Husband and wife roll back the clock to honor Pearl Harbor Day

  • Stephen and Jeanne Keith stand in front of the Army Jeep they plan on taking from their Pembroke Home to the State House on Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Stephen Keith loads his Jeep into the GMC transport truck the night before his trip to the State House on Thursday. Keith said he plans on arriving at 7 a.m. and will be there until 4 p.m. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Stephen and Jeanne Keith prepare their Jeep to put it into the GMC transport for the trip to the State House. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

Monitor columnist
Thursday, December 07, 2017

You could almost smell the coffee and see the steam rising from the cups.

The image came from Jeanne Keith on a frozen night Wednesday in Pembroke. No actual coffee, mind you. Just a navy blue veil, which draped down her back, and the warmth of a red cross covering the front of her white cap.

She wore a long blue coat, with a Red Cross patch on the right shoulder, and a sweet smile, and her role re-enacting a volunteer gave off a glow of comfort once reserved for desperate fighting men during World War II. In those days, a hot cup of coffee went a long way.

Jeanne will be at the State House on Thursday along with her husband, Steve Keith, who stood beside his wife outside their huge Pembroke barn and also pressed the rewind button, cutting a tall, slender figure in the dark, wearing a garrison cap, a long olive-green wool coat and army boots.

Also there – completing the picture the two will paint Thursday to honor Pearl Harbor Day – was a 1942 Ford GPW Jeep, and a ’43 GMC model CCKW-353 Army truck.

If you pass by and want to learn something about one of the most important days in American history, this couple will help you.

It’s what they do. It’s what they’ve been doing the past five years, what they call a Pearl Harbor re-enactment that includes the clothing, the vehicles and the spirit of that day, when the Japanese caught us off guard and killed more than 2,400 sailors.

“We’ve done it in freezing rain, snow,” Jeanne told me. “But it’s the least we could do for the guys who suffered for us.”

“Keeping history alive so people understand,” Steve explained. “Too many don’t remember.”

He’s a 69-year-old technician who sought to do more than merely read about the war. He wanted to see it, touch it, feel it.

So he bought the 10-wheel truck, once used to transport men and cargo, from the Deerfield Fire Department in 1980 for $525, and the darn thing still runs. It gets about 6 miles to the gallon, and Steve said he’s driven it about 60,000 miles in 37 years.

It has three stick shifts on the floor – “You have to double clutch on every shift,” Steve explained – and a long, worn, holey seat that stretches across the vehicle’s width. It has a .50-caliber machine gun on top, and the bullets to that monster are strung together in the barn, each about 6 inches long and heavy, each looking like it could kill an elephant.

The jeep is Jeanne’s, bought in 2000 for $2,500. It runs, too, and she corrected me when I attached ownership of it to Steve.

Jeanne is a big factor in this scenario, an equal partner. Her father was an assistant cameraman for something called STAGE 5, which made training films during the war for B-29 pilots.

Her grandma Hazel was a volunteer for the Red Cross, and Jeanne had the black-and-white photo to prove it, along with the tiny jacket Jeanne wore as a baby, the one with the parachute-material lining.

But the heavy equipment is what grabs your eye, and Steve has gathered these historic vehicles using what he calls his “secret formula,” one he shared with me.

While the results are startling, immediately giving you the flavor of the 1940s, the procedure to find the jeep and truck and other engine-driven relics he has is really quite simple.

“I pick out a town in New Hampshire that is more of a farming town,” Steve told me. “My friend who is a World War II veteran, he and I go out in the winter time when there are no leaves, and we’ll drive around in one of these towns, and he looks to the right and I look to the left and we look in people’s backyards, and if we find something we’ll stop.”

The Keiths have turned their passion into an educational program beyond their Pearl Harbor tribute. They belong to a club discovered while at a Pease Air Show, and they founded the Merrimack Valley Military Vehicle Collectors.

They roll their machinery in parades, and in fact were part of the recent Christmas parade in Concord last month. They run regular presentations at the veterans home in Tilton, the state veterans cemetery in Boscawen and the Woodman Museum in Dover.

One of their biggest war-related thrills was the time Jeanne drove her mother to Nashua in her jeep, just a week or so after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. There, she met Paul Tibbets, who piloted the Enola Gay when it dropped the first of two atomic bombs on Japan, which led to the end of World War II.

“A thrill to meet him,” Jeanne told me.

You can meet Jeanne and Steve on Thursday, the 76th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.

With little room for error on either side, Steve drove the jeep up two narrow loading ramps and into the back of the truck, where it remained overnight.

He’ll drive the truck to Concord on Thursday, then back the jeep out, positioning the mighty World War II symbols to the left of the Christmas tree.

Jeanne will follow behind the truck in their car – stopping, of course, for coffee on the way.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)