WWII Jeep inspires grandson to restore military vehicles

  • Ron Higgins, father of Chris, with grandsons Tyler and Brayden, sits at the wheel of a 1942 Jeep, ready to drive in the Hubbardston Memorial Day parade. Note wire cutter on the front. Photo/carole Gariepy

  • Chris Higgins holding the book his grandfather wrote about his World War II experiences and the German knife from the soldier he captured. Contributed photo

For the Athol Daily News
Published: 6/29/2022 9:40:25 AM
Modified: 6/29/2022 9:40:23 AM

BARRE — Many people have a story to tell. Some machines have a story to tell, too. This 1942 Army Jeep has an important one, and it’s told by Chris Higgins of Barre who collects and restores old military vehicles.

It’s the Jeep his grandfather, Kim Packard, drove from France to Belgium to Germany in World War II when his 69th Army Division participated in major war campaigns from 1942 to 1945. It’s one of the most famous vehicles of the war; some say it’s the vehicle that won the war. It was tough and adaptable for many purposes — communications, supplies, scouting, ambulance, transporting explosives, carrying staff from place to place. Kim Packard drove Lt. Ray Lottie from Le Havre, France to Germany, where the war ended. (On one mission, Kim captured a German soldier and took his knife. He brought the knife home and used it as a letter opener. Chris still uses it for that purpose.)

Grandfather Packard was very influential in Chris’s life. Chris was born in 1976, and from the time he was young, the 1942 Jeep his grandfather acquired after the war was a big part of his life. Chris remembers scraping paint alongside him when he was 10, and as they worked together through the years, Gramp talked about his Army adventures. He was proud of his service to his country and the stories expressed his strong patriotic dedication. Chris said he proudly wore his veteran’s hat all his life.

Gramp passed away in 2020 at age 94 but his meticulously restored Jeep lives on. Gramp lived with Chris for two years near the end of his life and the Jeep moved there too, where it is still in Chris’s garage.

Chris planned to have a military career. He was company commander of the ROTC unit when he was at Quabbin Regional High School and he earned the Boy Scout rank of Eagle Scout, two experiences that would help prepare him for a military career. However, an accident on an ATV made it change direction.

Chris became wheelchair-bound. Did it shatter this young man’s life? No. His grandfather’s passion became his passion. He could honor veterans and preserve history by continuing the work his grandfather started, restoring military vehicles. It’s work he finds both challenging and enjoyable.

“I like to be moving,” Chris said. “When someone just sits around, they lose quality of life. I like to challenge myself. When something is difficult, I say to myself, ‘I got to figure out a way.’ I’m probably the only person in the world in a wheelchair who’s put a rear axle in a half track.” (A half track is a huge tank-like vehicle with a massive rear axle.)

He enthusiastically showed Gerry and me the workshop and pointed out interesting features on the Jeep we never would have seen. Notice the tall steel structure mounted on the front. It’s a wire cutter. If the enemy strings wire across a road, it could decapitate soldiers driving by in a Jeep. The hook on the top has a strong knife that would cut the wire. Another thing no one notices is the fancy F on every part, even on each bolt. It stands for Ford. Henry Ford wanted the world to know he made that vehicle. (No cars were produced during the war. All efforts went to helping the military.)

After visiting with Chris, I’m reminded of Franklin Roosevelt and his crippling from polio. Who would think a man, wheelchair bound, would become President, be elected four times, lead us through the country’s worst depression, and strongly keep us united during a world war? And, who would think a young man, wheelchair bound, would choose to restore military vehicles to build patriotic spirit, would manage real estate properties, and would serve as Vice President of Higgins Energy Alternatives, a business that sells wood and gas stoves, and sporting vehicles such as ATVs and motorcycles? A full life for both Roosevelt and Chris. Attitude makes the difference.

This 1942 Jeep that made a difference in the war across Europe made a difference in Chris’s life. Someone or something that makes a difference in the world or in someone’s life is a hero. This Jeep was a hero in war and in peace. Honor it when you see it in parades.

Occasional columnist Carole Gariepy of Phillipston has written seven books, all nonfiction. In her younger years, she was a teacher.

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