Jerry Scherer, a veteran of Korea and Vietnam who retired from the Marine Corps as a master sergeant in 1968, turns 87 next week.
He was a mechanic all his life, and a couple of years after his wife died nearly 20 years ago, he bought a 1945 Willys Army Jeep from a friend, thinking he could keep busy restoring it.
There were a few setbacks, though—including two burglaries—and for a while it looked as though he’d never get the job done. That’s when a group of volunteers stepped in to finish the restoration for him.
Jerry doesn’t know it yet, but the completely rebuilt, freshly painted Jeep will be presented to him this Saturday at the Heights VFW. His son, Jerry Jr., told him on Tuesday that it might be ready in a couple of weeks, to preserve the surprise.
If you’re wondering why this story didn’t have a spoiler alert, Jerry Jr. said not to worry: his father doesn’t read newspapers anymore, much less online newspapers.
So, here’s the story. Jerry bought the Jeep from a friend of his who had two of them. It was badly rusted out, so he started by completely disassembling it and bead-blasting the body and the scattered parts. With family friend Darrell Benner ( who was also Jerry Jr.’s shop teacher at Skyview High School), Jerry did all the sheet work to replace parts of the body that were unsalvageable.
It then went to a local painter, who had it for three years. When Jerry finally got it back and had begun to reassemble it, his garage was burglarized and most of the parts were stolen. Many months and thousands of dollars later, all the missing parts had been replaced and repainted.
After the assembly started again, however, it was discovered that the first painter had neglected to prime the metal, and the paint was already flaking off. That led to another disassembly and another round of bead blasting.
And then another interruption. Three years ago, Jerry Jr. asked his father to watch his son, Riley, who is now 13, while Jerry Jr. went to work. When he dropped his son off at his father’s house—in the far northeast corner of the Heights, where he has lived since 1971—he left them with a movie he rented, a documentary called “Chosin.”
Jerry knew that his father had fought at the battle of Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, but he didn’t know many details. Like so many combat veterans, particularly veterans of the worst fighting in the Korean War, when 15,000 U.S. troops fought their way through 120,000 Chinese troops in bitterly cold weather, Jerry rarely spoke of his experiences.
When Jerry Jr. returned home, Riley delivered a short verdict: “Grampa didn’t like that movie.”
At the end of it, though, there was information about a program being offered through the government of South Korea, in which U.S. veterans of the Korean War were invited to go back and visit the scenes of their service. When Jerry Jr. broached the subject with his father, he said, “At first he said, ‘No, no way.'”
He eventually relented and Jerry Jr. accompanied his father to Korea later in 2014. The Korean government paid for half of Jerry’s airfare and a third of his son’s, and once they were in Korea everything was paid for. They spent five days there, visiting Inchon, where the Marines landed; the capital, Seoul; the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea; and a few other places.
On the trip, Jerry Jr. said, his father met one other survivor of Chosin, those soldiers and Marines known ever after as “The Chosin Few.”
“He walked up and said, ‘So, you made it out, too.’ My dad said, ‘Yep.’ And that’s all they said to each other.”
Elsewhere on the trip, fortunately, his father was a little more talkative. On the drive from Seoul to the DMZ, the government paired each veteran with a South Korean college student, so the veterans could talk about their experiences in the war and the students could tell them about life in contemporary Korea.
Jerry Jr. said his father really opened up to the student.
“I learned more from that conversation than I learned in the rest of my life,” Jerry Jr. said.
Jerry was his old reticent self on Tuesday, when he spoke briefly about his time in Korea. He mostly wanted to talk about his recent visit there, and about the time he spent there in the early 1960s, as an adviser to a tank battalion of the South Korean Army. During the war he had been a gunnery sergeant, and his references to Chosin were few.
“The stupid Chinese came in at the Chosin Reservoir,” he said at one point, before stopping, smiling slightly and adding, “and they weren’t very nice.” Of the terrible cold he said only, “I’m still paying for that, in my feet.”
Later on, as a master sergeant, he served in Vietnam, in maintenance, before retiring from the Marines in 1968.
But back to that father-son trip to Korea: On their way home, at the airport in Seattle, Jerry Jr. took a phone call from his sister, who had some bad news. The garage had been broken into again. Fewer parts were stolen this time, but Jerry lost more time replacing them, time he was running out of.
Somewhat more than a year ago, it became obvious that with his deteriorating health, Jerry wouldn’t be able to do any more work on his beloved Jeep. He son mentioned the situation on Facebook, wondering if there was anybody who could help, and he reached out to a friend, Vernon Ball, the owner of the Tint Factory and president of the Magic City 4×4 Club.
Ball and his club willingly took on the project, and they soon received help from another local 4×4 club, the Rimrockers. Ball said he “was never raised patriotic” himself, but he realized how important it was to honor people like Jerry, who had done so much and asked so little.
The volunteers were making good progress anyway, but they went into high gear a month ago, when Jerry has some medical problems and club members felt a sense of urgency. They just got the Jeep running this past weekend, and all that remains now is a bit of detail painting.
One Magic City 4×4 member, Brian Casteel, said he was moved by a story Ball told at the last club meeting: “On the day that his son was going to take him to Vern’s shop to see the progress,” Casteel said, “Jerry was awake, shaved, dressed and had eaten breakfast, sitting on the edge of his bed waiting … at 6:30. They were supposed to be there at 10 a.m.”
So. yeah, Jerry is a bit excited to see his completed Jeep. And this Saturday at 3 p.m., though he doesn’t know it, he’ll get that chance.
What happens then?
“I’ll drive it some, but not much,” he said.