Some Strata Blue, Some Olive Green
and lots of fun!
The Willys Jeep, the rugged utility vehicles used by the military during World War II, have an enduring place in America’s cultural landscape. That may be because the straightforward functional vehicles remind us of a simpler and heroic time in our history. It may also be because the jeeps were repurposed for civilian use after the war, with the Willys CJ Jeeps (CJ standing for civilian jeep) being the forerunners of the Jeep Wrangler.
When you think of a military service Willys Jeep, you probably have certain image in mind – perhaps a memory of the Willys Jeeps used in the television show M*A*S*H – something open-topped, possibly traversing non-paved ground, something painted olive drab green.
So it may be a surprise to take in the deep sky blue – Strata Blue – of Joe Jones’s Willys Jeep and learned that it has been restored to look like it did during military service – for the Air Force.
“They only painted them blue where you could see it,” says Jones, opening the hood to his restored 1954 CJ-3B, pointing to where, a few inches into the engine compartment, the blue paint stops, revealing olive green. “Underneath the body is green, too.”
Jones is an Air Force veteran, having flown F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers in active duty from 1966 to 1971. When he returned to Blacksburg (where he has been a resident since 1961), he joined the Air Force National Guard and flew large, four-engine C-130s as well as the much smaller Helio Couriers (designed for short takeoff and landing).
After a stint of graduate school at Virginia Tech – during which time he served as Assistant Commandant of the Corps of Cadets (one of the first Air Force veterans to serve in that capacity) – he entered real estate, which was his full-time profession until 2005.
A few years ago, Jones bought the Jeep on Ebay from a man in New Jersey who had performed a frame-off restoration. This jeep is a replica of a vehicle that would have been used by the U.S. Strategic Air Command at Nebraska’s Offutt Air Force Base. Stenciling on the canvas enclosure as well as on the bumper mark the jeep with the designations “SAC” and “Offutt AFB.”
Elsewhere are stenciled instructions and warnings, just like there would have been on a jeep serving on an Air Force base in the 1950s. Inside, you’re told “Max speed on base 25mph,” and “Caution low flying aircraft.” On the jeep’s exterior you see, near the gas tank filler tube, the instructions “No AVGas,” (no aviation gas), and “Caution: Do not overfill – allow for expansion.” Above the tires is stenciled “TP25,” the recommended tire pressure.
According to Jones, a jeep like his would have been used as a “follow-me” vehicle, leading aircraft to their designated parking location. Today, Jones rides the jeep in parades and during warmer months takes it out about once a week. “Sometimes I just drive it around,” usually wearing his flight jacket, he says. “A lot of people will stop me. It stirs up a lot of conversation.”
This Willys Jeep was restored to original specifications with either original parts or replacement parts built to original specifications. The engine is a 4 cylinder, Hurricane F-head, and the transmission is a three-speed.
Jones did add a couple of modern touches – a spray-on bedliner and a roll cage built to allow a seat belt. The roll cage is easily removable. The driver’s side windshield wiper is pneumatically driven; when you accelerate, the wiper’s action slows. The passenger side wiper is hand-activated. The windshield can fold down, and “every now and then when it’s warm out,” Jones will drive it with the windshield down.
He has also added locking hubs to his wheels, which use omnidirectional tires, like those this Willys Jeep would have had in the 1950s, albeit with tires built to today’s standards. “It’s a lot of fun to play with,” he quips.
The jeep does have a narrow wheelbase – 80 inches. “You have to be very careful when driving it, and I pretty much drive it only up to 35 miles per hour.” Jones, a past chairman of the Blacksburg Planning Commission, likes how the jeep connects him not only to his own Air Force service but also to the aviation history of his father and father-in-law.
His father-in law flew Curtiss P-40s with Chennault’s Flying Tigers (who fought with China against Japan during the early years of WWII). His father was in his second year at Virginia Tech and a member of the Corps of Cadets when WWII broke out. During his war service, the elder Jones flew Republic P-47s Thunderbolts and was shot down over Germany.
As a boy, Jones wanted to be like his dad and go to Tech and become a fighter pilot. Unlike his father, who never finished at Tech, Jones was able to complete his time at school and in the Corps. When he was a junior at Tech, preparing to receive his VTCC saber, Joe Jones arranged for his father to receive a saber, too, a saber he never received as an undergraduate because he went away to war. “It was emotional to him,” Jones recalls.
Text by Karl H. Kazaks
Photos by Nathan Cooke