Vietnam veteran drives back in time with vehicle preservation group
If you're traveling near a Starbucks in Wilsonville early in the morning, you might spot a man driving a military vehicle next to you. Don't be alarmed. Dennis Weehunt, who lives across the street from Charbonneau, is likely just meeting his friends for coffee.
"I enjoy driving it," he said. "I drive it as much as I can when the weather is nice."
Weehunt rode the M151 Jeep during his time as a mechanic in the Vietnam War. And after purchasing a worn-down replica, he restored the vehicle with modern parts. Then, in August and September, he drove the vehicle across about 30 towns in the western United States with the Military Vehicle Preservation of Oregon.
For Weehunt, who received little acknowledgement for his service to his country upon returning from Vietnam, the trip was therapeutic.
"I had a lot of pride in what I had done and my service, and every time I take it (the Jeep) to a show I get rewarded by the fact that people would come up and thank me for my service," Weehunt said. "That's been the biggest reward, to have people acknowledge Vietnam."
After discovering his knack for handiwork during shop classes in high school, Weehunt served in Vietnam from 1971 to 1972 as a mechanic, where he fixed self-propelled artillery, sent supplies to bases throughout Vietnam, and braved monsoons and the horrors of war.
"Our convoys were always dangerous," he said. "It wasn't a real safe time."
After that, Weehunt spent his career as a millwright and also fixed old cars and hot rods like his classic '55 Chevrolet.
"I never really thought about doing a military vehicle until two years ago," he said.
Weehunt found out about the Military Vehicle Preservation Association of Oregon at a car show in Portland.
Once he learned about the group's convoys across the country with restored military vehicles, he bought an M151 on Craigslist and went to work. Weehunt took apart the transmission, suspension components and "every nut and bolt" and replaced them with newer parts. He says it took him eight months of long hours to restore the vehicle. Now, he said it rides better than ever.
"I wanted it to be as good as a new one," he said. "The ones I was on in Vietnam were pretty well used, so this one is like what a new one would have been."
The group traveled across the old Lincoln Highway System, which runs from New York City to San Francisco and is one of the first transcontinental roadways for automobiles.
"This was the 100th anniversary of the first military vehicle convoy where (President) Eisenhower was a young officer and he headed up this convoy with other individuals," Weehunt said. "They were trying to find the quickest route to move military vehicles from one post to another."
While some of his companions started in York, Pennsylvania, Weehunt met up with the group in Laramie, Wyoming. For about a month, Weehunt traveled in his Jeep with roughly 40 other veterans manning military vehicles to about 30 places until the final stop in San Francisco.
Weehunt was heartened by the adulation the group received as they chugged triumphantly through small towns.
"The schools would let all the kids out, and they would be lined up on each side of the road with American flags and cheering us," he said. "It was like the welcome home that I never got."
Weehunt also was moved by a ceremony to commemorate the victims of the 9/11 attacks in Fallon, Nevada, and enjoyed spending the night on a World War II aircraft carrier and trading stories during barbecues with locals throughout the trip. He met veterans who had driven the M151 and family members who were interested in sitting in the vehicle that one of their relatives once manned.
"They were thrilled that they could remember driving it, and I let people sit in my vehicle and get a feel for it," Weehunt said. "I met guys who had driven them in Germany when they were in the military and hadn't driven one or gotten close to one since they were in the military."
Since the trip, Weehunt has put the vehicle on display at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville and the Lewis Army Museum in Washington, helps restore more vehicles at the Oregon Military Museum in Clackamas, and plans to go on another convoy next year.
He also likes joyrides with his grandkids and is motivated to preserve the memory of the war for future generations.
"I enjoy talking to young people about Vietnam and my role in Vietnam and trying to educate them that war is not a good time, but it's serving your country and doing what you've been asked to do," Weehunt said.
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