The Case SI Airborne tractor, transported by WACO CG-4A gliders, made its mark in World War II battles
Case SI Airborne by the numbers
Length: 9 feet, 11 inches
Width: 59 inches
Height to top of steering wheel: 56 inches
Wheelbase: 56 inches
Turning Radius: 11-1/2 feet
Operating weight with fluids: 3,188 pounds
A certain irony existed during World War II, when American industry shifted its energies from production of durable goods to wartime materiel. In the mid-1940s, the American farmer couldn’t get a new tractor for love or money — but the Army could, and did. J.I. Case was among several manufacturers that built tractors for wartime use, converting its popular Model SC into the Case SI Airborne tractor.
The Case SI, equipped with a Hough loader built by Frank G. Hough Co., Libertyville, Ill., was one of several pieces of construction equipment developed for transport by WACO CG-4A gliders and cargo planes. Other pieces included a Clarkair CA-1 bulldozer developed by Clark Equipment Co., Michigan; a scraper built by LaPlant-Choate, Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and an 11-S towed grader manufactured by J.D. Adams & Co., Indianapolis. The four units (and similar pieces) were used to maintain and repair aircraft runways and perform other construction jobs in battle zones.
These units are highly prized collectibles today, partly because they were produced in small numbers and partly because very few of them returned home after the war ended. “Probably 99 percent of the material manufactured for the war effort never made it back to the U.S.,” says Ken Cerra, Indianapolis. “It was typically abandoned or just given to our allies as part of the redevelopment effort after the war.”
If Ken sounds well versed in the World War II airborne equipment, it’s because he is. He owns examples of the four pieces of airborne construction equipment listed above. Each of his four restored pieces is historic, but the Case is clearly at the head of the pack.
“It is very unique,” Ken admits. “Very few of these were made with a front loader. From my experience in military vehicle preservation circles, I only know of one other with a Hough loader. The other tractors were used to pull the scraper or grader.”
Ken tracked down his 1943 SI in Montana. The previous owner had bought it from a nearby U.S. Air Force base. “He didn’t know what he had,” Ken says. “He bought it to use.” The nearly complete tractor probably never saw battle. “I tend to think it never made it overseas,” he says.
The SI (Ken’s is serial no. 4801986 SI) appears to have been produced from about 1942 to about 1948. Production estimates vary; Ken’s best guess is that fewer than 500 were built. The tractor measures 9 feet, 11 inches long and 59 inches wide. It weighs 3,188 pounds, well under the 4,000-pound cap for glider-transported equipment.
The SI was restored by Dan Peterman, Webster City, Iowa. When Dan got it, the tractor ran and the sheet metal was in excellent shape, but the loader was inoperable. Replacement parts came from a parts tractor Ken found in Kansas. “Mechanically, the tractor was in pretty decent shape,” Dan says. “It had a cracked block and it just needed a lot of TLC. The loader was in pretty bad shape, and we had the ballast box fabricated from original blueprints.”
A knock-off of the Case SC, the SI was downsized for glider transport. “Gliders were not very big, so Case made the SI narrower, smaller and lighter,” Dan says. “The SI has different fenders and a different front end and rear end.” The tractor has hydraulics, but the loader is raised and lowered with cables.
To boost the tractor’s stability, a ballast box was added under the operator’s seat. “If they were going to use the loader to pick up heavy materials, they’d fill the box with sand or rock to balance out the weight,” Ken explains. “When they didn’t need the ballast, it could be released through a trap-door.”
Loops on each axle were used to secure the tractor during flight. In cases where landing was impossible or impractical, a parachute was connected to the loops and the tractor could be airdropped.
Information on colors, stencils and other details were provided through the Military Vehicle Preservation Association (MVPA) and a January 1944 War Department Technical Manual. “That manual is about an inch thick,” Ken says, “and has pretty well everything you’d want to know about that tractor.”
Although Ken’s primary interest is antique arcade games, he has extensive experience with military vehicles. Three years ago he restored a pair of rare Willys jeeps dating to 1941.
“The first jeeps made had slat-front grilles,” he says. “When the U.S. entered World War II and Willys and Ford geared up for mass production, the slat-front was too expensive so they came out with a stamped grille.”
His next project will be restoration of a very rare World War II 2-1/2-ton truck. “During the war years they called it a ‘deuce-and-a-half,’” he says. Although more than 570,000 2-1/2-ton trucks were produced for the war effort, only a small number — perhaps 500 — were produced as “air portable” models — and that is the model Ken has his eye on.
“Back then, there was no plane big enough to hold an intact truck. Air portable trucks were designed to be disassembled to four sections,” Ken explains, “cab, rear end, and body in two pieces. Then it was small enough to load into cargo planes. The components would be flown to a remote airfield where U.S. troops removed the sections and bolted them together to create a functional 2-1/2 ton truck.”
Ken’s interest in military vehicles extends back to World War I. For the 2012 MVPA convention, he put together a display that included two original 95-year-old gun and ammunition carts made of wood. Based on a scene captured in an archival photo, his display included an original World War I English Vickers water-cooled machine gun for the gun cart and an original World War I ammunition box for the ammunition cart. He obtained a pair of full-size molded plastic mules painted in authentic colors and outfitted them with original leather military harness true to the era — as well as with original gas masks typical of those used on horses and mules during World War I.
“It was a completely original display,” he says, “extraordinarily difficult to find and source.” But that kind of thing is right down Ken’s alley. “I get kind of bored doing the same thing,” he says. “I like the rare and unique; I enjoy the thrill of the hunt. I like to research something very unique and learn as much as possible. Then I can design and develop an exhibit that communicates that information.” FC
For more information:
—Ken Cerra, 11030 Tenacious Dr., Indianapolis, IN 46236; 2400 NW 110th Ave., Ocala, FL 34482; (732) 915-2183; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
—Dan Peterman, 1057 180th St., Webster City, IA 50595; (515) 571-1027; email: email@example.com
Leslie C. McManus is the editor of Farm Collector and the daughter of Maj. John E. Chandler, 14th Tank Battalion, 9th Armored Division, U.S. Army, 1941-45.
Read more about the exploits of airborne engineers and this Case SI Airborne in the article Glider Operation's Vital Role in World War II Battlefield Logistics.
If you want a close look at Ken Cerra’s collection of airborne construction equipment, you’ll have to plan a road trip: The pieces are spread among three museums in two states.
The Case SI occupies center stage at the Heartland Acres Agribition Center in Independence, Iowa. Located on 16 acres, the museum showcases agriculture — past, present and future — and traditional rural life. Housed in a building that gives a nod to the barn of yesteryear, the museum is a state-of-the-art facility every bit as sophisticated as many more urban museums.
Here you’ll find stars of the antique tractor world like a John Deere Waterloo Boy tractor and a Minneapolis-Moline UDLX. Located just a short stroll away are a machine shed packed with antique tractors and vintage signs and a faithfully restored and furnished one-room schoolhouse.
Heartland Acres also offers more than 30 hands-on activities, a "Hall of Time" illustrating a period from the 1830s to the present, a fine collection of restored antique cars and trucks, and live farm animals. They’ve even found a spot for Big Bud 16V-747, billed as "the world’s largest farm tractor."
The Clarkair bulldozer and LaPlant-Choate scraper are on loan to the Heartland Museum in Clarion, Iowa; the restored Adams grader is on loan to the Historical Military Armor Museum, Anderson, Ind. All four pieces are expected to be on display through much of 2013, but visitors should call ahead to verify dates and hours. — Leslie C. McManus
For more information:
—Heartland Museum, 119 9th St., Clarion, IA 50525; phone (515) 602-6000; Heartland Museum
—Historical Military Armor Museum, 2330 Crystal St., Anderson, IN 46012; phone (765) 649-8265