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First Florida Chapter MVPA 

Army Motors #92 

A Diamond in the Rough

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This article was written by club member Jim Gill #18992 and published in the National MVPA Army Motors edition #92, Summer of 2000.

I am a fairly recent member of the First Florida Chapter of the MVPA. As a matter of fact my friend and fellow member in Orlando, Mike Odham, is the one that turned me on to both the local chapter and the international organization. It wasn't long before I had made contact with Walter Keller of Clearwater. Walt's association with ENCORE vehicles at the time provided me the opportunity to purchase my first MV. Soon thereafter, on July 4, 1998 I was following Walt and other members in the Brandon Fourth of July parade with my very own M151A2 MUTT.

This was only the beginning. This past summer I stumbled into a rare opportunity. I took my family on a summer vacation to West Virginia where my roots began. Although I am a native Floridian, both of my parents have a long lineage in the West Virginia mountains. It had been almost 30 years since I had last visited the state and the few remaining relatives.

The last part of the vacation was to be for ourselves, we were going to relax in the Canaan Valley Resort area. Canaan Valley is part of a National Park in the northeastern part of the state. While making the long drive through the winding mountains and narrow roads I made a wrong turn. This took us about 7 miles out of our way. As we are driving through the small but quaint town of Beverly, West Virginia, I noticed something out of the corner of my left eye. My head turned so quickly that I should have gotten whiplash. My wife and kids didn't understand why I was braking so fast to turn the car around. But there it was, that familiar grill outline of an early jeep with flat fenders. I couldn't see it well but as I approached it even seemed to be painted in olive drab. My heart started pumping! Sure enough, backed up to an old building with a poorly made lean to covering it and weeds grown up all around was an original, flat fendered Willys military Jeep.

As I said earlier, I'm still new as an MVPA member and still learning about the different types of Jeeps. As far as I was concerned it looked like a WW II Jeep. After all how many of us grew up watching Combat and all the John Wayne movies? I had been dieing to own a piece of that history.

Here I was, in the middle of a small town one thousand miles from home crawling all over someone else's property. I couldn't help myself. If I were in Georgia or Alabama I might still be behind bars. Anyway, I did have the common sense to look for a few obvious things. It had an original looking engine and there were even data plates (I found Out later that only one was missing - the important one). The spare tire rack was there and the tires, although they were retreaded by BF Goodrich is dated 1953. The inside was very rough and the back seat was missing. All ill all, I thought it looked beautiful.

By this time the family was chomping at the bit. They wanted to be in Canaan Valley. So off we went. The resort was fantastic but I could care less. I couldn't sleep for three days. I don't know what I expected to do. Somebody must have owned it but there was no for sale sign on it. What could I have even expected to do with a rental van full of family vacation stuff? Still I had to know more. I tried calling information in the town of Beverly to see if some body could give me answers, but no luck.

Finally, after leaving the resort area, I convinced my wife that I had to go back by the jeep if for no other reason to take some more pictures. It looked even better. It must have been sitting under the shelter for years. Next door was a museum where I inquired about the Jeep. The ladies inside informed me that it was an eyesore and they would just as soon see it gone. Al that time they informed me that the gentleman that had owned it for the past 30 years had passed away that February. My heart started pumping again. This was beginning to really look like an opportunity. I was on a roll, while standing in the museum talking with these kind ladies one of them picked up the phone and called his widow. She informed them that her son-in-law from Maryland was handling the estate.

I was back in the rental van with six piercing eyes telling me that this was really getting out of hand. But at least I had the son in law's phone number. I ignored the laser-like penetrations burning through my skull and used our cell phone (which was meant for emergencies only, not for frivolous long distant calls) to dial the number. I had to know something. The gentleman on the other end of the phone was not the son in law but they worked together and he was familiar with the Jeep and thought it might be for sale. He assured me that my call would be returned.

Well, our trip seemed to go downhill from there. At least for me. Our next destination took us-to beautiful Boone, North Carolina. The family enjoyed the hiking, grandfather mountain and blowing rock. My passion was only fueled more when visiting a neighboring town. I inquired at an army surplus store (the family was eating at Pizza Hut) about the possibility of anyone having any old jeeps for sale. Sure enough there was a guy about a mile down the road at a construction company that had "some old military jeep looking thing" he wanted to sell. When I got there and saw it, I didn't really know what the heck it was. It did have data plates that said USMC and a date of 1961. The engine appeared to be air-cooled and the body was aluminum. I told you I'm new at this. I stumbled onto a Mighty Mite and didn't even know what it was. I do now! I took a few pictures and headed back to Pizza Hut.

The long drive back to Florida was made even more painful knowing that every mile that I drove south was taking me that much further away from an opportunity. We got home and I hadn't heard from the son-in-law so I debated calling Maryland again. But even worse, if I did call, what would I say and was I prepared for a big let down? I had nothing to lose.

Before I called the son-in-law I did a little research. The first thing I did was to call Donald Thompson (MVPA officer west Florida). Donald was a tremendous help and great encouragement. He directed me to call Jim Baker. Jim, our President was out of town but promptly returned my phone message from California (thanks Jim!). At this point I had mixed feelings. There was a great let down because Jim and Donald had informed me from the description of the jeep that it was not a WWII jeep, but rather the Korean-vintage M-38. This was a real disappointment for me at first. I had wanted a WWII jeep. I finally realized that it was still an opportunity that I would probably regret later if I let it get away. Besides, I wouldn't be as let down if son-in-law had other plans for the jeep.

As fate would have it I called the son-in-law from Maryland. This ended up rekindling all of that earlier anxiety. Yes, he said the Jeep probably was for sale but there were several other interested parties. So much for hoping that I might steal it for $500 or less. At least I wasn't dead in the water. He did give me a little history on the vehicle. It had been in the family for around 30 years and his wife as a child loved to ride in it with her father. It had even been running well up until it was moved to its current residence some 8 or 9 years ago.

I work at a high school in Pinellas County and had about three weeks left in the summer before I had to return to work. If something was going to happen it needed to do so before then. The son-in-law, who we can now call Jim, assured me that whatever the family decided, they would do so soon. He also added that the final decision to sell would be up to his mother-in-law.

I decided to appeal to the mother-in-law herself. I wrote a very sincere and genuine letter to her. I wanted it clear that my desire was to restore the jeep to its original condition the best that I could and that it was important to me to maintain as much of its history as I possibly could. It wasn't going to be jacked up and running races through some Florida swamp. If I was able to purchase it I would like any information the family was willing to give me regarding its east on the West Virginia's mountains. I made my first offer in this letter.

A few days later Jim, the son-in-law, called me back. He said he had a higher offer from a gentleman in Kentucky that had heard about it from a friend in town. I knew I was in for a high guy wins game. By this time I was really interested in the M-38. More research disclosed how rare they really are. With over 600,000 MBs and GPWs produced during WW 11 the relatively small number of 60,345 M-38s made it even more attractive to me. Besides, it was still a flat fender.

There were other obstacles left to overcome. Even if I did manage a deal with Jim, how was I really going to get this thing home and how much would it cost? Ever since I got back from vacation a close friend and car enthusiast, Mike Stoessel assured me that he could get us a trailer and that my Ford Explorer could easily transport it the 2000 mile round trip. Mike even agreed to join me on the trip should I work things out. I had never towed anything more than a boat (Mike even less) from the house to the lake, let alone something like this, that distance. I had gone this far though, I just needed to decide what my limit to bidding was.

For about two weeks I felt as though Jim was working me back and forth with the guy in Kentucky. Finally, I estimated my cost in time and money to retrieve it and made my last offer. When the phone rang and it was Jim on the line I had decided that things probably weren't going to work out, especially when he said that the guy in Kentucky had upped the anti again. Jim did say that his family liked what I planned to do with the jeep. It was then that I realized the personal letter to the mother-in-law had probably paid off. He accepted my offer!

The next step was to explain to my wife what I had committed to. I'm 43 years old and I think she is convinced that I'm going through some mid life crisis. After all it is much better than running around with younger women. Regardless, she was accepting of the idea and her only concern seemed to be where I was going to keep this thing when I got it home?

I didn't have much time to plan the trip to West Virginia and back. We only had a week. Mike was still planning to go with me and had made arrangements with a friend for the trailer to tow it home with. I decided that we would leave on a Friday and return home on either Monday or Tuesday.

Packed, loaded find supplied with everything we thought we would need, Mike and I set off on our journey at 4:00 a.m. on Friday, July 23, 1999. The trip up was relatively uneventful. Somewhere in lower West Virginia however the Ford experienced an engine light that seemed to come on as we went up the mountains and go out as we descended. The only other notable event was a traffic back up on I-77 that was bumper to bumper for close to an hour. That wouldn't have been much of a problem except we were running low on gas and barely got to an exit to refuel.

Seventeen hours after we began at 9:00 p.m. we arrived in Elkins, West Virginia just a hop skip and a jump from our destination, Beverly. I opted to bypass the hotel and drive straight to the jeep. I wanted Mike to see it, besides I wanted to make sure we hadn't wasted our time and that no one had dislodged it from its home for the past 8 or 9 years. Again, I was glad that the Beverly Police Department wasn't out on patrol. Here it was a Friday evening on the main road through this small town and two guys with Florida plates and a trailer are pulled off to the side with their headlights shining into this well-known historical monument (or eyesore) from the town of Beverly. And yes, there did seem to be a lot of traffic passing by.

I was in a feeding frenzy, pulling weeds and clearing as much debris out of the way as I could. Mike stood safely back with the video camera shouting words of caution about what kinds of wildlife and toxic insects could be hiding in those same places that my hands were probing. After about a half an hour we had seen enough and were convinced that this truly was the diamond in the rough that I thought it was. We headed back to the hotel.

Jim, the son-in-law, had driven down from Maryland and was to meet us the next morning. I called to verify that we had made it and arrange a time to meet him at the jeep.

Saturday morning, July 24, 1999 my 44th birthday! Mike and I got up at 6-30 a.m. and headed to the jeep. Shortly after arriving, we backed the trailer into position, cleared some more debris then waited for Jim to arrive. When we finally met Jim, he provided us with a little more history about the jeep and how his father-in-law had acquired it. Back in the 60s Mr. Baisi purchased the rights to a cable company from another local gentleman named Woody. Included with the cable company was this 1951 M-38 jeep. The Jeep was used to traverse to the top of the mountain where the receiving antenna was located. The jeep was also used to service other out of the way cable stations. Woody, the original owner of the M-38, apparently had another jeep that he kept. I wonder where that one is today!

Extraction of the Jeep from its cave went rather smoothly. We did have to negotiate an unexpected car that was partially blocking the opening. It wasn't there the night before. As I pulled the jeep out, Mike had to sit in it so he could support the collapsing roof above. A moment of excitement did occur as I was attaching the last come- along. I looked up from under the jeep to see a big Chevy truck screeching to a halt about 15 feet from my Explorer. As I stood up by the trailer a man got out and rushed up to me, with about 8 inches between our noses he said, "I just want to know how you managed to purchase that jeep?" I told him that I had inquired about it and worked something out with the son-in-law that was inside the building beside us. His body language obviously indicated that he was pretty upset. He went on to explain that he had been trying to buy the jeep from Mr. Baisi for the last 10 years. He does antique restorations himself. He asked me what I paid for it. I still wasn't sure just where he might go with this so I blurted out $5,000 (it didn't) thinking that might shut him up. Which it did. As it turned out Kenny seemed to be a pretty nice guy and even advised us that we should have loaded the Jeep on backward to protect it from damage to the radiator from rocks that might be kicked up from the towing vehicle. I wasn't about to turn it around so we stuck some heavy plastic between the grill and radiator to help prevent damage.

Once the Jeep was loaded and secure Jim invited us into the building that the jeep had been backed up to for so many years. Apparently his father-in-law was quite a pack rat. This building, which at one time had been a bank, was full of thousands of antiques and collectables, which Jim and his family were preparing for an upcoming auction in August. Jim and I exchanged money and what little paper work there was. Jim was sure there was some canvas that went with the jeep so he took us about two blocks down the road to another building. This house was a piece of American history itself and was also filled with thousands of collectables. We not only found several pieces of canvas that allegedly go with the Jeep but we turned tip a WWII jerry can and Mike spied the spare tire complete with rim. Looking back now Iím sure I saw the windshield frame to an earlier MB or GPW lying in the back yard.

It was now almost 10:30 a.m. and beginning to rain lightly. We were in the Ford, trailer and jeep in tow. We made a brief stop at the Golden Arches to refuel and headed back to the hotel to clean up and check out. By 11:00 a.m. Mike and I were headed south video taping my new M-38 which was dutifully following us and leaving Beverly, West Virginia for the first time in 30 years.

I wish that I could say the return trip was just as uneventful as the one going up, however it wasn't. The engine warning light continued to go on and off as we ascended and descended the mountains. But as long as the Ford kept moving I wasnít going to worry too much about the light. Mike also advised me that since we were all pumped up about the Jeep and kind of on a high there was no reason that we couldn't drive straight through back to Florida, It doesn't matter that we had just driven 17 hours straight the day before and slept poorly that night. All in all though the return trip wasn't that bad. It was mostly just being tired and driving much slower with the Jeep on the trailer. We also encountered that same traffic jam on I-77 in Southern West Virginia, which seemed to take longer to get through.

There was one major event in North Carolina at about 1:00 a.m. Traveling at 65 plus mph in a driving rain and struggling to keep my eyes opened the unexpected happened. The back of the Ford suddenly started to swerve and as I slowed down we could here a thumping sound. Our first reaction was that the trailer did have a flat tire. I remember that the trailer did have a spare. Fortunately, it wasn't the trailer, just a blow out on the left rear of the Explorer. The rain did let up enough for us to retrieve the spare find change the tire. Once we lowered the Ford off the jack we realized how low on air the spare was. Good news, I thought to purchase a 12-volt air compressor from Target before we left. It didn't work! We made it a few miles down the road to a Quick Mart with 25 cents air. We were off and running again feeling like we really could complete this trip.

At approximately 8:00 a.m. Sunday morning, July 25, 1999 I Pulled into my driveway after dropping Mike off at his house, It took 21 hours to drive straight home. In a 52-hour period of time Mike and I had driven 2,000 miles in a total of 38 hours. As tired as I was I couldn't sleep so in a somewhat Zombie state I proceeded to pressure wash as much of the Jeep as I could get to while it was still on the trailer. The entire time I was doing this the neighborhood slowly descended on me and the suspicious looking vehicle in the yard.

The Jeep is safely disassembled in the garage next to my M151A2 in  about 20,000 pieces. My wife's car sits proudly in the driveway next to mine.

 

Although this project is to be a ground up refurbishment, I'm temporarily dead in the water due primarily to funding and time, but much inspiration has come to me since reading an earlier article in Army Motors #84 titled JADE A Story of an M-38 written by Bill Keen.

Bill took a civilianized M-38 and reconverted it back to its original military configuration.  It only took him 14 years.  At that rate I guess I have plenty of time!