Anchors (and Tractors) Aweigh

Seabee-Spec’d John Deere Tractors Shine for Show

By Jeff Barnes

If you take in the upcoming World of Wheels at the CenturyLink Center (March 18-20, 2016), be sure to visit the tractors that plow the waves instead of the fields.

Papillion dentist Joel Janssen and his restorer Gary Sortino are bringing three John Deere tractors built and painted specifically for the U.S. Navy Seabees during the Vietnam war. “Seabee” is from the initials “C.B.” which is short for “Construction Battalion.” These were the naval personnel who built the bases, bulldozed the roads and runways, and handled the other construction projects required by the U.S. Navy.

Janssen is a long-time collector and restorer of cars and tractors and stumbled across military tractors as a collection category. “I like the industrial version,” he said, referring to John Deere’s series painted yellow for industrial markets. “But then I found out about this, and found out they were even more rare, and that’s when I had to get them,” he said.

“Rare” as in his 400 magnet tractor is one of only four known, and his 600 is one of only seven known. It seems the military doesn’t really hang onto obsolete equipment and will typically abandon much of it when it leaves a combat zone. For example, Janssen said, many of the tractors on ships in Vietnam were dumped overboard when the war ended. Others stateside were sold to smaller government entities and others for scrap.

The 600 (built in 1970) was found at Indian Head Naval Station in Maryland. “It only has 160 hours on it, which is like nothing in the life of a tractor,” Janssen said. “We think it was headed to Vietnam but then the war ended and it was just stuck there, and basically sat outside for forty years. There was no air in the tires but they were still up because the rubber was so hard.”

The 500 (built in 1969) was in use by a township near North Platte — they found it in a military salvage yard. The 400 (1972) magnet tractor was found in a military salvage yard in Wisconsin with only 441 hours. This has a 2,500-lb. capacity magnet, used to sweep roads and runways of metal debris, and a generator on the back of the tractor powers the magnet.

The Navy doesn’t have much on record about the tractors and even John Deere can’t confirm much more than that they made them. The tractors have brass plaques listing Navy specifications and a brass plaque on the tractor showing where to hook the lifting chains to haul it up to the ship deck. There are other distinctions from the usual tractors built by John Deere at the time, such as the tires having a grid tread rather than the usual serrated tread, due to their typically pushing and pulling on deck or paved surfaces rather than working in fields. Even the paint is distinctive from the typical Navy drab green – the Seabees specified a shiny coat.

Janssen goes the extra distance for his tractor display, adding a restored military trailer to carry a generator, tools, ammo box, sandbags (filled with Styrofoam), and an M-1 Grand and 30-caliber carbine.

He’s also bringing a restored 1000-pound bomb carrier and a reproduction fiberglass bomb to go on it. “The trailer is real – we actually found that in Eagle, Nebraska,” Janssen said. “I looked forever online for the bomb to go on it until we found someone in California who makes the reproductions. While I was looking for a real one, though, I was waiting for Homeland Security to knock on my door.”

(Originally printed in the Omaha World-Herald, March 12, 2016)

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