Fate and a Navy Secret

Categories: Jeep® Life 

By: Nicholas Oxender

old model jeep vehicle

My addiction started when I was 17. I was looking online to buy upgrades for my remote control Axial SCX10, and had about $500 worth of parts picked out. It seemed insane to spend that much money on a remote control Jeep® vehicle when I could just buy a real one. I’ve always been both a vintage and military vehicle enthusiast, so naturally I gravitated towards the Willys Jeep® SUVs. Soon enough I bought a cheap project 1949 CJ3A and ended up restoring it to a WWII tribute before leaving to college. It’s lightweight and nimble and has been on just about every trail in Indiana. Since then I’ve added more to the collection – and rescued dozens of others from premature graves in farmers’ fields.

This episode of my adventure started in 2016 when I posted an ad for a local Willys Jeep® brand vehicle club. I was looking for additional members to go trail riding with. To gain attention, I placed the ad in the vehicle classifieds for a large buy/sell website. Quite a few people contacted me. One sent a simple email, asking “Do you also buy Jeep® vehicles?” After further contact I learned two brothers were selling the remains of their father’s estate. It included Willys that were scattered across multiple Indiana counties. It was close to the college where I was then a freshman, so I drove over. Just a couple months prior I completed my first Willys restoration and was looking for more entertainment.

The Adventure Begins

I hooked up the trailer and headed to a farm outside Indianapolis. The first brother was an upstanding guy. He sold me a 1947 CJ2A vehicle chassis in less than respectable condition. But the golden ticket was a true WWII Willys MB. And it ran. As the father wasn’t very organized, I was asked to the house to help search through paperwork to find the title. I found some old Jeep® Brand literature, an old government document, and finally the title. I took the title and left the rest.

old model jeep vehicle

Fast forward a month. My buddy Hugh, a collector of WWII Jeep® vehicles ended up buying the project off me since I couldn’t responsibly afford the work it needed. I regretted selling this for a long time, but it’s in a great home. Anyways, the second brother texted me a picture of some old WWII paint he presumed was for the Jeep® vehicle. I wasn’t interested, nor was Hugh. Although I expressed a lack of interest, he was adamant I should come over to get this paint and look at his shell of a vehicle. This was followed by a picture of what looked like a room full of boxes, but I spotted a CJ grille poking out.

old model jeep vehicle in a shed

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I really wasn’t motivated to go look at it. Anything I purchased had to be hauled four hours back home as I was living in a dorm. Since it had no engine I would have to make another road trip sourcing out parts, and I already had enough projects.

So of course I ended up going.

Discovering a Time Capsule

Looking back, this part was pretty sketchy. The first place I met the guy was an abandoned house in the outskirts of Indianapolis. It was dark, raining and the house barely had electricity. But he brought a mini generator for lights. He pulled out the paint, and surprised me with some authentic WWII Jeep® vehicle wheels. I checked them over, and then headed to his actual home in a much nicer area. On his property was a small barn.

Once again there were no lights, but I was pleased to see the stack of boxes were gone. With some excitement and phone flashlight in hand, I rounded the corner and saw it. This dusty yellow thing on tiny wheels. I didn’t know what it was. In all the hours spent staring at pictures and reading through forums, I had never before come across the logo riveted on the side of this thing. It said “Valentine Welder & Mfg. Co.” Then my eyes darted to a massive mechanism inside the passenger area. It was connected to the original transmission, but I had no idea what it could be. This moment was straight out of a barn finder’s dream.

old model jeep vehicle parts
old model jeep vehicle number

Walking further around the vehicle, I noticed the odd looking hood. On it were carefully stenciled USN hood numbers. It had to be military, but why did it have a CJ grille? The owner had no idea what it was. I was clueless. And we couldn’t seal the deal until next week. I snapped a bunch of pictures and headed back to school. I immediately called Hugh and we speculated about what this yellow relic might be.

old model jeep vehicle operating instructions

Uncovering the Mystery

True to my nature, I spent the next week combing research forums and contacting others who have military vehicles. The only thing I found about Valentine Welder & Mfg. Co was some history on building welders for WWII vehicles.

One individual in particular, Tom, contacted me as he recognized the triangular hood. Tom, who had actually gone to the National Archives to do research, suggested it was used for starting jet-aircraft. You read that right. Essentially, the US used war technology to produce a new wave of planes. The propellers of prior years were out; turbines were in. But these new jets didn’t have onboard starting systems, so a significant external power source was required to drive up to the jet, spin the turbine and drive away. There was a simple answer… surplus military Jeep® vehicles. Thus, the mechanical beast on this thing actually functioned as a driveline for spinning generators. Massive wires were run from the vehicle to the jet, in a process similar to jumpstarting a car. They called these “auxiliary power units.” The 4-wheeled APU’s were used on ground bases, while a fully custom 3-wheeled Jeep® vehicle APU was used on aircraft carriers.

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Two different companies produced these: O.E. Szekely & Associates and Valentine Welder & Mfg. Co. Although there were a handful of Szekely survivors, most of them did not have any indication of actually being an APU aside from a small data plate. The government most likely stripped all their equipment before selling as surplus. This unusual Valentine Jeep® vehicle is the only one I have been able to confirm the existence of, and probably the only 4-wheeler retaining its original generator system.

Tom happened to have just a single document from Valentine. It was a quote from Valentine to the US Navy for building just 75 of these units. The barn find could be a 1 of 75.

certificate of release of motor vehicle

Closing the Deal

It hit me like a ton of bricks – there was a government document at the first brother’s house. I had to get back to Indianapolis to get the document I had left behind. This was authentic military with original paint. Something preserved of this caliber is almost a fairy tale. It may be in the top handful of preserved military vehicles of this era. I didn’t know how Valentine Welder was involved. I didn’t even have money to buy it. To make the deal happen, Hugh agreed to purchase the WWII wheels and sent me the money prior to pick up. This along with my poor excuse of “savings” was enough to swing it. My family and I ended up rescuing the jet-starter on the way to a trail-riding event. The government document I previously skipped past was indeed the original surplus release paperwork for my very Jeep® vehicle. This document is essentially priceless. On the 25th of March 1962 it was sold from Norfolk, VA Navy base to Henry Reitsman of Lafayette, IN.

old model jeep vehicle in a garage

The World Tour

I immediately posted a thread on the forum about this fantastic find, and its historical significance to our community. The next months were a blur of more research, phone calls and the APU being featured in a magazine and a calendar. It was unbelievable how I uncovered such a unique vehicle and how interested others were in learning about it. Soon enough summer hit and it was time to go on a little tour. An upcoming vintage Willys show was pretty close to home, and it was the second week of summer vacation. Cue a relentless week of working around the clock to make this vehicle run, drive, and stop for the first time in 54 years. I rebuilt the driveline, brakes, and installed an engine. It was looking pretty grim and I was worried about finishing in time for the show.

old model jeep vehicles in storage

Friday came and the to-do list still felt endless, but I somehow drove it into the trailer around 9 pm. I can’t even remember what time I arrived to the hotel Saturday morning. To say I was exhausted was an understatement. I woke up to my phone vibrating wildly. It was Hugh repeatedly calling me, presumably since I didn’t answer the first dozen times. Everyone wanted to know where in the world was the kid with that Navy Jeep® vehicle. That day I set a record for my morning routine. I dashed out of the hotel and headed towards the enclosed trailer. As I dropped the door and backed it out, an amazed crowd formed as the APU showed itself to the world. My life peaked right there.

man standing next to old model jeep vehicle

After my infamous world tour of two shows, this one and one in Ohio, I spent more time researching. Tom deserves most the credit for finding information and bringing owners together. He purchased one of the Szekely APUs years prior and was in a similar situation. In addition to the National Archives he had scoured USN/USAF museums across the country. We had little information on Szekely, and essentially nothing on Valentine. I had to be creative. Rather than directly looking for APU history, the key was to research the jets themselves. APU’s would pop up in the background sitting on aircraft carriers or in magazines of the era. We knew enough to realize just how special this vehicle is. But we didn’t really know how much until 2018.

photos of old model jeep vehicles

Family History

One day an guy was sitting at his desk, staring at his nametag and wondering what family history could be found online. He searched “Valentine,” and my thread popped up from the forum. The grandson of Valentine Welder & Mfg. Co.’s founder began reading my story. He was amazed not only about the family history, but how the community cared so much. He searched through his mother’s house and found all the remaining company archives. He gifted me all the service manuals, photos, contract information, and all other business documents. These are files that only the company had access to, and would have never been found anywhere else. Not only did I somehow end up with this extinct Navy Jeep® vehicle, but the whole string of events is nearly supernatural.

old model jeep vehicle book

One Last Surprise

There was one more hidden surprise. All of the documents are fragile and require a specialist to digitally scan. Although I am preparing to have this done, one late night I just had to peek into the original service manual. There was a side shot of one showing its hood numbers. I thought it was pretty neat, and then I thought they looked familiar. Quickly I pulled up a detailed photo of my hood and looked closely. It was repainted at one time during its service. A set of hood numbers were barely visible in the paint. Sure enough… they matched the one in the service manual. My 1 of 75 only known survivor is the very one in the manual. I about fell out of my chair.

old model jeep vehicle

Since then I have exhausted historic internet forum posts as research looking for other APUs. I came across a post from about 10 years ago, and, amazingly, was able to reach out to the owner through the ten year old post and get a second Valentine APU. Not 1 of the 75, but one of the 3-wheelers used on aircraft carriers. It is also in original paint, possibly unlike any other 3-wheeler survivor in the world, and retains most of its generator systems. I even found a picture of it onboard the USS Guadalcanal LPH-7. My APU and the company archives may be the only survivors of their kind. But that won’t stop me from continuing the search.

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