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Love of war-era jeeps unites many

Lee Terrey is a lucky man for many reasons. Foremost is that he's married to a woman who loves the smell of canvas.

Lee Terrey is a lucky man for many reasons. Foremost is that he's married to a woman who loves the smell of canvas.

What's more, she's willing to ride shotgun in his open World War II Army jeep. Not only doesn't she whine or complain ("It's too cold!" "My hair's getting messed up"), she actually enjoys it.

"It's fun," says Ann Terrey, who lives in Chadds Ford. She agrees with Enzo Ferrari, who once called the jeep "the only true American sports car."

Her husband's jeep - a 1944 Willys MB - and other military vehicles of that era are exciting, she says, because "they take you back." They are rolling reminders of American history.

Terrey, 56, whose participation in her husband's hobby was once limited to handing him tools, has become something of an authority herself. For starters, she knows the difference between an M37 personnel carrier and a six-wheel-drive deuce-and-a-half cargo hauler. Moreover, for the last five years, she has served as vice president of the Greater Pennsylvania Area Military Vehicle Historical Society, whose members collect, restore and display vintage modes of military transport.

"Many of our members didn't serve in the armed forces," says Lee Terrey, 72, a retired Verizon supervisor who did serve, in the Air Force, "but we all have a common interest in history and the military. These are not just old cars. They represent the guys who were killed on the battlefield. By keeping them running, we're keeping history alive, and making sure the heroism and sacrifice of those who fought are remembered."

The club, founded in 1976, has about 130 members, 50 of whom are active (including a half-dozen women) and most of whom live in the counties surrounding Philadelphia. They meet monthly at a VFW post in Wyndmoor, and take part in parades, veterans events, and shows throughout the year. Two big occasions are the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum's World War II Weekend next month in Reading (commonly known as the Reading Air Show) and the reenactment of the Battle of the Bulge in January at Fort Indiantown Gap.

In between, they share and swap tips, tools, parts, sometimes whole vehicles ("we're very incestuous," one member quips), and always, plenty of stories.

Wherever or whoever they are, military vehicle enthusiasts love showing and talking about their beloved "mobility units" (as the Army might put it). That was evident on a recent Sunday, when more than a dozen members of the local chapter of the Military Vehicle Preservation Association gathered at Tony Polito's Barber Shop & Military Museum, on Route 202 several miles south of West Chester, to muster their rigs.

Sixteen vehicles eventually parked out front, arrayed like a phalanx of mechanized infantry, flags whipping in the vernal bluster. Motorists zooming by on the busy highway periodically honked to acknowledge the show of force and patriotic nostalgia.

While jeeps predominated, other sorts of military vehicles were present and accounted for as well.

Bob Keen, 47, of Harleysville, was there with his 1943 Dodge WC59 telephone maintenance truck. ("It's very rare. There's only one other one that I know of in the country.")

Joe Slavinski, 43, of Pottstown, added diversity with his 1942 Dodge WC54 ambulance. "This is something different. It shows that not everyone was on the front lines shooting." Another plus: Unlike a jeep, "it's closed and has a heater."

Polito, 66, the day's host, saluted the more recent past with his reconditioned 1987 humvee and a 1974 M151A2, the jeep-like descendant known by the acronym MUTT (military utility tactical truck). And John Fry, 64, of Birdsboro, was proudly sharing photos of his 1953 Studebaker M35A2 21/2-ton cargo and troop carrier. Said Fry: "Not everybody likes jeeps."

True. But the star of the gathering, as ubiquitous, necessary and endearing as it was during World War II, was that flat-fendered, flat-hooded mechanical mule that performed valiantly in the deserts of North Africa, in the jungles of the South Pacific and on the beaches of Normandy, earning the love of GIs and the respect of Patton, Marshall and Eisenhower - a symbol of American ingenuity that famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle called "a divine instrument of military locomotion."

"This is an example of the technology required to win the war," said Bill Linke of Media, who works as an engineer at Boeing, as he stood next to his beautifully restored jeep, a 1945 Willys MB, which he recently acquired along with a trailer and World War II radio set. During the war, Linke's father was a motor-pool supply sergeant, and among Linke's cherished possessions is a photograph of his father next to a similar jeep.

The jeep prototype, assembled by American Bantam Car Co. in Butler, was "designed in a matter of weeks by guys with pencils and slide rules," Linke said. That effort was emblematic of the campaign to arm and mobilize America. "It instigated the technology revolution," Linke said. "We were not a world power until after the war."

The jeep was supposed to be disposable and to last only 90 days, but it proved remarkably versatile and durable, the ever-faithful, go-anywhere, do-anything companion of the dogface. After the war, many were shipped home and put to use as farm tractors and utility vehicles. More than 60 years later, defying engineering expectations, they are still puttering along, sounding their distinctive exhaust note, triggering stories and memories.

As recently as 20 years ago, one could buy a beat-up military jeep from a farmer, junkyard or gas station for a couple hundred dollars. Tom McCabe, 77, of Phoenixville, a charter member of the club, purchased his 1942 Ford GPW 33 years ago from a junkyard in New Jersey. "It was red and barely running, but it was exactly the type of jeep I drove as a Marine in Korea," he said. Better yet: "It was $250, and I could afford it."

Today, carcasses riddled with rust sell for 10 times that amount, and prime originals and nicely restored jeeps can fetch from $10,000 to $20,000. The growing interest in antique jeeps and military vehicles has spawned a thriving business in freshly minted parts and accessories. About the only vintage jeep part not being reproduced (parts are mainly manufactured in the Philippines) is the engine block.

Leon Hendrick, 78, of Ridley Park, had always wanted a jeep. Four years ago, he finally found one: a 1945 Willys MB that he bought from a Delaware farmer who used it for hunting. "I paid $1,200 for it, and I was sane when I did it," said Hendrick, an Air Force vet who was stationed in England as a ground-crew mechanic during the Korean War.

Hendrick, a retired sheet-metal worker, restored the jeep with the help of son Brian, a mechanic. The job took 21/2 years. "It's a dream come true," Hendrick said. "I really love this thing."

"The joy of a jeep is that it's five things in one: an offroad vehicle, a sports car, an antique car, a snowplow, and a farm tractor," said Galloway Morris, 78, who keeps about a dozen military vehicles, including bicycles and motorcycles, at his place near Phoenixville.

At the gathering on Route 202, Morris was playing Sousa marches through antique loudspeakers set up in the back of his rare 1942 Ford GPW script jeep. (During World War II, Willys manufactured about 363,000 jeeps and Ford made about 281,000 in conformance with the government-approved Willys design.) After the war, this particular Ford jeep was shipped back from Europe by Proctor Wetherill, who used it for 40 years on his Christmas tree farm in Birchrunville. When he died, his family gave the battered blitz-buggy to Morris.

"When I was a boy growing up in South Ardmore, the Autocar factory was making half-tracks for the war," Morris said. "They used to come down the street and right by my house. Ever since then, I've always liked old cars and military vehicles."

Rough and funky, patched and painted, his jeep has gone through four rebuilt engines. "Old jeeps never die," Morris declared, paraphrasing Douglas MacArthur, "they just fade away."