It has taken three years for Keenan Akin to painstakingly transform a deteriorated hunk of rusted metal into a rebuilt World War II vintage 1944 Willys Jeep.
After purchasing the old parade Jeep from an American Legion Post in Indiana, Akin hauled it to his garage in Marthasville. He disassembled everything, tracked down parts, rebuilt the engine, replaced rusted floors, fabricated new parts and eventually restored the Willys to its original state.
"It was a tremendous feeling of accomplishment," said Akin. "It was kind of like having a kid."
Although Akin never served in the armed forces, his job as an aerospace engineer with Boeing gives him the satisfaction of supporting the military in another way. Akin is responsible for aircraft/carrier suitability - making sure military jets are compatible with the ships from which they are transported and launched.
Akin said he was greatly influenced by movies, stories and books about World War II as a child. Interactions with veterans further solidified his passion.
Akin will serve as the guest speaker at next Thursday's Veterans Day ceremony at the American Legion Post 180 Hall north of Marthasville. His rebuilt Jeep will also be on display. The service is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m.
His love for World War II history includes dressing in Army green and hauling his Jeep to area reenactments as a member of Company H, 334th Infantry Regiment, 84th Infantry Division re-enactment group, known as the Railsplitters (www.railsplitterslivinghistory.org.).
"The veterans come with their grandkids, pointing out the kind of weapons they carried or the vehicles they rode on," said Akin. "When we meet somebody from the division we represent I think they appreciate the fact that we try to be accurate."
"This is living history," said Akin. "I want to preserve history, to honor what they did. There is something really special about our World War II vets. They grew up in the Depression and forged a certain personality. We are obligated to remember and respect those who went before us."
As a teenager, Akin spent time under the hood of many old cars, learning restoration skills from his dad. A generation later, while watching her dad rebuild the Willys, Akin's daughter Molly discovered that she, too, had a desire to capture and preserve moments of history for the next generation.
Molly studies fashion design in college and has a real appreciation for World War II era clothing. When she teams up with her dad, she dresses as a WAC (Women's Army Corps). She also brings along a handmade period dress and participates in World War II Air Force commemorative hangar dances where swing dance is all the rage.
"It's the best way to spend time with my dad," she said. "I saw my dad participate in a Walk Back Through Time event when I was in high school. They were living something that had already happened just so people could see it. I was so impressed by it."
Molly said she is proud to represent the more than 150,000 women who served as WACs. She said their service was a defining moment in history for her gender.
Akin participates in the Jefferson Barracks World War II weekend held the last weekend each April. It is the largest event held in the St. Louis area and has a 30-year history.
There are three choreographed battle re-enactments open to the public. More than 450 re-enactors come from many different states and bring their memorabilia with them.
"Some privately own tanks," he said. "No kidding. They haul them in on semis."
The tactical portion of the weekend is not open to the public. Akin said participants can get a little taste of what it was like to serve in the military at that time in history. The event is not choreographed - "everything changes on the fly," he noted.
"I have spent a lot of freezing nights in a tent," said Akin. "I find myself just wishing I was home. But you can experience a real subtle thing - just a taste of what they experienced."
Akin admits his hobby is not inexpensive. The GI outfit complete with equipment and a weapon is costly. Add in all the final touches for the Jeep - radio system, field phone, tent, sleeping bag, shovel, ax, first aid kit - Akin said it has all been worth it.
"I have a lot of respect for what they call The Greatest Generation," said Akin. "They don't consider themselves heroes, but they talk about their buddies who did this other thing - now they were heroes."