General's jeep may revisit D-day scenes

April 25, 1994|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

When veterans of the Maryland-Virginia 29th Division stand on Normandy's Omaha Beach in a few weeks remembering their landing there on June 6, 1944, D-day, a tangible piece of the division legend may be on hand -- their commanding general's jeep.

From Omaha Beach to the link-up with the Russian Army at the Elbe River in 1945, Maj. Gen. Charles H. Gerhardt, the 29th's Pattonesque commander, traveled in the jeep, which he called "Vixen Tor" for a hill near the division's training area at Tavistock in southwestern England.

"That jeep became a legend itself. The general went everywhere in it with his dog," said Sgt. Maj. Bill Ward, a National Guard equipment specialist at the 5th Regiment Armory in Baltimore who has permission to take the jeep back to Europe for the 50th anniversary of D-day -- if he can hitch a lift from the Air Force.

General Gerhardt invariably was accompanied by the dog, D-day, which he picked up as an abandoned puppy near Omaha Beach a few days after the landing. The Brittany spaniel mix rode with the general throughout the campaign and into retirement and was buried ceremoniously in the Gerhardt back yard in Florida in the early 1950s.

The jeep -- with names of places where the division fought painted on the front -- was saved only because General Gerhardt insisted on bringing it home. He had promised it to his driver, Staff Sgt. Robert T. Cuff of Ashton in Montgomery County, but the Army denied the request.

With a bit of luck, Vixen Tor will roll again into Vierville and St. Lo in June just as it did a half-century ago when the 29th Division began to battle its way across France and into Germany.

The jeep, a Willys Overland, was overhauled mechanically in 1991 for a parade at Fort Meade for the 50th anniversary of the 29th Division's World War II mobilization and is in good running order.

The exterior is original, from the metal map boxes installed in place of the original windshield to the siren from the division wrecker truck that the general transferred to the jeep, Sergeant Ward said. An M-1 Garand rifle in a leather scabbard is mounted on the driver's side.

The place names that trace the 29th's journey from England to the Elbe are in their original paint on the front of the map boxes, along with the Vixen Tor name. The windshield was re-installed farther forward on the hood. A German helmet is welded to the front grille, as it was during the campaign across France.

"When we went into Germany they told the general to take it off, that would be offensive," said Mr. Cuff, 82, now retired as deputy Montgomery County court clerk and jury commissioner. "I sent the helmet home to my wife. She kept it until I took it up there [to Baltimore] and they put the helmet back in place."

The tires on the wheels are replacements, but the rear-mounted spare is the original and was kept because of another of the general's quirks, Sergeant Ward said.

General Gerhardt wanted all repaired parts marked in place, so when shrapnel punctured the spare tire it was patched and the date, July 29, 1944, was painted beside the patch.

It is still there, marking the day Vixen Tor was "wounded."

Also in place on the front bumper is a red plate with the two silver stars of a major general. "That two-star plate did the trick when there was a lot of traffic," said Mr. Cuff, who remains active in the Silver Spring branch of the 29th Division Association. "It got us through.

"I took good care of that jeep. The general's jeep was supposed to be the example for all the vehicles in the division. Actually, General Gerhardt promised to give me that jeep. That's why he brought it back. But he never did."

Sergeant Ward's hopes of getting to Normandy lie with the Air Force Transport Command, which makes regular flights to Europe and takes hitchhikers when space is available. He said he plans to take the jeep to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware by trailer about May 25, hoping for standby space on a flight to the Royal Air Force base at Mildenhall, England.

"If there's no room, I don't go," he said. If he does go, he said, a British Army friend has arranged for an escort to Portsmouth, where he has a place with antique-vehicle collectors who have chartered a ferry to take them across the English Channel to France.

Sergeant Ward said he would pack a sleeping bag and packaged field rations so that he can stay with the jeep.

"I'm never going to leave it unattended," he said.

General Gerhardt, who died in 1976, was a hard-charging leader, colorful and aggressive, who seemed to model himself on the flamboyant Gen. George S. Patton. He was an officer from the old school -- West Point, the cavalry, the son of a general -- who was feared by many and loved by some.

Stern disciplinarian that he was, General Gerhardt had a weakness: D-day, the dog.

"Every time we stopped, that dog would jump out and I had to go get him," Mr. Cuff said. "But he was a good dog, and I loved him."

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