WWII workhorse to be featured in Monday's parade
Sara Holt, Times Record; May 25, 2001
TOPSHAM ,MAINE - The 1942 military Ford Jeep
in Rene Bernier's yard is still a powerful vehicle. Never mind
its hardy gears can handle waist-deep mud or that its sturdy wheels can
climb up hills and over rocks with the determination of a mountain
It is capable of something more; capable of evoking the untold stories
and buried memories of World War II veterans when they see it for the
time in half a century.
"The veteran's response to viewing my vehicle and displays varies from excited tale-telling to somber reflection," said Bernier, 46.
Having made its way from the depths of a Bowdoinham barn into the light of day, the Jeep has since been restored single-handedly by Bernier to appear exactly as it once did in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., where U.S. military forces used it to train American soldiers during World War II. At least, that's Bernier's theory, judging by the closeness of the blue government numbering along one side to the numbers on another Jeep in a photograph he saw once.
The Jeep will be featured prominently in Monday's Topsham-Brunswick Memorial Day parade, where it will carry World War II veteran Maj. Andrew Morin of Brunswick.
A Bowdoin College chemistry professor, Bernier has restored six Jeeps in his Topsham home since 1974. Ironically, no one in his immediate family served in World War II. But a general love of Jeeps led him to begin restoring wartime vehicles.
He'll talk about how the U.S. government first solicited the American Bantam Car Co. to design a vehicle to serve the armed forces, but "the government was afraid because it was just this little piddly car company in Pennsylvania. So it tried their Jeep, took their plans and gave them to Ford and Willys. As a concession, the government then threw Bantam the bone and said, 'You can make the trailers.'"
Bernier's Jeep will also pull a military trailer made in 1945 in the parade. Bernier paid to take it from its Topsham home, where it was sitting in the yard full of junk, he said, and restored it completely. Monday, it will display field gear used by soldiers in the war.
Bernier delights in showing off the gadgetry aboard the vehicle; they thought of everything, he said. Special mirror and windshield coverings prevented the glass from reflecting at night when U.S. soldiers needed to pass through enemy territory without lights. The headlights manually pivot backwards to help soldiers do engine repairs in the dark, without adding the weight of a light under the hood. The large white star indicates the Allied forces.
Every detail had to be perfect to win first prize in the Military Vehicle Preservation Association East Coast Rally in Aberdeen, Md., just two weeks ago. And after putting the finishing touches on it last summer, Bernier also won first place for "Best Overall Individual Entry" in the Bath Heritage Days Parade.
He has stories to tell about this one in particular, a favorite being having to call AAA to say he couldn't move it out of the Bowdoinham barn - never mind the fact that it hadn't run in 26 years.
"The wheels wouldn't even turn; they just dragged," he said with a chuckle.
The Jeep belonged to Hal Ahlers of Bowdoinham, whose father bought it surplus around 1950. A family heirloom on which he and his siblings learned to drive, it ended up sitting in his barn, rusting away in Ahlers' adult years, said Bernier. "I went there expecting a hunk of garbage, but it was just beautiful," he added. "It didn't plow, it didn't pull stumps; it never got beat up."
For Bernier, there's nothing better than getting a driving buddy, putting the top down, and tooling along remote logging roads in Jackman with the sun on your back. "I can easily drive 100 miles on it," he said. "Some guys think you're crazy, but I just can't help myself."
Its uniqueness makes it all the more an enjoyable ride; its aged canvas even smells military.
"You can't just buy one of these - you have to find it," he said. "The hunt is part of the fun. But they're getting thin. I keep hoping that one will turn up in a barn somewhere."
Though difficult to come across now, the Jeep is one of 500,000 churned out by American women on the home front during World War II, Bernier said. In the rush to bury the enemy alive in as much equipment as possible, most vehicles were slapped together, sloppily painted and predicted to perform only 90 days.
Little did anyone project to see - let alone drive - one almost 60 years later. "They weren't built to last, but they just did," Bernier said.
"A lot of the veterans love it. They see it and their eyes light up. It's more than just an antique vehicle, you know. It's a piece of American history. It's the most recognizable vehicle, in every corner of the earth. Little kids who can't speak English see it and go, 'Jeep!' It represents how Americans pulled together to win that war."