'GI Joe' takes military exhibit to Parades, Ceremonies
THE MONROE NEWS
BY DEAN COUSINO
PHOTO BY KIM BRENT
SOUTH ROCKWOOD — Joe Bourassa remembers the horrors of war and losing
friends while serving as a captain and crew chief on two aircraft carriers
in the Vietnam War. The South Rockwood veteran known as “GI Joe” by many of his friends saw numerous nighttime bombings and planes exploding and crashing into the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin while serving on the USS Ranger and USS Constellation in the mid-1960s.
Working on a flight deck in the fierce battles between North Vietnam and the United States was one of the most hazardous duties in the military, he said.
“I saw a lot of plane crashes,” Mr. Bourassa recalled. “It scared the heck out of me ... you can’t get it out of your head.”
He remembered working with pilots and crew members who flew or worked on the planes.
“ You buckled your comrades in the planes and they don’t come back,” he said. “ That’s devastating.”
Like many soldiers who survived the war, Mr. Bourassa suffered post-traumatic stress disorder from the bombings during six years in the Navy. During the battles, he often carried six chains weighing about 150 pounds on his back to secure planes to the flight decks.
He earned several ribbons and two stars during two tours of duty overseas.
Today, the retired Monsanto millwright continues to support American troops and military families by providing vintage Army trucks and Jeeps from the
Vietnam and Korean War eras in area parades and services honoring fallen heroes.
Mr. Bourassa, 67, will drive a 1949 International cargo truck in the Monroe and Rockwood Memorial Day parades Monday and was in the Trenton veterans’ parade Saturday.
The truck will carry, among other things, members of VFW Post 3943 in uniform.
The stake truck is the largest of a small fleet of military vehicles Mr. Bourassa has acquired and restored to working condition. The truck, which runs on gasoline and gets about three miles to a gallon, has an entertaining sound system that plays patriotic and upbeat music like “God Bless America” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company B” that fires up the crowds.
His exhibits include uniforms from past wars, rocket launchers and two Jeeps — a 1952 M-38 he bought in Montana and a 1951 model that he bought from a Wyandotte man and belonged to a Navy SEAL team in California.
Mr. Bourassa remembers spending much time restoring the 1951 Jeep, which has a four-cylinder, L-shaped “flathead” engine and was used to carry equipment through rivers and streams.
“It was a mess, all in pieces,” he said. “I rebuilt the whole thing. It’s a lot of work.”
Also in the fleet are a 1953 water tanker Mr. Bourassa calls the “water buffalo” and a 1953 M-100 trailer used by Navy Seabees to carry equipment. Soldiers would crawl under the buffalo tank and pull the handle to wash and cool themselves off.
Clyde Hueston, past commander of the post’s Men’s Auxiliary and a member of a motorcycle honor guard sponsored by the American Legion, donated his father’s uniform from World War II to Mr. Bourassa’s collection. He said Mr. Bourassa has spent a lot of his own money to support veterans and the community.
“I can’t say enough about what he’s done for us and to promote the military,” Mr. Hueston said. “It’s very expensive to keep those vehicles and make repairs. We need more people like Joe.”
Leonard Holt, commander of Post 3943, called Mr. Bourassa “one of the greatest assets for the post and any other post.” He does his own maintenance and repair work on the vehicles and “all he asks for is a little fuel money,” Mr. Holt said.
In 2003, two years after retiring, Mr. Bourassa became depressed with severe arthritis in his right shoulder and blood clots in his legs that limited his walking. Some of the ailments arose
from wrenching and carrying the chains on his shoulder during the war.
He credits his mother, Virginia, with encouraging him to find a new hobby to occupy his time. That’s when he started restoring the military vehicles.
“She said I needed to work on something to take my mind off things,” he recalled. “I took her advice. A lot of people were worse
off than me.”
His mother died in 2012 at 93. His late father, Louis, also a Navy veteran, got him to enlist.
Mr. Bourassa’s lost close friends and VFW and American Legion members who often helped him with driving and loading his vehicles. Among them was Chuck Whitwam, who first gave him his nickname.
“I have so much memorabilia and Chuck and them were always on the truck with me,” he said about his deceased comrades.
“Chuck said to me, ‘ You’re the real GI Joe.’” Today, Mr. Bourassa takes his vehicles, flags and his own photos and memorabilia about fallen heroes to car shows and other patriotic events.
The truck is decorated with tiny flags and has four wooden bar stools and a picnic table in its bed that are used to carry veterans who are unable to walk in the parades. After the Monroe parade, the vehicle becomes a people
mover and is jammed with other veterans who want a ride back to the Monroe VFW post for a reception.
“Everybody piles into the truck,” Mr. Bourassa said. “I can probably
get 30 guys in there.”
The biggest attraction on the truck is a photo display from David Eby of LaSalle of all veterans from Monroe County since World War II who died while serving their country. Included are pictures of the late Sgt. Michael Ingram and his family, one of the most widely viewed portions of the exhibit.
Often strangers will walk up to the display on the side of the truck and say, “ That’s my boy,” pointing to their son.
“I talk to a lot of people about the wars,” Mr. Bourassa said. “I had one woman from Tennessee who came up to me to tell me her son was on the list. She was so glad that someone remembered him.”
Mr. Bourassa has four children — Andy (Carrie) of Pensacola, Fla.; Emily ( Tony) Paterno of Southgate; Joey ( Jessica) of Kentucky, and Holly (Caleb) Luplow of South Rockwood. Caleb just was discharged from the Marine Corps. He also has four grandchildren.
He said the Newport VFW and other posts are all experiencing a shortage of members and he hopes veterans will consider joining the organizations.
“ We’re running out of people,” he said. “The World War II vets are almost gone and the Vietnam vets are struggling, too.”
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