Joe Vaniman – reliving history, one mile at a time.
by Jason D. Cox and Lauren Creiman
photography by Christian Uriarte
Weathered and dented, a relic of a past few can remember, she stood at the side of the road. She seemingly waited and hoped for someone to give her a home. She was a 1930 Ford Model A Roadster, and she had no way of knowing that she would soon find love.
Eight years ago, Joe Vaniman and his wife Stemmie were taking a friend home from church when they saw the forgotten beauty on Wheeler Avenue in La Verne. Parked with a “For Sale” sign, the Model A beckoned to Joe. He gave in to temptation and stopped to investigate. Soon, he made arrangements to bring her home. “It was everything I could do to steer the thing,” he says about driving the “A” up the twisty Live Oak Canyon Road to his home. Joe, well acquainted with engineering, joined the Pomona Valley Model A Ford Club of America for help in restoring his roadster. He reworked the steering system so that it handled “almost as if it had power steering.” He replaced the wiring, installed a Model B engine, put in a lighter flywheel to make the clutch more manageable and did countless restoration details.
Today, his roadster pick-up is painted a deep green and bears an insignia on the driver side door that reads, “Los Angeles County Forestry Service.” Joe has driven his Model A in many parades, including the La Verne Independence Day parade and the San Dimas Western Days parade. He has won numerous trophies in the San Dimas car show. These shows and parades, Joe says, are important because “you get the chance to talk to people and tell them about a different time.” For Joe, his Model A is not only “just a really fun car to have and work on” but also a relic of his eventful past.
Elvo Joe Vaniman was born June 27, 1923, in Pomona Valley Hospital. At a young age, Joe was taught the value of hard work and raised to be self-sufficient. “My father left our family when I was 1 year old, and my mother went back to school at UCLA to get her teaching credential so she could support us,” Joe says. “For as long as I can remember, if we wanted anything, we had to work so we could get it ourselves.” His mother taught at the Lincoln and Roynon grammar schools for 30 years.
Joe joined the workforce early, washing dishes in the cafeteria of Bonita High School until he graduated from there in 1941. He then bussed tables at Wilson’s Café while he attended Chaffey Junior College. It was there that he met the chief of the Los Angeles County Forestry Service, a frequent diner. The two often talked, and eventually the chief convinced Joe to take the exam to become a forest firefighter. He began work June 1, 1942, and was initially sent to Pine Canyon near Elizabeth Lake to complete his six-month probationary period. Later, he bid for transfer to the San Dimas Station and won approval but was soon drafted into military service Jan. 7, 1943. “I received Army training, even though I ended up being a pilot,” Joe says. During World War II, the U.S. Air Force was called the U.S. Army Air Corps. “Once the Army found out I studied aeronautics at Chaffey, I was automatically placed in pilot training.”
Flight training began at Ryan Field in Hemet, Calif., with the Ryan PT-22. Following, came basic training at Gardner Field in Taft, Calif., where he mastered the PT-13. On a weekend leave, he hitchhiked home to La Verne, gathered his bride-to-be Marilyn, pastor Newt Balch, his mother and her mother, and the couple was married that night at the pastor’s Third Street home. A friend’s bungalow in Corona del Mar afforded a one-night honeymoon. Joe hitchhiked back to Gardner Field to report for Monday morning flight school. “It really gets me how people today spend so much money on a big wedding,” he says. “I was able to get married for only $20, and we were married for 57 years.” Eventually, Joe landed in Pecos, Texas, honing his skills as a Cessna AT-17 Bobcat twin pilot. Soon, he was relocated to Arizona “to fly gunners in worn out B-17s.” Then, it was on to Lincoln, Neb., where he and fellow pilots assembled their nine-man combat crews. “We had a lot of free time while in Lincoln, so I got to have Marilyn with me there, and that made things a lot better,” Joe says. His scenery changed yet again; in Sioux City, Iowa, the crew practiced missions before overseas combat deployment.
He completed 22 missions over Germany, the fifth of which involved an unplanned landing. “We were bombing Kassel, Germany, and you could see the Swiss Alps, it was so clear,” Joe recalls. “In the distance, we could see thick black smoke, and we all said, ‘They’re really getting it over there.’ Then our formation’s course started to aim itself in that direction, and we knew we were headed that way.” While passing through the intense anti-aircraft fire, their number four engine was hit. Their “Georgia Peach” made a safe landing in Liège, Belgium, which was a U.S. P-47 base. Another terrifying moment came with a premature explosion of high explosive bombs from another B-17 600 feet below them that knocked six planes out of the air. Somehow, the damaged wings stayed on their plane. “The ground crew told us rough air would have been our end,” he says.
Joe has the distinction of flying in the Army Air Corps’ very last World War II mission, a bombing run personally ordered by General Dwight Eisenhower over Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. On that April 25, 1945, day, the Germans knew they were coming to bomb the Skoda Armament Works, and six U.S. bombers were shot down.
Joe outlasted three B-17s (only one had a name) and logged more than 250 hours of combat flight time. At war’s end, he flew the plane home over the Atlantic.
Back at the San Dimas forestry station, his job was waiting for him, and leadership roles came his way: He passed his engineer’s exam to drive the fire trucks, then he was named captain. His prolific career included leading stations in Malibu, Padua Hills (Claremont), San Dimas and Via Verde, from where in he retired in 1977. Joe says he always had a second job, whether it was working at a couple La Verne tire shops or the family’s 1887 era San Dimas orange grove, inherited in 1969. The grove was “taken away by eminent domain when the 57 Freeway came in.” Other days were spent enjoying time with Marilyn and exploring hobbies, including salmon fishing. While Joe did not attend the University of La Verne, his brother Ralph did. Uncle Harper Frantz was a La Verne chemistry professor of distinction. And the Landis Academic Center is named after his cousin Beth Landis.
Marilyn passed away in 2001, and Joe later married his current wife Stemmie, whom he met at the San Dimas Community Church. The two enjoy the perks of retirement, which currently centers around Model A Club activities. And, although it does not offer the complexity of a B-17 bomber, his Model A has straight forward technology that reminds him of a simpler time. For Joe, his roadster is the time machine that lets him relive his history.