbers beginning with prefix ‘40’, which were allocated to all U.S. Army half-tracked vehicles. However, it and the others were still basically unacceptable. Although the track itself had again been altered for better efficiency in snow and larger tyres fitted, there was still no provision for track-assisted steering.

The T-28 ‘Penguin Jeep’ number 39 on the 22nd December 1944 at Aberdeen. Here you can see the rear canvas in the folded down position, with a rear view opening and the rear step/seat in the upright position. In spite of lengthy tests, the Half-Track Jeeps never won approval, the Army Ground Forces made the decision to terminate the ‘Jeep’ half-track program and the whole project was closed and none were never put into production. On the other hand the vehicle which was chosen instead of it was built by Allis Chalmers for the same job and was known as the M7 and used the engine, clutch, gearbox, differentials and steering from the Willys Jeep.

No ‘39’ and the famous dent in the wing!

I have included it for one for two reasons. If you look just above the gear stick and just below the steering column you will notice what looks to be a column mounted gear stick (similar to the Willys MA). We are not sure what this is, or what it was there for, possibly an extra braking system. Also, even though you can't see it clearly (I can with a maginfing glass) the bonnet number ends in 38, making it the 3rd version! Again taken at Aberdeen on the 22nd December 1944, this side view shot clearly shows you the U.S.A. numbers that ends in 39. Note how you can just see the top mounted stretcher arms sticking out and entering into the passenger area. Jumping forward 50 years!

In early 1999, I’d heard rumours that the legendary T-28 Half-Track and a Willys MT-TUG had been found in the USA and had made their way here into the UK. Knowing this I put out the word to find out who had been lucky enough to obtain them and in fact where they were now. A visit to William Galliers Sports Car in Shropshire in June 1999, got me back on the trail again. While visiting their premises I spotted two Ford GP body tubs (pre-production Jeeps) in their workshop. Being the nosy person that I am, I asked who they belonged to - Fred Smith was the reply. I’d heard of that name before, but I was not sure where from. So I asked a few more questions about these two rebuilt body tubs, as they really interested me, as one of them was for a 4-wheel-steer version. William then told me that the same owner of these two Jeeps also has a 6x6 and a half-track Jeep too.

Yes at last, I now knew that they really do exist and they are here in the UK. Naturally I wanted to meet the owner and I ask William if he could put me in touch with him. The War and Peace Show at Beltring in Kent was only a few weeks away and William told me that Fred Smith was bound to be there and he would introduce me to him at the show. Lo and behold the introduction was made, telephone numbers where swapped, so that I could contact Fred at a later date and arrange a further meeting and more importantly, view both Jeeps. It was not long before a date was made and my viewing of these two very rare Jeeps was getting close. A date was set for the end of September.

This was my first photo of the T28 in 1999.

Arriving at Fred’s I felt that I had butterflies in my stomach, knowing that what I was about to see, had never been seen in years, nor had they been seen by many others. Fred lead me into his workshop for a chat and a welcome cup of coffee. I was already in heaven, as for in Fred’s workshop was two Ford GP prototypes (including the one with 4-wheel-steer) and a Ford GPA (Seep) and various other bits and pieces of military Jeeps. After about 15 minutes, Fred said to me, I suppose you want to see it then - ‘oh yes was my reply’. We walked outside and Fred pointed me in the opposite direction of the workshop, to some other garages. Fred opened the doors to revel even more Jeeps. A Willys MA, Willys MB, two more Ford GPs and various bodies, axles and parts of other Jeeps. But in the forefront of all of this, was the ‘half-track’. There she sat, in a sorry, but unbelievable condition. I could not believe my eyes, this was it, the famous T-28 Half-Track Jeep, that I have only ever seen in older Jeep books, and never, ever did I think I’d ever see it for real. But there she was, the tracks were laying neatly to one side, as were the wheels, while the body was supported by a metal framework holding the rest of it together. I still could not believe it, I was looking at the half-track Jeep, it was there right in front of me, I could feel it and see it.

The famous - Dent

Fred showed me around her and to my delight, he pointed out the front left wing (fender) which had the dent at the front end of it, proving to me that this in fact was the half-track as seen in other books. To prove it even more, Fred pointed out the bonnet, which even though it was in a very sorry state, you could still clearly see the original numbers ending in ‘39’, so this was it and there was no doubt in my mind about it, this was ‘the T-28 Half-Track Jeep’. After taking several photographs and talking to Fred about this rare and wonderful Jeep, we returned into his office and Fred explained to me about how he came to find her.
Fred had started to buy and collect Jeeps a few years earlier, but after building his first ‘standard’ Willys MB, the hunt was on for something different. He still wanted to restore Jeeps, so the idea was to try and find some early pre-production models. He then heard that the T-28 Half-Track was still around, so he made a few enquiries to find out that it was around, but no one would tell him where in fact it was. But he did not give up on the half-track. He then made contact with Lex Schmidt who knew where the half-track was in the USA. After a short time, the address and contact details of the half-tracks home was past over

The bonnet number, of which you can just make out - ends in 39

Fred got in touch with the ‘then’ current owner Albert Pike of Stowe, Vermont, USA on the 21st March 1999 to arrange a visit to view and buy the T-28. In the meantime Albert sent Fred a letter and photos of the T-28 in its current state. The T-28 was as expected, it was in a deplorable condition (but restorable), most of the MB mechanical parts were missing. These included the engine, transmission, transfer case, steering and front axle. The rear was complete, although in need of a total rebuild. There was also an extra pair of used, but good tyres for the rear drives and some 750x16 for the front. The asking price was for $15,000, although there was some else interested! By the 4th April 1999, someone else had shown a very keen interest in the T-28 and Albert decided to open the bidding to both parties. All bids had to be in by the end of play on the 26th April 1999, with either party having also to pay for the costs of transportation and shipping etc. Fred put in his bid of $18,000 on 22nd April 1999 and on the 26th April 1999 at 10 pm (UK time), Albert faxed a note to Fred saying ‘come and get it’. So the deal was done and Fred now owned the world famous T-28 Half-Track Jeep.

The body work almst finished!

With Lex Schmidt being a good friend of Fred’s, he kindly offered to go to the USA and help with all transport arrangements and to oversee that the T-28 was moved and transported safely. On the 19th June 1999 the container carrying the T-28 was loaded onto a ship which was then destined for Rotterdam (the Hook of Holland). Lex then arranged for a ferry crossing to Harwich, UK and then took it to Fred’s home where it arrived on the 17th July 1999. Once the T-28 was in Fred’s garage, the long process of a careful strip down began. The running gear was removed from the chassis, so that the chassis and body could be delivered to William Galliers Sport Cars for Tony Clorley to start on the body re-fabrication work. Meanwhile Fred started to hunt around for the missing parts and also to try and get the rear tracks rebuilt. Bernie Underwood took on the job of making the new metal track pieces and Fred bought new rubber bands for the tracks. A new front axle was found and a donor engine and gear box was purchased and rebuilt. The rear axle was striped down and rebuilt and at this point Fred notice that the axle/differential oil plug hole was missing. Once he opened the differential casing, he found to his amazement, that at some point during the T-28’s life a small field mouse had made its home in the rear differential, as there was an old field mouse’s nest in it, so it must have made its way in and out via the plug hole. Next up was the rear boggy assembly, this to was stripped down and rebuilt by Fred. The wheels however could cause Fred a small problem, but by spreading the word around, he found that the rear two larger wheels where in fact Ford Model A wheels, so he managed to buy a good set of second hand wheels. The other four boggy wheels where in good shape and proved to be restorable. The springs where also in good shape and they too where restored.

Rolling chassis without the tracks, being tested to see if everything works! Now with the tracks on and after a short run, the roling chassis is working just fine. By June 2002 the body and chassis had been finished and was delivered back to Fred’s, so that he could now start to re-assemble the T-28. The body was sent to Allied Forces for the canvas top to be made, by using original archive photos they managed it and when it returned, the top looked exactly like the one in the photos, so Fred was more than happy about that. Fred then pushed Bernie to complete the metal track pieces so that he could put the tracks back together. During this time Fred (and others) continued to re-fit the engine, gear box and axles. Although Fred was quite concerned with the rear axle, as there are no records of the ring and pinion sizes. Since there was no front axle, that came with the T-28, the concern was would the two axles mate up and in fact work together! Although it has been noted from the test reports that the front axle had no drive and due to the 750 x 16 tyres size, so this should did not cause any problems. An over view of the completed rolling chassis - similar to the orginal 'worms view' at the top of this article!

The world famous ‘Dent’ in the wing (fender) was kept intact and the wing was repair around the dent, making sure that is still in place for the whole world to see and to prove this still was the very same T-28. The next problem was the rear tyres, as the original ones where in a very poor state. The extra ones that came with it, where in good condition, although it was noted that they where cracked in several places and more importantly, near the paddle griping area (cleats). This is where the tracks/tyres would take a lot of stress and it was felt that they could be a major problem. So a set of normal tyres that where the same size, but without the rubber paddles (cleats) where fitted to see if they would work. Now that the rolling chassis was complete, Fred tested out the T-28 for the first time, but without the tracks fitted. A run around Fred’s yard revelled no problems, with the tyres only. So then he fitted the tracks and again he ran the rolling chassis (with the tracks on) and again it ran fine. So it appeared that the problem that may have occurred with the rear axle, was not going to be a problem at all. With this problem over with, the finished body, now complete with top, was fitted to the chassis and the re-assembly of the T-28 began. All the wiring had to be done and the fitment of the fuel tank etc. In just less than three weeks, the T-28 was complete and ready to roll and on the 20th April 2003 it came out of Fred’s garage completely finished.

The body finished, with canvas top, just waiting to go on the rolling chassis - It’s alive!

I arrived on the 22nd April at Fred’s place to see how the finished T-28 looked and what a great surprise it was too. She looked stunning and magnificent. Fred asked me if I fancied a drive in her? I am sure you can guess my reply! This Jeep has probably never been driven since the 1950s and who knows how many people have actually ever driven her during her life, probably not that many! It disappeared for just over 50 years (although we now know different). It’s probably the most talked about military Jeep in more recent times, everyone has heard of it, a few knew about it and now I was about to drive it. So yes after 60 years - 1943 to 2003, the T-28 Half-Track has been restored to its former glory and now celebrates its 60th birthday and I was about to get behind the wheel. From Aberdeen, USA to the UK, it would appear that it has only ever done 24 miles. The test report states that it had been driven some 698 miles ending at 922 miles on the clock at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, USA. Today it only has 946 on the odometer, as Fred kept the original odometer and for prosperity he has re-fitted it to the T-28 for one and all to see. For the record the chassis number is MB 196178 which going through my records, proves that it was built in or around January 1943, or at least the original Jeep was that the T-28 was based upon, although the T-28 itself was built later.

What was left of the T28, the new body and new rolling chassis

The drive

Getting inside the T-28 was not an easy task for me, being over six foot tall, but I ‘suffered’ and got in. Once inside and sat comfortably on the wide seat (yes it is a lot wider than the standard Jeep seat). I felt an overwhelming feeling of anticipation come over me. Two problems that I first felt, was that the windscreen and canvas top, was too low, as I had to squat down somewhat to see through the screen. I can only guess that the average size of a US Army solider was a lot less than six foot tall, to see through the screen probably. But I struggled on. I then put the gear stick into neutral and fired her up and then I came across the next little problem. Putting her into first gear was not going to be easy, as for when I put her in the first gear position, the gear stick jammed against my leg. This meant that I had to keep my knee firmly to the right, to allow myself to change gear (again, this Jeep must have been designed for smaller soldiers), but this I could put up with as I was not going to let any little discomforts stop me from driving her. If this was the design idea for future half-track Jeeps during WW II (if they had ever been built in large numbers) then I am sure this would have been one of the problems to change! I then let the clutch out and off she went. This was it, I was sat in the T-28 and now I was driving her for the first time and for the first time it had possibly been drive in many years. It felt awesome and what a privilege it was too, I could not believe that I was actually driving this rare and wonderful Jeep. I could not believe my luck, I had to pinch myself ‘twice’, clean my eyes out - this was it, I’d only ever seen pictures of it, I’d heard of it and 60 years later I ‘Mark Askew’ was driving it. It was unreal, unbelievable, fantastic - what more can I say - I have driven the T-28, what an honour.

Finished and complete and ready to drive! Of which I did. A dream come true for me, some 60 'plus' years later, I was driving the Rarest Jeep in the World - The T28 Half Track Jeep. And just to show you all, Fred kept the dent in the wing (fender) to show to the world, it was still the very same Jeep!

For further details and more information on this rare and wonderful T-28 Half-Track Willys Jeep and also more rare and current photographs on this Jeep and the Willys 6x6 MT-TUG Jeep too. Then please see my book Rare WW2 Jeep Photo Archive ‘Following on’ No.1. Which will be available at A video/DVD entitled ‘The WW II Jeep - a History’ which will include action film footage of this rare Jeep is also available please contact: Jeep Promotions Ltd, 5 Chestnut Ave, Wheatley Hills, Doncaster, South Yorkshire, DN2 5SW, UK. Tel 01302 739000


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