A ride to remember: Jeep brings back memories for Korean War vet

Lance Shearer
Correspondent

Don Podany recently took a ride in a 1948 Willys Jeep and had a great time. Seventy years ago, another Jeep ride didn’t go as well.

Podany, 92, has lived on the Isles of Capri for 30 years, but in 1950 and ’51 he was in Korea, a corporal and a combat medic with the 24th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. Delivering plasma to a forward aid station in the dark, without lights, his Jeep drove over a land mine in the road, which exploded and flipped over on top of him.

“The Jeep was sliding upside down down the side of the mountain” with him underneath, said Podany. Soldiers heard the mine detonate, found Podany, and were able to rescue him from underneath. And he kept on with his mission.

“When they finally got me out, the only thing that hurt was my jaw. It’s a miracle. Nothing was left of the Jeep and I survived. I found a 4x4 truck and loaded it with more plasma and went back to the forward aid station,” said Podany in the handwritten notes he made shortly afterwards and has preserved.

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You can see how the sight of a Korean War vintage Jeep would resonate with Podany, even in the absence of war zone, hills and land mines. So, when he saw Dominic Sergi driving around Marco, then pulling into a doctor’s office, he was intrigued and approached Sergi.

“He said, ‘I’ve been following you. Do you mind if I sit in it? A Jeep saved my life,” said Sergi. Days later, the two men and the Jeep met again, appropriately at Veterans’ Community Park, and Sergi turned the driver’s seat over to Podany for a spin.

The veteran beamed as he eased the vehicle into gear, and gingerly drove around the parking lot. Clambering aboard a 1948 Willys Jeep takes some agility, but Podany had just come from exercising at the Y, where he swims 500 meters five times a week, and negotiated the climb with no problem. Credit it to muscle memory.

America had the Korean War in its living room on television screens for 11 seasons of “M*A*S*H,” over five times longer than the actual war – or United Nations “police action” – lasted. As a medic, Podany was responsible for delivering casualties to the M*A*S*H units, and that is where he picked up the plasma he was delivering when they hit the landmine. A photo he has in the scrapbook he kept, one of many photos from his time in Korea, shows a M*A*S*H tent that viewers of the show, or the original big-screen film that will forever be the definitive “M*A*S*H” to diehard fans, looks remarkably like what we remember.

But asked how accurate the cinematic portrayal was, Podany pointed out one major difference.

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“The whole time I was there, I never saw one single nurse,” he recalled. His photos show remarkable moments, including shells bursting during a Chinese mortar attack, enemy dead and Chinese POWS. But no American casualties – “those photos never came back from the censors,” he said.

Sergi, a World War II buff who lives at Cape Marco, said he had been hunting for years for a vintage Jeep in good repair, and bought his in Michigan from a WWII vet. “He was a radio operator, which is why this one has that tall radio mast,” he said. With the help of Keith Pershing at Island Automotive, he has kept it looking better than it ever did 70 years ago, with a high-gloss ceramic paint job.

But the Willys Jeep was very basic transportation, with no radio, no clock, no air conditioning, not even a key, – “just a start button, so there was no ‘who’s got the key?’ ” said Sergi. His doesn’t even have a top, and while it is theoretically capable of 60 mph, “I never go over 30, and never take it off the island.”

Podany, who is in remarkable shape for a nonagenarian, has no trouble staying busy. He has a “side hustle” making and selling fishing lures, cultivates flowers, exercises regularly, builds birdhouses, and until recently built hand-carved miniature trucks and carriages. While he drove to Veterans Park in his Ford Escape, his other car is a Corvette. He and his wife Joanne just celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary.

In the land mine mishap, only one of several brushes with death he experienced in Korea, Podany lost most of his hearing, and had to have eight teeth extracted, or as he put it, “I never got a scratch – just lucky.”