The Largely Forgotten Entirely Mad Adventure of Half Safe The Amphibious Car That Could
If you suddenly decided to travel around the world, what sort of vehicle would you choose? Likely a sailboat, or – of you’re feeling particularly ambitious – an aeroplane. Well if so, then you’re a far more reasonable person than Ben Carlin. When this former Australian mining engineer began planning his own round-the-world trip in the early 1950s, he decided that all the usual modes of transportation were just a bit, well, boring. Instead, he chose an awkward and temperamental WWII amphibious jeep that even the U.S. Army had rejected as impractical. Over the next ten years, Carlin, his wife, and a rotating cast of travelling companions would drive this unlikeliest of vehicles 80,000 kilometres across land and sea, circumnavigating the globe. This is the story of the incredible journey of Half-Safe.
Frederick Benjamin or “Ben” Carlin was born on July 27, 1912, in the farming town of Northam, Western Australia. His mother, Charlotte, died when he was four, leaving him to be raised by his father Frederick, an electrical engineer for the Western Australian Government Railways. At the age of 10 Carlin was sent away to attend Guildford Grammar School in Perth. Upon graduation in 1929, he studied to be a mining engineer at the Kalgoorlie School of Mines. After qualifying as an engineer, Carlin worked briefly in the Australian Goldfields region before moving to China to work in a British-owned coal mine. On the outbreak of war in 1939, Carlin enlisted in the British Indian Army and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Madras Sappers. During the war, Carlin served in Italy, Iraq, Persia, Syria, and Palestine, attaining the rank of Major before being posted back to Kalaikunda Air Force Station in India. It was here that the seeds of a mad venture would be planted. One day in March 1946, Carlin and his friend, Squadron Leader Mac Bunting, were wandering around a U.S. Army Air Force surplus when they spotted a vehicle unlike anything either man had ever seen.
Officially designated GPA but nicknamed the “Seep” by GIs, the vehicle was an amphibious version of the Ford GPW light truck, better known as the “Jeep.” Based on a standard Jeep chassis, the Seep was fitted with a large wrap-around sheet metal float and a propeller geared to the rear drivetrain to allow it to cross rivers, lakes, and other small bodies of water. However, unlike the larger DUKW or “Duck” amphibious truck it was based on, the Seep proved a disappointment. Slow, heavy, and unwieldy, it could barely manage 3 kilometres per hour and was extremely difficult to steer in even the calmest water. Production was cancelled after only a year, with barely 13,000 units being completed by war’s end. Yet despite this abysmal performance, Carlin immediately saw the potential in the oddball vehicle, declaring:
“With a bit of titivation, you could go around the world in one of those things.”
While Mac Bunting scoffed at the notion, Carlin grew more and more enamoured with the idea of driving the amphibious jeep around the world, later writing:
“The more I thought about the idea—and within a few days I was thinking of little else—the more I liked it. Quite reasonably possible, it would be difficult enough to be interesting, a nice exercise in technology, masochism, and chance—a form of sport—and it might earn me a few bob.”
But to complete such a journey, Carlin would need a travelling companion. Thankfully, near the end of the war Carlin had met Elinore Arone, an American Red Cross Nurse from Boston. Hungry for adventure, Elinore was immediately entranced by Carlin’s plan to drive and sail around the world, and insisted on joining him. Upon Ben’s discharge from the Army the pair emigrated to Maryland and moved in together. Carlin had previously been married Gertrude Plath, a German expatriate living in China, but the two had separated before the war’s end.
After struggling to scrape together the necessary funds, on January 30, 1947 the Carlins finally managed to purchase a 1942 Ford GPA from a government auction in Aberdeen, Maryland for $901, the equivalent of $10,500 today. The Carlins had initially tried to convince the Ford Motor Company to sponsor the trip, but the company refused, believing the craft was incapable of making the journey. And they had good reason to be skeptical. The Carlins’ surplus GPA was barely functioning, its engine bodywork and engine riddled with dozens of leaks and cracks. It would require extensive modification to make it seaworthy enough for a round-the-world trip. While Elinore stayed with her parents in Boston and worked odd jobs to save money, Ben got to work. After plugging all the leaks in the hull, he modified the bow to make it more streamlined, coated the hull in waterproof neoprene, and added two new fuel tanks, increasing the vehicle’s fuel capacity from 45 to 750 litres. He then built a cramped, box-like cabin over the driver’s compartment, into which he installed a small sleeping cot, aircraft-style navigational instruments, and a two-way radio. The upgraded vehicle, which now weighed a full three tons, was christened Half-Safe, after an advertisement for Arrid brand deodorant which read “Don’t be half-safe – use Arrid to be sure.”
In October 1947, Ben, down to his last $300 and anxious to get started on his voyage, decided to take Half-Safe on a test run from Annapolis to New York City. The results were less than encouraging. Half-Safe proved almost impossible to steer, and for three days strong winds reduced her speed to barely two miles per hour. Worse still, on the fourth day a cracked exhaust pipe nearly caused Ben to pass out from Carbon Monoxide poisoning. As he lay on the cabin roof, half-paralyzed, the vehicle drifted in wide circles around Delaware bay before impaling itself on a metal piling. In an amazing stroke of luck, had the piling struck just a few inches lower, the hull would have flooded, sending Half-Safe – and Ben Carlin – to the bottom.
Now completely broke and without prospect of employment, Ben took to skipping meals and living in cheap hotels while he badgered the British consulate for back-pay owed him for his wartime service. After four months of living hand-to-mouth the $1,800 cheque finally arrived, and Ben and Elinore began preparing for a transatlantic crossing. On the advice of their publicist, in May 1947 the couple were married at New York City Hall. Two newlyweds honeymooning by crossing the Atlantic, he claimed, would be an easy story to sell.
The Carlins made their first attempt at a transatlantic crossing on June 16, 1948, sailing from New York Harbour. After an inauspicious start in which Half-Safe was washed up the Hudson River by strong tides, the Carlins finally managed to sail out into the Atlantic at a speed of five knots. However, they failed to maintain radio contact, prompting a search by the Coast Guard, and were forced by strong currents to land only 64 kilometres away in New Jersey. Two more attempts followed in July, but mechanical troubles, seasickness, and carbon monoxide leaks forced the Carlins to turn back. A fourth attempt in early August started off well, but some 480 kilometres from New York a propeller bearing failed and could not be repaired. The Carlins drifted for nearly a week before being rescued by the oil tanker New Jersey, which carried them to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
At this point the Carlins were nearly ready to give up their mad venture, but at the encouragement of the New Jersey’s captain they decided to keep trying. Elinore returned to Boston and Ben took a position at a marine salvage firm while he repaired and upgraded Half-Safe for the next attempt. In September 1949 the Carlins set out again from Halifax, but only 56 kilometres from shore a rogue wave broke away the auxiliary fuel tanks, forcing the attempt to be abandoned. Ben further modified Half-Safe by adding a 2000 litre tank towed behind the vehicle and on July 19, 1950, he and Elinore sailed from Halifax for one last attempt at the crossing. The 32-day voyage was a gruelling ordeal. Despite the addition of extra rudders, Half-Safe was still extremely difficult to steer, requiring the wheel to be manned at all times. Sleep deprivation, hallucinations, and seasickness were constant companions. The engine failed on several occasions, forcing Ben to make repairs at sea, while halfway through crossing the auxiliary fuel tank broke away and the radio antenna snapped, cutting the Carlins off from the outside world and forcing them to sail at full speed in a desperate bid to reach land. Worse still, near the end of the crossing the Carlins drifted into the path of Hurricane Charlie, which nearly sank their tiny vessel. But finally, on August 20, 1950, Half-Safe arrived on Flores, the westernmost island in the Azores. From here the Carlins sailed to Cape Juby in Morocco via the islands of Faial and Madeira, then drove up the Moroccan coast to the straits of Gibraltar. In desperate need of a vacation, they spent several months sightseeing through Europe before finally ending the first leg of their journey in Birmingham on January 1, 1951. A contemporary Life magazine article described their achievement as:
“…certainly the most foolhardy and possibly the most difficult transatlantic voyage ever made.”
Despite this, however, the world’s reaction to the crossing was not what the Carlins had expected. Though their arrival had been celebrated by locals everywhere they went, major newspapers showed little interest in covering or sponsoring their journey. Months trapped together in a space larger than a closet had also begun to strain the Carlins’ marriage. As Ben Carlin wrote in August 1951:
“Now aged 39, I had lived from suitcase or kit-bag for 13 years; the travel urge was long satisfied and I yearned for a permanent hat-peg; a lawnmower, the pit-a-pat of footsies. If beforehand I had been persuaded that the trip would take longer than a year, I would have dropped it; now 5 years later I had barely started.”
But the show would go on. While the Carlins recuperated from their gruelling Atlantic crossing, Half-Safe was exhibited in department stores across Europe to raise money for the rest of the journey. Ben also completed an account of the crossing titled Half Safe: Across the Atlantic by Jeep, which sold 32,000 copies and was translated into five languages. Finally, three years after arriving in England, the Carlins were at last ready to continue their journey. Departing on April 22, 1955, the Carlins crossed the English Channel to France, the drove across Europe and the Middle East through Switzerland, Italy, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan, finally arriving in Calcutta, India. At this point the Carlins had once again run out of money, and Ben was forced to take Half-Safe on a tour of Australia and New Zealand to raise further funds. The trip was a disaster. Most of the bookstores throughout the country never received their shipment, and reviews of Carlin’s book were mediocre at best. Even worse, when Carlin finally returned to Calcutta in January 1956 to resume the journey, his wife was no longer there to accompany him. Tired of endless travel and seasickness, Elinore had returned home to Boston. Shortly thereafter, she filed for divorce.
Carrying on alone, Ben sailed across the Bay of Bengal to Burma, where he was joined by a new travelling companion, fellow Australian Barry Hanley. Together, Carlin and Hanley drove from Burma through Thailand and Vietnam before sailing across the South China Sea to Japan via Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Okinawa. Along the way they were mobbed by adoring fans, the voyage having by now become international news.
On arrival in Japan Hanley returned to Australia and a new travelling companion appeared: Boyé Lafayette de Mente, an American journalist for The Japan Times. After resting and completing much-needed repairs to Half-Safe, Carlin and de Mente set off from Tokyo on May 1, 1957, bound for Shemya Island in Aleutians northwest of Alaska. The pair expected their Pacific crossing to last 21 days, but did not make landfall on Shemya island until July 8, prompting yet another search by the Coast Guard. From Shemya Carlin and de Mente made their way along the Aleutians to the Alaskan mainland and finally to Anchorage, where de Mente departed and returned to his hometown of Phoenix. While de Mente had only agreed to accompany Carlin on the Pacific leg of his journey, his departure was likely further hastened by Carlin’s erratic behaviour before and during the crossing. According to de Mente, in Carlin had accepted an offer from the Standard-Vacuum Oil Company to fuel his Pacific crossing in exchange for completing an 18-day promotional tour of Japan. Carlin, resentful of being ordered around by the oil company, proceeded to go on drunken rampages through every Japanese town they visited.
Alone once more, Carlin drove south through Alaska and Canada and along the U.S. East Coast to San Fransisco. Along the way, Carlin passed the Peace River Bridge near Taylor, British Columbia, which had collapsed on October 16, 1957. In front of a stunned crowd waiting for the nearby ferry, Carlin simply drove Half-Safe into the river and crossed over to the other side. In San Fransisco Carlin reunited with Elinore for the first time in two years before heading north to Canada, arriving back at his starting point on May 13, 1958. Against all odds, Carlin and his strange little vehicle had accomplished the impossible. Over the span of 10 years, Half-Safe had travelled over 17,000 kilometres by sea and 62,000 kilometres by land, crossing five continents and 38 countries in the process. Ben Carlin remains the only person to have circumnavigated the globe in an amphibious vehicle.
Tragically, however, Carlin never reaped the rewards of his epic feat. Stubborn, volatile, and unwilling to engage in promotion, Carlin completed his journey only to find that the public had completely lost interest. Many critics even claimed that the whole venture was a hoax. After touring the lecture circuit for several years, a forgotten and dejected Ben Carlin returned home to Perth, where he lived until his death from a heart attack in 1981. For many years Half-Safe remained in the United States, where it was occasionally exhibited by Carlin’s friend George Calimer. Upon Carlin’s death, however, the vehicle was acquired by Carlin’s old school, Guildford Grammar, where it is still on display. While the unlikely voyage of Half-Safe did not bring Ben Carlin the fame and fortune he had hoped for, it remains a remarkable achievement, and a testament to what can be accomplished with ingenuity, determination, and just a little madness.
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Nestor, James, Half-Safe, The Atavist Magazine, No.20, https://magazine.atavist.com/half-safe/
Blackbourn, Rob, ‘Half-Safe’ Amphibious Jeep, Trade Antique Cars, August 27, 2020, https://www.tradeuniquecars.com.au/features/2008/half-safe-amphibious-jeep-blackbourn-439
Feltman, Rachel, A Madman, an Amphibious Jeep, and a Trip Around the World, Popular Mechanics, January 10, 2013, https://www.popularmechanics.com/adventure/outdoors/a8599/a-madman-an-amphibious-jeep-and-a-trip-around-the-world-14962549/
Strohl, Daniel, Ambitious Amphibious: Ben Carlin’s Round-the-World Trek in a Ford GPA, Gemmings, March 2, 2011, https://www.hemmings.com/stories/2011/03/02/ambitious-amphibious-ben-carlins-round-the-world-trek-in-a-ford-gpa
School Remembers Perth Adventurer Who Circumnavigated Glove in Half Safe, World War II Amphibious Jeep, ABC News, June 22, 2015, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-06-22/ben-carlin-and-his-half-safe-amphibious-vehicle-adventure-/6563962
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