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Toledo’s tribute to vets, Jeeps

by David Zatz on

On Memorial Day, Jeep’s Toledo Assembly Complex (TAC) unveiled its own tribute to veterans. Vice President of Assembly Operations Zach Leroux, Toledo Plant Manager Chuck Padden, UAW Local 12 Chairman Mark Epley, employees, and five veterans with ties to the plants, including three retirees who served in World War II, dedicated a permanent veteran’s memorial in the shadow of the giant Jeep® sign at the intersection of I-75 and I-280.

Toledo Jeep war veterans memorial


Incorporating a restored 1942 Willys Military Jeep, the memorial recognizes  the service of those in uniform and the city’s nearly 75-year history of building Jeep vehicles. Mr. Padden said, “Like all Americans, we owe our freedom to the sacrifices made by the men and women who serve in the military, but at Jeep, we owe our very existence to our WWII veterans. When they returned home from the war, they purchased civilian versions of the Jeep vehicles they learned to depend upon in the war.  These heroes became our first Jeep enthusiasts.  Without them, we would not be here today. … Some of the people who currently work in this plant and some who helped refurbish this 1942 Jeep are descendants of those who possibly built this very vehicle.”

Plant management and the local UAW leadership agreed that the best way to honor veterans and the plant’s Jeep history was to find a military Jeep to restore and put on permanent display. With the help of former Toledo plant manager Jerry Huber and a Craig’s List ad, the 1942 Willys was found in Wimberley, Texas. When the owner heard that the Jeep plant in Toledo wanted the vehicle to put on display, he immediately pulled the ad, sold it to the plant for $950, and volunteered to transport the non-running vehicle to Toledo in exchange for a tour.

The Willys returned home on May 9, and restoration work began on May 12. A team of about 15 Toledo employees worked for a week and a half, replacing parts, refurbishing body panels, and painting. Because all of the vehicle identification plates and hood graphics had been removed, its exact history can’t be determined, but it was probably built in mid-1942.

The memorial also includes silhouettes of soldiers, created by volunteers from the plant. An assembly employee drew up the soldier outlines and body shop employees cut out the figures, ground the edges, and finished them.

Mr. Epley said, “With nearly 10 percent of our workforce with military experience, plus all of our team members with family members having served or still serving, this memorial is very personal for all of us.”

The number of Toledo employees with a military background has grown by 25% with the launch of the Jeep Cherokee and the recent hiring.

Toledo veterans

Twins Lewis and Leroy Woggon, 87, were hired by the Jeep plant in 1943. Three months later, they were drafted into the Army, and eventually served as combat engineers for three years, returning to work at the Jeep plant after they were discharged. Leroy retired in 1989 after 45 years with Jeep, but brother Lewis stayed on five more years, retiring in 1994. Leroy’s son Gary has been working at Jeep since 1983; Lewis’s son and grandson both retired from the Jeep plant.

John Smith served in the Army Infantry from 1945-1946. He was hired by Jeep in 1947 and spent the next 40 years building Jeep vehicles before retiring in 1985.

Toledo Jeep war veterans memorial

Ron Szymanski retired from the Jeep plant in 1998 following 35 years working in body, paint, and assembly, and acting as the Jeep museum curator. Szymanski served in the Army National Guard from 1950-1955, then went to Officer Candidate School, and was honorably discharged in 1960 as a first Lieutenant Army Reserve Officer.

Lupe Flores, the 90-year-old cousin of Jeep retiree Hector Flores who serves on the Jeep Veterans Committee, served with the Army 101st Airborne from 1943-1946. He was involved in the D-Day Invasion in Normandy, and took part in two combat jumps during his time with the Army.

Jeep in Toledo

In 1940, officers in the United States Army, realizing the need for a new type of fast, lightweight, all-terrain reconnaissance vehicle, put out bids for a design. They selected Toledo-based Willys-Overland’s design (based heavily on American Bantam’s original prototypes), and production began in late 1941; 363,000 were built in Toledo through the end of the war in 1945. Officially known as the Willys MA (followed by a revision called the MB), the name “Jeep” is a source of some debate; the term was apparently Army slang as far back as World War I.

The Jeep was an all-purpose vehicle and served in every theater of the war. It was used as a staff car, pickup truck, ambulance, reconnaissance vehicle, machine gun mount, ammunition bearer and a troop carrier.

After the war, Willys-Overland introduced a version for the general public, adding refined features such as windshield wipers, a tailgate and an outside gas cap. It was called the CJ-2A, with the “CJ” standing for “Civilian Jeep.”  Other Jeep models followed, such as the Wagoneer, a pioneering sport-utility vehicle introduced in 1963. They were also built in Toledo. Jeep’s ownership changed hands several times, with  Chrysler acquiring the brand as part of AMC in 1987.

The Toledo Assembly Complex builds the Jeep Wrangler, Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, and the Jeep Cherokee, with nearly 4,200 employees.

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