The Secrets of Jeep Menking
The Secrets of Jeep Menking
Lorie says: Associated Press style dictates that Eugene “Jeep” Menking should be identified by his last name. After meeting him, his surname alone seems too impersonal, and “Mr. Menking” is too formal. In the context of my Southern upbringing, calling him by his first name or his nickname seems disrespectful, so I settled on Mr. Jeep. His wife’s name is Mrs. Ruth. I hope you enjoy meeting them as much as I did. photos by Anna Spencer Morse, Grace Photography
I came to Eugene “Jeep” Menking’s door in Brenham expecting to find the secret to making good barbecue sauce; I left with the secret to living life well.
“When you fix airplanes, you have to be right.”
It wasn’t offered as a metaphor because the 93-year-old veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam talks straight. He was simply answering a question about his 28-year career in the Air Force. And yet, those nine words explained the razor-sharp crease in his khakis, his ramrod straight posture and the meticulous neatness of his yard as surely as it explained his philosophy of aircraft repair.
“Life requires you to pay attention and be engaged,” he said. “It’s never enough to just get by.”
Keeping His Eyes Up
He was born on Oct. 23, 1922 in Schulenburg. He was greeted by an older sister, and they eventually welcomed three younger brothers. Their parents, Eugene and Dora Menking, had moved from Haw Creek just south of Round Top where the first Menkings had settled in 1853, to Schulenburg just three years before.
“My grandfather had a small store and was a peddler,” Mr. Jeep said. “He traveled around selling people whatever they needed. My father left to make his own way in the world.” His father was a carpenter and tradesman.
As a child growing up in town, Mr. Jeep remembers playing baseball more often than doing chores.
“People didn’t believe in keeping a lawn then,” he said. “We didn’t have farm chores like country kids, so we made our own fun.”
Once he made his own parachute. With his sister’s help, he launched off the family’s shed.
“It didn’t work out so well,” Mr. Jeep said.
He was fascinated by machines, especially those that flew.
“I kept my eyes up,” he said.
Kelly Field opened in San Antonio in 1916, and Randolph Field followed in 1930. Training missions brought airplanes over Schulenburg regularly.
In 1929, Mr. Jeep was one of 20,000 people who witnessed a Ford tri-motor airplane deliver a Holstein bull calf named Carnation Badger Aero Lone Star to Schulenburg as part of the grand opening of Carnation Milk’s Condensing Plant. Transporting a calf in an airplane just two years after Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight was publicity stunt of epic proportions. It created a memorable stir.
Watching the skies over Schulenburg, he also saw the USS Akron, a zeppelin designed to provide scouting support to the U.S. Navy, as it made its way to the northeast. Several days later, in April 1933, it crashed off the coast of New Jersey killing 73 of the 76 men aboard. It was deadliest airship disaster in history.
Eugene the Jeep
In 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, the Menkings moved back to Round Top in search of employment. At 14, Mr. Jeep began working for Don Nagel as a mechanic at Nagel’s Garage, where he spent his time under the hoods of Model As and Model Ts.
About the same time, Eugene the Jeep, a magical dog who could move between dimensions in time and space, was introduced as a regular character in the Popeye cartoon strips. Eugene Menking became Jeep Menking.
[pullquote width=”300″ float=”left”]“They called me Jeep because my name was Eugene,” he said. “I didn’t have much else in common with that character. I wasn’t magical or anything.”[/pullquote]
As a side note, the military jeep, developed in World War II, got its name from the cartoon character as well because the “…vehicle was able to get to unlikely places.”
A Call to Serve
World War II raged. As soon as he was old enough, Mr. Jeep volunteered to serve in the Army Air Corps. The Air Force didn’t exist. He entered the military in June 1941 before he graduated from high school.
“When I left for basic training, I had never been farther than Houston,” he said.
His skills made him an ideal candidate to become an airplane mechanic.
“At the time, I was a member of an organization with no airplanes,” Mr. Jeep said. “So we trained a lot.”
He was preparing to be a flying crew chief, the man responsible for overseeing everything on a mission except for piloting and navigating the plane. His first duty stations were Tilly Field in San Antonio and Daniel Field in Georgia.
His wing received their first planes, C-47s, in March 1942 and moved to Fort Bragg, NC. On July 4, Mr. Jeep and his crew dropped paratroopers on Ford Field in Michigan. When the plane landed, they were greeted by Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh.
As they were ferrying paratroopers, the crew also had a chance to make a parachute jump. They were promised two, so they could earn their paratrooper wings, but the war got in the way. He only jumped once.
“It was real quiet…no noise…no sound…just peaceful…but we jumped from 900 feet, so the landing came pretty quick,” he said.
The crew also trained in Columbus, Ohio and Dalhart, Texas before returning to Fort Bragg where they left for North Africa in May 1943. (At one point, a Life Magazine photographer was embedded in their squadron and shot a photo essay of their efforts.) There they prepared for the Sicilian Invasion. In February 1944, they moved from Sicily to England to prepare for D-Day, where they were tasked with delivering paratroopers. In February 1945, they left England for Abbeville, France. Throughout the war, the crew was responsible for re-supply and air evacuations as well as paratroop and glider missions.
“Sometimes as we flew I thought about what I would do in case of emergency,” he said. “The only thing you can do is be prepared. It doesn’t do any good to worry.”
After V-E Day, Mr. Jeep was assigned to Belem, Brazil, a refueling stop for aircraft that were flying servicemen from the European Theater back to the United States for redeployment in the Pacific Theater.
When the Japanese surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945, Mr. Jeep decided to pursue a career in the military instead of returning to civilian life.
“At the time, I was the highest rank I could earn, and the military offered so much in the way of station choices then,” he said. “It seemed like a good career.”
His career choice eventually involved him in the Korean War where he worked on “weather reconnaissance airplanes,” the euphemism for spy planes. These were based in Alaska and tasked with keeping an eye on neighboring Russia. Mr. Jeep was still in the military when the Vietnam began. His squadron was responsible for maintaining KC-135 refueling aircraft, which performed in-flight refueling of B-52s and fighter planes used to bomb North Vietnam. He retired in February 1969 as a Chief Master Sergeant/Aircraft Maintenance Superintendent.
“For me, the thing I’m most proud of is my service in World War II. There was not as much pressure put on us to succeed in the later wars,” he said. “In World War II, every mission mattered because our freedom was at risk. In the later wars, some of the missions didn’t make much sense.”
He continued, “A country is just like an organization: If you belong, you should participate and not just be a member. There’s no place in the world that has more freedom than we have right here, right now. It’s worth your best effort. It’s worth a sacrifice.”
Wisdom for Living
Between them, the Menkings have 184 years of life experience. I had to ask: What’s the best piece of advice you could give a 20-year-old who is just starting out in life? (Also see The Secret to Marriage.)
“Get an education, it’s essential. Don’t smoke and try not to drink too much,” Mr. Jeep said.
“Do what you enjoy doing. Working hard is good—especially if it makes you happy,” Mrs. Ruth added.
At 93 and 91, Mr. Jeep and Mrs. Ruth are sharp as the proverbial tacks and fit as the proverbial fiddles, prompting me to ask: “How do you stay so fit?”
“We don’t overeat,” Mr. Jeep said.
“And we don’t sit still,” Mrs. Ruth said.
According to her, Mr. Jeep refuses to hire anyone to fix anything preferring to do it himself. He does all the yard work. She keeps a meticulous house. She recently told him he couldn’t climb on the roof anymore.
And they keep learning new things.
When I asked for directions to their home, Mr. Jeep asked, “Why don’t you just Google us?”
Also see Mr. Jeep’s “secret” barbecue sauce recipe.
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