jrodriguez@mercurynews.com

SAN JOSE--The late Gen. Douglas MacArthur famously said, "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away."

Well, sometimes they fade away in style on the back of a beaten but beloved old Army truck.

Former Army Sgt. Joe Gonzales, who served under MacArthur during the Korean War, gingerly climbed into the cabin of a huge cargo and troop truck Sunday afternoon at History San Jose park, a short walk from the city zoo.

The behemoth was so rusted, its drab Army green paint had turned burnt yellow.

Remarkably, it still runs. Even more remarkably, it was found at a farm where Gonzales once picked apricots as a teenage boy.

Portrait of Joe Gonzales, 83, Korean War veteran got involved with an oral history project in San Jose, he suggested restoring old Army trucks for parades.
Portrait of Joe Gonzales, 83, Korean War veteran got involved with an oral history project in San Jose, he suggested restoring old Army trucks for parades. The WWII and Korean vets were getting too old to march. He found one in, of all places, a farm in Hollister where he used to pick crops as a kids. Later, he drove a truck just like this one in the war. At History San Jose were the truck recently arrived for a long, meticulous restoration in San Jose, Calif. on Sunday, June 8, 2014.( Josie Lepe/Bay Area News Group) ( Josie Lepe )

"I drove one of these a long time ago," the 83-year-old Bronze Star winner said with a subdued smile.

At his age, Gonzales still wears the same size uniform he wore in Korea. He can still walk at a healthy pace and drives his own car to veterans meetings and wartime re-enactments. And like other Korean War vets, he venerates the World War II generation more than his own.

"They are the ones who paid the greatest sacrifice," Gonzales said.

A few weeks back, he joined a group of vets and friends in a conversation about getting some old Jeeps to carry WWII and disabled veterans who are too frail to march in parades. Gonzales suggested a GMC CCKW, a 2.5-ton truck used in both wars to carry everyone from troops to nurses and everything from ammunition to food.

Farm find

Robert Corpus of Spirit of '45 Silicon Valley, a national organization documenting the WWII experience, was in that conversation.

"I naturally agreed," Corpus wrote in a email, "and thought, where the hell would we find one?" The Army ordered more than a half-million of these trucks, which the troops nicknamed "Deuce and a Half" and "Jimmy." After Korea, they were sold as surplus to just about anyone with a big enough parking space.

Corpus heard a tattered one might be forgotten on a farm in Hollister and with Dan Johnsen, a 1980s Army reservist, and Gonzales, they all went to take a look.

While there, Gonzales was nudged by one hill on the property because it looked oddly familiar. He asked about the history of the farm and was stunned to realize he had picked apricots there in 1944. It was a difficult time in his life, following the death of his mother. He and his distraught father temporarily left their home in Hanford to lessen their grief by doing migrant farm work.

In 1952, Gonzales was drafted and sent to Korea. He manned the gun barrels and ammunition on an armored half-track vehicle. He won a Bronze Star but, like so many veterans of both wars, he won't talk details. After returning stateside, he drove the big trucks on training exercises until his discharge. At that point he put his uniform in a trunk after the war and avoided veterans groups and parades for decades.

"I used to keep everything to myself," he said. "That's what we veterans do, don't we?"

In 1965, the soldier turned supermarket meat-cutter moved with his wife and children to Mountain View and then to San Jose. He retired in 1996.

Oral history

Gonzales said he remained mostly silent about the war until 2007, when he went to see Edith Shain, the nurse who was kissed by a sailor in a famous World War II photo. Shain was visiting a San Jose exhibit on the war's end.

"Hey, this is nice," Gonzales said at the event, where he met other veterans and Corpus. "I want to be part of this too."

Since then, Gonzales has recorded his Korean War story for Spirit of '45's oral history project, participated in modest wartime re-enactments and has become one of the public faces of Spirit of '45.

"They see me as an old man," he said Sunday afternoon at a veterans publicity shoot at History Park, a short walk from the city zoo. "And at the same time, they see me as strong because I can keep up with them."

Johnsen figures it will take at least six months and $10,000 to restore the truck to "combat readiness," or in this case -- parade readiness. But Gonzales doesn't see himself riding in the truck on Veterans Day any time soon. He'll stand or walk on his own, thank you.

"It's for the (WWII) veterans," he insisted. "We want to honor and thank them. That's the purpose of the truck."

Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767. Follow him at Twitter.com/joerodmercury.