Dream Machine

Military wheels help define lives of a window washer under 40 and a WWII doc over 80

It was more than five decades ago when they cut off Frank Ellis' hair, and they didn't do it to make a fashion statement.

When Ford Motor Company was churning out B-24 bombers instead of automobiles during World War II, Detroit native Ellis was a newly married doctor fresh out of med school with an internship at a local hospital. Nine months later, he found himself mired in the brutal French theater, a battalion surgeon in the 70th Infantry Division. His job was similar to what was required of most physicians on the front lines: to recover casualties and initiate treatment to prevent or minimize shock, and to prepare wounded for transport to safe ground; work as an "overpriced first aid man," witnessing the maiming and death of comrades and friends.

"We had plasma, morphine, splints and dressing," Ellis recalls. "That was all we had to work with. That and minimal medications like aspirin or something for the guy who couldn't poop."

Don Petrone and his 1953 Dodge ambulance.
Paolo Vescia
Don Petrone and his 1953 Dodge ambulance.

The experience didn't expand Ellis' knowledge on medicine as much as it was a crash course on the human condition. Seeing a man "decapitated with his shoulder still hooked on to his head" surely hastened the learning process.

"You don't have to get any closer than that to appreciate not only the futility of war but the horrors of it," he says. "Those ideas don't go away all that rapidly, either."

He learned to differentiate between the genuine personality of a person and a persona. He learned to trust his instincts about people.

"The guy who came in saying he was gonna kill every German in the place ended up thinking that over again once he found out how tough they were," he says. "Often they were the first ones to cave in. He would be the guy hiding in the corner and forgetting to pull on the trigger . . . just like the kid in Saving Private Ryan. There's that point where you are overwhelmed with fear. I think everyone has a level of fear they can tolerate without breaking up, but everybody also has the capacity to collapse if that level is exceeded. I know I was damn scared. And not just some of the time, but most of the time."

Ellis is one of two WWII vets who belong to the Arizona Military Vehicle Collectors Club. At 85, he's its eldest member. He's still with the same woman he married in his med-school days. In June, the couple celebrates its 60th wedding anniversary. He's soft-spoken, articulate and spry. Others in the club use "tireless" and like synonyms to describe him. He's a voracious reader, a habit that's reflected in the sharpness of his observations.

Growing up, Ellis says he was always interested in the mechanical, particularly the automobile. "I must have a little bit of rust in my oil or grease in my veins."

In high school, Ellis and a buddy fabricated a replica of a World War I truck. The two got hold of a '27 Buick and began the transformation process. The end result was nothing like they had imagined, or hoped. "We had some fun with it until this other kid pushed it out of the garage, put it in gear, and got it going. The damn thing went sailing across the street and plowed into the front yard of this neighbor's house. Nobody got hurt, but we just about got put in chains for that."

A decade ago, Ellis found the Jeep of his dreams, a 1943 Willy. The guy who sold it to him had unearthed it in a Midwestern junk yard.

Ellis meticulously restored the classic Jeep to pristine condition. He purposely made it a replication of the one he was assigned during the war, complete with accurate number schemes and traditional medic colors.

Ellis has restored other cars, too, most of which he's had to give up. In exchange for the Jeep, he parted ways with a 1911 Buick and a 1930 Packard. "When I decided I wanted a Jeep, my wife said I had to sell two autos for every one I wanted to buy!" He pauses, lowers his voice, and says, "It's because they won't fit under the bed, you know."

Lately, there is a problem. Ellis' Jeep won't start, not even to get it across town for a photo shoot.

"The damn thing won't run," he explains. "I tried to start it today, and man, it doesn't like the idea of getting up to go like it used to. I have to tear it apart one of these days and get after it.

"I'm kinda pissed off with the Jeep," he adds, laughing. "I may not even talk to it this week."

Ellis, like many members of the vehicle club, may bestow his Jeep with personification, but that doesn't mean he sees military vehicle shows as a way to coat grim periods in history with a celebratory sheen. He understands them as a tribute of sorts, part of the overall necessity for younger generations to see a connection between what's old and what's new.

"Anything that has historical value, no matter what it is, if some of these things aren't saved and preserved and either put away and kept for others, younger people are never gonna have any concept of what they were like," he says. "As a means of being able to touch something, and see things that others had to contend with, that to me is one of the most fantastic parts of this whole thing.

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