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Sammamish couple in vintage Jeep convoy across Europe, following D-Day anniversary

D-Day 75th anniversary commemorations took place last week in Normandy, but a family from Sammamish is still headed east across France and on to Germany in a convoy of vintage U.S. Army jeeps.

There were hundreds of U.S. Army Jeeps in and around Normandy for the anniversary. They were on every stretch of highway, in every village, and at special events on the beaches and at the Normandy American Cemetery. Collectors and World War II-history enthusiasts drove them to Normandy from all over Europe and brought them across the channel from and England, and some were even shipped over from the United States.

Joe Giammona and his wife Yasmine Nugent live in Sammamish. They shipped their vintage Jeep over from Richmond, California all the way to Le Havre on the northern coast of France.

“There’s no experience like driving through villages and towns, and we were on the beaches in Normandy,” said Joe Giammona by phone from a village in France on Monday. “There’s no experience like doing that in a little Army Jeep.”

Giammona and his wife and 15-year old son took part in D-Day events, and so far, it’s been the experience of a lifetime.

“If you’re driving through towns, people are cheering and waving, cars go down the road honking, all that fun stuff,” Giammona said.

But that “experience of a lifetime” is not quite over yet.

“We’re in a small town right now, and a bunch of villagers have come up and they’ve brought out old photographs to show when the U.S. Army came through in their town square [in 1944]” Giammona said. “People are running up, taking pictures, want to talk … the whole week has been full of that kind of activity.”

The family is part of a convoy of five other vintage Jeeps that belong to friends from Oregon and California. The group calls themselves “SPEARHEAD VI” after the symbol for 3rd Armored Division, and because there are six Jeeps.

There are about 16 people in the group, including four kids, and many in the group, including Joe and Yasmine, wear vintage Army uniforms. The inspiration for the trip was their friend Gary Hurwitz, who is also part of the convoy. They’re following the route that Gary’s late father Harlan Earl Hurwitz took with the U.S. Army back in 1944.

“Gary’s dad was in the 101st, so he fought over here and landed in Normandy,” said Giammona. “And then his unit did the trek that we’re doing today through France and Belgium into Germany, so in honor of his dad, he just wanted to follow what [his dad] did.”

The Jeep that Joe and Yasmine are driving is a 1942 “Ford Script” that they bought a few years ago. Not many people know that Ford made Jeeps during World War II; it wasn’t just Willys, the company that became known for civilian Jeeps after the war.  All told, there was something like 650,000 Jeeps made for use by American and Allied forces during World War II.

While Joe and Yasmine’s Jeep is fully restored, it also dates to nearly eight decades ago. With all those salty and sandy beaches and bumpy French countryside roads, how is it holding up?

“The engine’s running good,” Giamonna said. “These things are 75 years old with parts that are 75 years old. However, we’re traveling with probably eight mechanics that rebuild these Jeeps and work on them, so nothing too major at this point. But yeah, knock on wood, nothing major, and we’ve got about another 1,400 miles to go to Bremerhaven, Germany.”

The convoy is driving from Normandy, across northern France and through Belgium and Holland, and then to the port of Bremerhaven where the Jeeps will be loaded onto a ship for the trip home to the West Coast.

Joe and Yasmine, of course, found all the D-Day commemorations last week incredibly moving and they especially enjoyed meeting D-Day vets; Joe, in particular, because he’s an Army vet himself.

“At the U.S. cemetery, they play ‘Taps,’ and if you’ve ever known someone that’s given their life, and I know someone personally from my Special Forces Unit … standing on that ground when they play ‘Taps’ … you just don’t know where you’re at,” Giammona said, describing the overwhelming emotion he felt last week.

Everyone in SPEARHEAD IV has also been especially touched by the elderly French people they’ve met, and how so many of those elderly French people have thanked them, as Americans, for what happened 75 years ago.

“You would think [D-Day] just happened,” Giammona said. “They want to come up and shake your hand, they want to talk to you, they want to thank you.”

Joe Giammona said that the same thing happens almost every place the convoy stops, but one experience in particular stands out.

“We were in a small seaport, and we were parked waiting for one of the Jeeps to catch up,” Giammona said. “A lady came up and said, ‘I wouldn’t be here today, and our town wouldn’t be here today if the Americans didn’t come and help us, because we were getting bombed everyday, and when you liberated us, that’s when I got my life back,’” he said.

“And she was crying.”

The logistics for getting a vintage World War II Jeep from the United States to Europe and back aren’t for the faint of heart.

“We had to drive our Jeep from Seattle down to Richmond, California where it left port. It was fairly easy, [but it required] lots of documentation, as you can understand,” Giammona said. “The U.S. government …. has put a lot of regulations in place. So we had to get EINs, which is typically a business ID number, for the Jeep, because now we’re considered importers to bring it back into the U.S.”

The Jeep’s one-way voyage down the West Coast, through the Panama Canal and across the Atlantic took almost three weeks. Round-trip shipping will run about $3,500.

But regardless of the effort and cost, Joe Giammona says it was completely worth it.

“If you were going to get a rental car for three weeks, you’re going to be running up quite a tab, [but] you wouldn’t be able to drive an Army Jeep on Utah, Omaha through the villages through the towns,” Giammona said. “We’ve taken some roads that were just dirt roads overgrown with grass from village to village, camp to camp. You wouldn’t have an experience like that in a [rental car].”

Joe Giammona and Yasmine Nugent and their friends are on the road for another week or so. If you’re on Facebook, you can follow their progress (and see more of their photos and videos) via the group page for “SPEARHEAD VI.”

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