Bob Fitts jammed his jeep into gear Monday and began rolling down Rock Island's 18th Avenue. And everybody's right hand reached for their hearts.
Many uniformed police officers and a few older men reflexively saluted as Fitts, in combat fatigues, piloted his Army surplus jeep behind the VFW color guard at the start of Rock Island's Labor Day parade. Fitts kept 13 of these jeeps humming through his year-long service in Korea, replacing busted belts and hoses and retrieving vehicles whose drivers never made it back.
He shared some of those stories as he waved and returned salutes along the two-mile parade route. Fitts bought this old jeep specifically for parade duty.
"My motivation is just to remind people there were real people — we were kids — in the Korean war, a real war that people sometimes forget about."
Army records confirm 206,500 real Americans served in a war that claimed 54,246 American lives. But Fitts' reminder isn't grim. Bouncing down 18th Avenue, this old soldier and his jeep generated applause, smiles and more than a few jaw-drops from kids who weren't quite sure what they were seeing. Fitts equipped this jeep with a machine gun, rifle, and in the glove box, two deactivated hand grenades.
He recalls reacting the same way when he was whisked from his Southern Illinois home to West Coast training, then jammed with 3,000 others on a ship headed for he-didn't-know-what.
"No family. No friends. Just a lot of young guys who had to figure out things for themselves," he recalled through a warm smile aimed at spectators.
Thousands of Quad-Citians have seen this jeep at area parades. He drove it in Milan on Saturday and at least a dozen other Rock Island Labor Day parades. Monday's parade passed a block from his Rock Island home. Dozens of spectators hollered, "Hi, Bob!" as he drove by.
Under the front seat, he keeps a photograph of himself as a 20-something motor pool mechanic in Korea, standing in front of the same kind of jeep that made so many people wave, smile and applaud Monday.