TOLEDO, Ohio — Chrysler employees dedicated a new veterans’ memorial outside Toledo’s Jeep plant on Friday featuring a restored military vehicle that was built in the city more than 70 years ago.
Chuck Padden, the plant manager of Chrysler’s Toledo Assembly Complex, said the company had been looking for a way to honor men and women who have served in the U.S. armed forces over the years. They decided on building a display around an old, Toledo-built military Jeep.
“We thought we could tie the Jeep history and tie the Jeep legacy into honoring the veterans because they are so intertwined,” Mr. Padden said.
As war spread across Europe and Asia, the U.S. military decided it needed a versatile, all-purpose vehicle.
Ultimately, Willys-Overland was granted the contract to build the vehicle, designated the Willys MB. Troops soon just called them “jeeps” and the name stuck. Willys-Overland copyrighted the Jeep name in 1946.
Willys-Overland built about 360,000 of the vehicles in Toledo during World War II, shipping them all over the world. Jeeps served as troop carriers, gun mounts, reconnaissance vehicles, and makeshift ambulances in every one of the conflict’s theaters.
“This is the car that basically put us on the map,” said Bob Kiss, a 30-year Jeep worker and one of the men who helped restore the Jeep for the memorial. “It’s the vehicle that helped win World War II, and the new vehicle we build now isn’t much different, when they sit side-by-side.”
Indeed, the modern Wrangler that Jeep builds in Toledo draws heavily from the original Willys MB.
The 1942 Willys MB now on display outside the plant was found in Texas by Jerry Huber, a former Toledo plant manager. Chrysler purchased the Willys for $950. The seller agreed to truck it to Toledo in exchange for a tour of the plant. Mr. Padden said the seller had received other offers, but pulled the online advertisement upon hearing that Chrysler wanted to use the vehicle as part of a veterans’ memorial.
The Jeep was delivered to the plant two weeks ago. Mr. Padden recruited some employees to see if they thought they could patch it up and restore it to look like it did when it rolled off the line 72 years ago.
“They kinda walked around it and said this is going to take a little bit of time,” Mr. Padden said Friday. “And I said, ‘Well, I was thinking Memorial Day weekend.’ They looked at me and just smiled.”
The men didn’t actually start working on it until May 12. They finished the work Wednesday, nine days later.
“We were told to make it a display model from 50 feet,” said Scott Hinkle, who has worked at Jeep for 30 years. “When we were done, it got a thumbs up and it looks good from 10 feet. It’s a wonderful display memorial for our vets. It’s great. It’s an honor to do it.”
Mr. Hinkle said he has had family working at Jeep and its predecessors in Toledo uninterrupted since 1923. He also has family ties to the military.
“I have to honor my father-in-law who had worked here, as well as served in World War II, and then my son-in-law just got out [of the military] recently. He served five years in the Marine Corps,” he said.
As a static display, the Jeep doesn’t run, but looks true to its history. Workers in the plant fixed what they could, fabricated what they couldn’t, and got help from Painters Supply & Equipment Co. to mix the flat olive-drab paint.
Other employees donated a gas can, shovel, ax, and tires to get the Jeep up to military specs. Workers at the plant also cut out six metal silhouettes of soldiers to surround the vehicle, and they spruced up a sign that was already outside the plant.
“It was a full complex effort to get ready for Memorial Day,” Mr. Padden said.
Chrysler invited several veterans to attend the dedication, including twins Lewis and Leroy Woggon. The 87-year-olds both were hired into the plant in 1943. Three months later they were drafted into the Army. After the war ended and they were discharged, they returned to Toledo and went back to work on the auto line. Leroy Woggon retired in 1989. Lewis worked until 1994.
Veterans still have a strong presence in the plant. The United Auto Workers’ veterans’ committee chairman estimated that of the plant's 5,000-plus employees, 600 workers have served in the military. Since the United States sent troops into Afghanistan in 2001, workers at the plant have worn red every Friday in a show of support.