More than 1,000 antique tractors were displayed at the 2017 Midwest Old Threshers Reunion. But only one served as a memorial to American military veterans. Had it been left original, the 1951 Farmall Model M would be lucky to get a second look. Fully restored to like-new condition, it might have caused a few onlookers to slow their pace.
But clad in a fresh coat of gleaming black paint and bearing the names of Iowa’s POW/MIA soldiers from the Vietnam era, the Model M commanded attention.
The tractor was a summer project for three Iowa teenagers. Classmates A.J. Killen, Dakota Buchanan and Cole Wilson, all 17 and all of Carlisle, Iowa, joined forces on what would be their first solo restoration.
When Mike Killen, A.J.’s dad, bought the tractor at an auction, he had a donor tractor in mind. The Farmall was not, perhaps, the best candidate for restoration. It showed more than a little wear, and its head gasket was blown. But then the kids got involved, and everything changed.
The boys spent a day putting on a new head. When they got it running again, on July 3, they celebrated by entering the Farmall in the local July 4 parade. “The tractor was red on the Fourth of July,” A.J. says. “We finished it just before the Warren County fair at the end of July.”
Honoring their service
The Farmall then began to take shape as a memorial to Iowa soldiers identified as POW/MIA from the Vietnam War. It was no random decision. Mike’s cousin, John D. Killen, was 19 in 1967 when he was reported missing during active duty in Vietnam. Mike conducted research and came up with a list of Iowa soldiers still unaccounted for from the Vietnam War, and the decision was made to paint the list of 24 names – and that of John Killen – on the tractor.
And so the tractor was painted black. Decals representing all branches of the armed services were applied. At some point, the project took on unique symbolism. “We went to a car show, and there was a car there that was signed by people from all over the country,” Cole says. “That’s what gave us the idea.”
The idea? Inviting all veterans to sign their names on the tractor. “We just wanted to do something to honor all veterans from all wars,” Mike says.
At Mt. Pleasant, men stopped as they saw the tractor and began to process what they were seeing. “They’d come look at it and sign it,” Cole says, “and then they’d come back later with their family and take pictures.” They read the names of the POW/MIAs; they read the signatures. “Some of them recognized some of the names,” A.J. says.
For three Iowa youths, each just a couple years younger than some of the soldiers on the POW/MIA list, a summer project evolved into something far bigger than an antique tractor. “We wanted to build something with purpose,” Cole says. “This really puts a name behind each veteran.” A.J. waited his turn, but there was clearly something on his mind.
“It’s about everybody,” he says.
Case tractor designed for USAF use
The Farmall wasn’t the only tractor displayed at Mt. Pleasant with ties to the armed forces. Eric Hosette, Charlotte, Iowa, showed a 1972 Case 570 military tug presumably used to move aircraft at an air base. “It has an air brake system,” he says, “so it could be used to hook up to planes and move them around.”
Its working years remain a mystery, but Eric can account for at least two decades of the tractor’s life. “My granddad bought it at an Iowa Army surplus sale,” he says, “and he owned it for 20 years.” When his granddad’s collection was sold, Eric lost track of the unique tractor. A year ago, he tracked it down and bought it.
Built to military specifications and badged with military tags, the Case has a heated cab, power steering and a 4-cylinder gas engine. It is equipped with trailer plugs.
When Eric’s granddad restored the piece, he painted it military green. In the process, the original lettering (USAF SAC Air Force 1070 T20) was retained. Today, the tractor’s original yellow paint (“Maybe that made it easier to see on an air base,” Eric speculates) shows through in places.
Early this year, Eric finished rewiring the entire tractor. Next up: a new coat of green paint, new tires and a little machine work.
Natural Symbol for the Engineer Battalion
Originally purchased by the state of Iowa to push snow at the state capitol in Des Moines, a 1928 Caterpillar 2-ton crawler now pulls duty only on warm summer days when it rumbles through the grounds of the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion during parades.
The crawler is also used to expand awareness of the Guard Engineers. Volunteers in the Iowa National Guard, 224th Engineer Battalion of Southeast Iowa, restored the relic in the late 1970s. It has been used since then to represent the Engineer battalion in parades and public events.
LaPlant-Choate Mfg., Cedar Rapids, Iowa, built the unit’s left-angle blade. The blade is suspended from the front of the tractor, but push beams run full length underneath to the drawbar pin, the reverse of a horse pushing a wagon while walking in front. When new, the 2-ton sold for $1,850 (the rough equivalent of $26,000 today).
Jeep promotes veterans memorial
Paul Reese served just two years in the Army, but that service left a profound impression. Several years ago, he outfitted a wagon with U.S. and Iowa flags, as well as flags representing all branches of the service. He invited military veterans to sit on benches in the wagon when he pulled it in parades.
Another man might have stopped there. Paul covered the sides of the wagon with displays showing photos of local veterans. Next thing he knew, he’d been put in charge of a permanent display – the Tri-County Veterans Memorial – in Hedrick, Iowa, where he lives. When he got the opportunity to buy a restored jeep, he was in with both feet.
On display at Mt. Pleasant last summer, the fully restored 1956 Willys (serial no. 57548 42097) projected an authentic military presence. In fact, Paul is careful to note, it is not a military unit. “Some of the jeeps Willys produced went to the military,” he says. “Others were sold for civilian use. When this one came off the line, it was not as a military jeep.”
Fully restored and paired with a 1952 Willys 1/4-ton M100 cargo trailer (serial no. 2943), the jeep is nonetheless a compelling visual reminder of the past. “I use it to promote the museum,” Paul says.
The 4-wheel-drive jeep is equipped with a winch and a 4-cylinder Ford engine. The trailer, originally used to carry small supplies like radio equipment, “is a handy little thing,” Paul says, “but it’s miserable to back up.”
Paul’s just had the jeep for a year but when he drives it in parades or puts it on display, he always draws a crowd. “People who served in Korea and Vietnam look at it and start reminiscing,” he says. “They’ll try to get in it, but they learn the same thing I did: We must have been a lot smaller back then. I’d just run up and jump in, but I can’t do that now.”
Paul drove a jeep a few times during his military service, but mostly he drove 5-ton fuel tankers, delivering jet fuel to helicopters. Today, through volunteer work and vintage equipment, he honors America’s veterans. “This is just my contribution to the military,” he says. FC
Leslie C. McManus is the senior editor of Farm Collector. Contact her at LMcManus@ogdenpubs.com.