Friday, August 07 2009
EVANSVILLE — After the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945, American soldiers had plenty of time — and an island full of debris — on their hands. So, they fashioned a go-kart using parts from wrecked Japanese vehicles and American planes.
Mike Riefer has the pipes-akimbo contraption on display at the Vanderburgh County fairgrounds as part of the Military Vehicle Preservation Association's international convention.
"You could go around the world, and there's probably nothing else like it. The four-wheel drive, the frame and the transmission come courtesy of the Japanese. The wheels are from our side."
There's just one problem. Riefer is too big to drive it.
"Mario Tucci is the GI who supervised the construction on the island and had it shipped to his native Brooklyn," said Riefer, 54, who is from Owensville, Mo.
"His nickname was Midget. You can't be much more than 5 feet tall and be able to squeeze into the seat and reach the pedals."
The association's get-together continues through Saturday.
At 11:30 a.m. today, a convoy of about 100 vehicles will leave the 4-H Center and travel to Evansville's Riverfront.
This afternoon, several amphibious vehicles will make their way to Newburgh's riverfront for a parade and barbecue at the American Legion. The downriver "swim" back to Evansville will begin around 4 p.m.
Riefer says the go-kart can accelerate up to 60 miles per hour.
"I bought it for $2,500 from a man in Colorado and put it in the back of my pickup. The vehicle is really neat. I don't think I'll ever sell."
Scores of military vehicles are on display, many dating back to World War II. The majority are Jeeps, but there also are cargo trucks, ambulances, tanks, motorcycles and dump trucks on the grounds.
Need a stretcher? They're priced to move on these staging grounds at $45. A mess kit goes for $8. So does a grenade pouch. Fifteen bucks gets you an Airborne scarf.
Jim Martz, 61, of Dayton, Ohio, is a member of the association. The vendor sells everything from vehicle parts to helmets. His priciest item is a $1,200 tool trailer that was used in Vietnam.
"My previous hobbies involved street rods, antique cars and off-road racing, but the military equipment is probably the best thing I've ever become involved with," Martz said, noting that he gets a good bit of his inventory from estate sales. "You meet so many good people."
He nods a greeting to an elderly man with military insignia on his cap.
"One reason I like to do this is because it brings me closer to the veterans who served our country. I thank every one I see and give them a pat on the back. It doesn't matter that I don't know their names. I know what they did."
Brice Bushau of Lexington, Ind., has a 1942 Dodge weapons carrier on display, as well as a 1955 Willys Jeep. The 44-year-old man operates copperplating equipment when he isn't going to military association shows.
"I got my first piece of military equipment — a German bayonet — when I was 5 years old," Bushau said.
"I wanted to join the Marines, but I had too many hip problems."
He has eight weapons from World War II, including machine guns, bazookas and a Browning automatic rifle. For heightened realism, he mounts them on top of sandbags.
"Most are dummies — meaning they won't fire — but the Browning can be locked and loaded. These items are getting harder and harder to find and more expensive. You're gonna pay $2,500 for a dummy 50-caliber weapon and as much as $40,000 for one that's fully automatic and fireable.
"Most people don't know very much about military history, and they don't know what it's like to make sacrifices like our soldiers did. Coming out here gives us a chance to share our knowledge."