Retired Master Sgt. Elbert Dixon watched as Seymour Johnson Air Force Base’s first fire engine finally returned to its home after 72 years.
The once-rusted old machine’s fresh red paint shone as members of the 4th Civil Engineer Squadron pushed it into the base’s firehouse Thursday morning. It was the first time since the end of World War II that the vintage 1942 Ford firetruck was on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, and Dixon didn’t miss a second of its homecoming.
In its glory days the truck operated under the Army Air Corps, and the base was known as Seymour Johnson Army Air Field. Built during World War II, it was the first firetruck acquired by Seymour Johnson when it opened in 1942. After the war ended, the truck was sold to the city of Goldsboro when the base closed in 1946 and eventually found its way into a Dudley farmer’s hands.
In 2002, Dixon, who retired from the Air Force in Mississippi and found his home in Wayne County, heard the farmer attempted to use the truck to spray crops — which didn’t work out too well. Having a love for refurbishing old cars and trucks, Dixon took the firetruck off the farmer’s hands and quickly got to work.
“Somebody painted it red with a paintbrush, and it needed a tuneup bad,” Dixon said.
The 90-year-old drove the fully operational firetruck in every Goldsboro Veterans Day Parade since refurbishing it. With a new coat of paint and a tuned engine, Dixon proudly showed off his work.
But, it was time for the fire engine to return home.
“I decided to let them have it,” Dixon said. “I’m gettin’ a little bit old, and I didn’t want it to go to waste.”
Dixon knew how much it would mean if the truck could return to SJAFB since he retired as a master sergeant from the Air Force in 1978. With the help of Fire Chief Sean Quinby, with Seymour Johnson AFB 4th Civil Engineer Squadron, Dixon returned the firetruck to the first place it was ever stationed.
“He wanted to make sure it was taken care of forever. So, it seemed a natural fit to gift it to our fire department,” Quinby said. “I’ve been in love with this truck since the first time I saw it.”
On Thursday afternoon, Quinby and members of the 4th Civil Engineer Squadron, Fire Emergency Services Flight, held a traditional dedication ceremony to celebrate the engine’s safe return.
The ceremony has its roots in a tradition that began hundreds of years ago when firetrucks were horse-drawn steamer engines, Quinby said. When a wagon would return to the firehouse, the firefighters would unhitch the horses and clean the engine before pushing it into its house.
Today, when a firetruck first arrives at a station, the firefighters will perform a ceremony to honor that tradition, Quinby said. The ceremony starts with a blessing from the local chaplain, who blesses the truck and its crew so it can protect the community. Then, the firefighters clean the truck before manually pushing it into the firehouse.
“We figured since this engine has come home, hopefully for the last time, we’re going to rededicate it,” Quinby said.
The firetruck will not stay idle while it is still operational, Quinby said. He plans to take the truck out for parades and fire awareness events. Quinby also mentioned the truck might be modified to carry coffins for the funerals of retired firefighters and Air Force veterans.
Quinby reached out to the National Museum of the United States Air Force to see if the museum wanted it, but the process is incredibly difficult, especially considering the truck’s circumstances. He said the museum requires extensive documentation of the firetruck when it was on SJAFB, its time with the city of Goldsboro and documents from when the farmer purchased it from the city.
Finding documents has proved difficult, since the federal government ordered all auto manufacturers to shut down commercial construction in 1942, Quinby said.
“Everything from 1942 to 1946 — it’s hard to find vehicle records, information about vehicles, because basically the same thing that was made in 1942 was made for the entire war effort,” Quinby said. “And then when they were allowed to gear back up to sell to the public, they retooled everything and modernized everything.”
Despite returning the fire engine to the air base, Dixon is far from done refurbishing old vehicles and trucks. He recently purchased a 1948 International firetruck and plans to restore it to its former glory.