- Written by webmin
Ford’s GPA might have done well in the Detroit River, but when it went into service during World War II, it proved less than capable in the field. Cumbersome and unwieldy on both land and water, the so-called Seep’s production run ended early, after just 12,778 of them emerged from River Rouge. Those that didn’t sink during the war were sold off as surplus or simply junked. Their land-going Ford GPW and Willys MB cousins received many more accolades than the GPA ever would.
But that didn’t stop one Australian from deciding that the GPA would be the perfect vehicle with which he could circumnavigate the globe.
Ben Carlin, born in 1912 in Northam, Western Australia, studied engineering before spending the duration of World War II in service with the Royal Indian Engineers, reaching the rank of major. Though the GPA didn’t live up to expectations, the Allied forces – particularly the Americans, the British, the Canadians and the French – still put it to use in far-flung places like India, where Carlin inspected one in 1945, toward the close of the war. He told a counterpart from the Royal Air Force, Group Captain Malcolm “Mac” Bunting, that with some preparation, he believed a GPA could indeed take him around the world. “Nuts,” was the reply, which Carlin took as a challenge.
Carlin thus followed his wartime sweetheart, a Bostonian Red Cross volunteer named Elinore, back to the United States, married her and located a war surplus 1942 GPA (serial no. 1239), which he bought at a government auction outside of Washington, D.C., for $901. He tried to get Ford to sponsor his trip, but found that nobody – least of all Ford – believed he could even make it across the Atlantic with his tiny vessel. Still, he decided to fund the trip out of his own pocket and proceeded with his modifications, adding a small cabin, a rudder, a two-way radio, a bunk inside the cabin, and a bow that doubled as a spare fuel tank and extended the length of the GPA to 18 feet overall. Another fuel tank increased capacity to 220 gallons. He christened the GPA the “Half-Safe,” after a catchphrase in a deodorant commercial, and chose Montreal as his official starting point.
In June of 1948, he and Elinore left from Montreal to launch into the Atlantic from New York City. Over the next couple of months, they turned back twice due to problems with the rudder, leakage and seasickness. Another attempt in August went well for about a week until a propeller bearing welded itself fast from lack of lubrication. They floated for another week, 300 miles offshore, until a Canadian ship took them back to land. They tried to leave Half-Safe behind, but the captain of the ship persuaded them to take it with them. Upon landing back in North America, Elinore returned to Boston and Ben took a job with a Canadian shipping firm.
A year later, they tried again, this time from Halifax, Nova Scotia, towing a pair of auxiliary fuel tanks. The first night out, the tanks crashed into each other and broke loose. Ready to throw in the towel, Ben allowed Elinore to persuade him to soldier on, and constructed another fuel tank. They left, again from Halifax, on July 19, 1950, and 32 days later, after removing the head of the engine a few times to clean the carbon from the valves and replace the head gasket and after authorities feared them lost at sea, made it to the Azores; from there, they sailed another 23 days through a hurricane (most likely Hurricane Charlie) to the Canary Islands and on to Cap Juby, Morocco, then up the coast of Africa, into Europe, and across the Channel to England.
Out of money (throughout Europe they displayed the Half-Safe in department stores to raise funds) and unable to head back out right away, the Carlins settled temporarily in England and spent the next two years raising enough money to continue their trip and rebuilding the Half-Safe with the assistance of Bunting, still serving with the RAF. While doing so, Ben wrote a book chronicling the first leg of the journey, Half-Safe: Across the Atlantic in an Amphibious Jeep, which sold 32,000 copies over the next several years and was translated into Dutch, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Swedish.
The Carlins left England in May 1954, made their way through Europe to Istanbul, and then from there to Calcutta, where they took another break from their voyage and had the Half-Safe shipped by steamer to Australia for a side trip. Before Ben could ship the GPA back to Calcutta for the resumption of the journey, Elinore decided to call it quits; susceptible to seasickness, she couldn’t take any more, so she headed back to the United States while Ben searched for another co-pilot/first mate. Some sources note that Elinore filed for divorce upon returning to the States, but later newspaper articles still refer to Elinore as Ben’s wife.
After Carlin crossed the Bay of Bengal in early 1956, Australian Barry Hanley took up the challenge and accompanied Ben to Yangon (Rangoon), then overland to Bangkok, Saigon and Da Nang; across the South China Sea to Hong Kong and Taiwan; then across the East China Sea to Japan. As Dave Brooks noted on his page dedicated to the Half-Safe journey, the route through Burma was undertaken at the same time as the Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition, a much better documented expedition, though neither party seems to have known of the other’s presence. What exact route Carlin and Hanley took seems to be a mystery, though Carlin described it as the worst section of the trip, the hurricane included.
The nine months that it took for the duo to make that leg of the trip forced Carlin to winter in Tokyo and rebuild Half-Safe again, during which time Hanley left the expedition. Ben found his third co-pilot, American journalist Boyde de Mente, and left Japan in June 1957, headed for the Aleutian Islands, ultimately landing in Anchorage in September. The two then kept to land for the remainder of the journey, heading as far south as Los Angeles and Arizona, before turning back north and east to New York (where Ben met up with Elinore) and Montreal, completing the trip on May 12, 1958 – nearly 10 years after Ben and Elinore first set out to circle the globe. Altogether, Carlin estimated he traveled about 50,000 miles – 39,000 of them over land and 11,000 of them by sea – crossed 38 countries and spent about $35,000.
As one newspaper wrote at the time, Carlin hadn’t developed one lick of affection for Half-Safe over that decade. “I can’t get rid of her fast enough,” he said. “It’s been a tortoise shell on my back for many years.”
Except he didn’t get rid of Half-Safe. He spent the next few years traveling the United States with Elinore, giving presentations on their journey, and then lived out his later years in Australia in relative obscurity, working at a yacht harbor and retaining a one-half share in Half-Safe, which remained in the United States in the care of Carlin’s friend George Calimer. When Carlin died of a heart attack in 1981 (Elinore apparently died in 1996 in New York), he left his share to Guildford Grammar School in Perth, Western Australia, which he attended as a schoolboy in the 1920s. Guildford has since bought out the other half-share in Half-Safe, restored the GPA to its around-the-world configuration, and put it on prominent display on the school’s grounds, trotting it out occasionally for public appearances. Guildford has also published a second book, “The Other Half of Half-Safe,” available directly from the school, which details the Carlins’ adventures after their layover in England.
Sources not referenced above:
Half Safe, Half Boat, Half Car, and Half a Century, by Kerry Stanton
The Amphibious Jeep ‘Half-Safe,’ by L.A11ison
Half Safe (1947-1958)