In a cold, dimly lit warehouse in Benjamin, George Stokes shuffles through the darkness gathering tools and parts to continue his work. Finding what he needs, the 78-year-old Orem resident squeezes between the tightly parked steel beasts that make up his growing collection of restored, historic military vehicles and returns to their upkeep.
Stokes’s passion for these iconic jeeps, trucks and a halftrack started in his youth growing up on a ranch in Idaho. Many World War II military trucks and jeeps continued their post-war service on the ranches and farms across America including the Stokes family’s neighbor’s land.
“Tooele, out here, was a big depot, and they surplused thousands of vehicles. Jeeps by the hundreds were sold through there to the local farmers,” said Stokes, who remembered hearing that people could pay a few hundred dollars and drive away in a near perfect or brand new jeep.
“And you can imagine, all the farmers gobbled those up. It was a time that vehicles were really in demand,” Stokes said.
But when the well-used vehicles finally gave in to the wear-and-tear of hard ranch use, or were replaced by modern 4×4 pickup trucks, they made their way to scrap heaps or were abandoned where they broke down.
This is where Stokes found his first command car, as well as the many parts he’s needed to fix up the eight vehicles he’s collected and restored since.
Traveling through Montana in 1989, Stokes spotted by the road a converted 1942 Dodge half ton command car, formally used in the services for heavy duty radio equipment or for a general staff car. Eventually he found the owner, a local sheriff, talked him out of it and cut off the flatbed rear end before bringing the remains home to Utah.
After a few years and a lot of hard work, Stokes completed the restoration of the command car, finding parts where he could, including his old neighbor’s ranch in Idaho, where trucks and jeeps resided in a vehicle graveyard. Traveling there with his son, Stokes remembers the excitement of digging up plenty of what he needed and loading up a flatbed trailer.
“We were pulling stuff out of the mud. Here’s a front end, here’s an axle, here’s a horn … a lot of neat stuff that you just wouldn’t find anywhere,” Stokes said.
It took a lot of searching and a considerable amount of luck to come across the parts needed for each project he has worked on.
“You’re always looking for something that fits on this vehicle,” said Stokes, who has traveled as far as North Carolina for parts.
For the second command car that he restored, Stokes struggled to find a back end. When the farmers got the retired military vehicles after the war, they would chop off the rear end in order to put on a flatbed or hay rack instead. This made finding the rear end of a command car extremely difficult for collectors like Stokes.
“My brother called me from Rexburg, Idaho, and he said, ‘George, there’s a fire burned off some sagebrush out here, and it’s exposed the body of another command car,'” recalls Stokes, who later met his brother to inspect the buried treasure the fire had revealed.
“And gosh, yes, it was a complete half ton command car,” Stokes said. “And the two of them went together almost perfectly, when we slid them together you won’t believe how close they came.”
After four years of work, the second command car, now the fourth vehicle in Stokes’s collection, was completed. Rebuilding the remains took much hard work including heavy lifting, cutting, welding, wiring and maintenance. It’s the kind of work that Stokes is used to and enjoys, after a career as a welding engineer, which followed his service in the Army during the Korean War.
Now at 78 years old, Stokes admits he’s slowed down but doesn’t plan on stopping his work anytime soon.
“He’s someone that has to stay busy; he’s an engineer so he has to be creative,” said Stokes’s wife, Fran. “It gives him a purpose.”
Fran Stokes has happily helped her husband in his hobby over the years, whether it be by upholstering a truck or encouraging him to pick up another vehicle. She’s happy that her husband has a hobby he loves.
“We’re getting another [jeep] in a week. He has to have something, and I’d rather have him here [working] in the garage,” she said.
With much support from his wife and help from fellow members of the American Legion, Stokes keeps the collection in good working order, clean and ready for proud display in parades, at air shows and various other vehicle club meetings.
“We always have an American Legion entry in the parade, and we’ll doll up one of these trucks with all the flags and make them really sharp,” said Stokes, adding that he enjoys displaying the end results of all his hard work.
The response Stokes receives from the viewing public always pleases him. Whether it’s a young kid thrilled by the sight of an old Army jeep, or an old veteran reminded of days gone by, everyone is moved by the sight of Stokes’s convoy.
“The veterans, you can’t believe what they’re response is,” Stokes said, remembering meeting a World War II veteran who drove a halftrack, just like the one Stokes restored, from Normandy to Yugoslavia during the war.
“When he saw the halftrack, and he hadn’t seen one since Normandy on November the sixth 1944, tears rolled down his face,” Stokes said.
Every opportunity to display the vehicles with fellow American Legion members — dressed in uniform — behind the wheel, is reward enough for Stokes. Thinking back to the warmer days of summer, festivals and parades, Stokes remembers the last convoy he led through Spanish Fork.
“I was one proud turkey. We’ve done a lot of fun things with those vehicles. I can honestly say that it’s been a real enjoyment for me in having this hobby,” he said.
But for now, in the cold of winter with summer parades months away, Stokes works hard at maintaining the historic treasures stored carefully away in the dark.