Every once in a while a tractor is chosen to take on a task unlike that of its brethren. These machines are plucked from the lineup, dressed up in a particular way according to the desires of the customer and sent along to a destination and an operator requiring a machine for a specific purpose. This is the story of one of those machines.
During the Vietnam War the Navy found itself in need of machines to move equipment around their bases. Not needing many of these, they looked outside for a machine that would suit their needs. They found that the John Deere 600 Industrial tractor would fit well, and Deere was commissioned to build around three tractors for them.
One of these tractors was sent to Indian Naval Outlet in Maryland, where it spent time moving equipment for the United States Navy Construction Battalion, better known as the Seabees. During the Vietnam War the Seabees were tasked with building aircraft support facilities, roads, bridges, and camps for the military, as well as paved roads, wells, schools, hospitals, utilities, and other buildings for the Vietnamese people. Given the amount of infrastructure that the Seabees manufactured, it can be imagined how much equipment needed to be moved at one of their bases.
The 600 lived a short service life and was decommissioned at the end of the Vietnam War, with the intention of scrapping the machine. The base was closed after the war and, somehow, the 600 was lost and forgotten about on the base, apparently hidden behind other unused materials for nearly forty years.
In 2010 an auction was held at the base to get rid of the remaining items there, most of which were simply scrap metal at this point. As pieces were moved or repositioned this tractor was slowly uncovered, much to everyone’s surprise, and it was sold along with everything else. The tractor was then re-sold to Dr. Joel Janssen of Papillion, Nebraska.
The tractor was in a sad state when it was discovered, as sitting for forty years in the sun and briny sea air would cause any machine to wilt a bit. Most every exposed bit of metal was rusted, the engine was stuck and the rear tires were so weathered and hard that they stood up despite holding no air pressure. When Dr. Janssen was contacted and asked if he wanted to buy the tractor the owner asked if he wanted to come out and see it. Janssen replied, “It looks so bad in the pictures that if I come out and look at it I might not take it.” He purchased it over the phone and had it shipped to him.
Despite its outward appearance, the tractor was in good shape. As well as probably being the only Seabee 600 to have ever been built, it is also likely that this tractor has fewer hours than any other 600, military or otherwise, with only 116 hours on the tachometer. Other than needing its sleeves and pistons replaced, the tractor was mechanically sound. The 600 includes a Power Shift transmission, but has no three point, hydraulics or PTO, but the controls for those units are all there. The tractor was completely overhauled, sandblasted, and painted to a showroom shine with the help of Milton and Charles Fricke and Gary Sortino, also of Papillion, Nebraska.
This team has restored quite a few tractors in the past, contributing to much of Janssen’s impressive collection, so the knowledge and expertise to restore this tractor correctly was there, and the final product certainly shows it. The one worrisome point during the restoration came when it was time to test the transmission.
“We had to rebuild the engine, and once you get that back in and all back together you have to see whether the transmission worked. So that was kind of scary, to put this all together and put it all back in and hope that the transmission works, because you don’t know whether the transmission works until you have the engine running. So the guys took all of the fluids out, it was all gummy, and decided to see if it worked by running compressed air through there. So they start in fourth gear, pfft, pfft, and it would change to fifth and sixth. Everything was working with compressed air, so we were pretty sure it was free and would work with oil, and it did.”
This tractor has a couple of special features, including a front hitch and bumper made by Deere. This was likely used to allow the tractor to work in either direction when transporting equipment. The 600 also has a brake accumulator which allows the brakes to work even when the tractor has been stopped. I can imagine this would be a handy feature to have when driving the tractor near the edge of a ship’s deck. On the rear the tractor has turf tires, and the front tires are truck tires on split rims. This machine was clearly outfitted for running on hard surfaces.
Navy machinery was painted in drab green. The Seabees add a gloss to that same color, which is the color that this tractor would have been painted originally. It sports a Seabee logo decal on each side on the frame, and a Navy-issued serial number on either side of the hood, above the John Deere nameplate. The tractor also has the original Navy serial number plate on the left side.
Unfortunately, it is not known exactly what role this tractor played for the Seabees during the Vietnam War, nor is it known how the tractor survived being scheduled for scrapping. Dr. Janssen’s favorite hypothesis is that “a Navy farm kid stuck this away where it couldn’t be found and destroyed as was intended by the government.” I like to think that, too. Any farm kid who saw a tractor with only 116 hours on it being tagged for scrap probably would have gotten some severe indigestion by the prospect. 116 hours on a Deere engine is barely even broken in. Whether it was due to a well-meaning Seabee or a case of pure luck, it is good to have this tractor to admire today.
Thanks to Dr. Joel Janssen for his time and willingness to share his tractor.