Perhaps the original Jeep enthusiast, Francis ‘Jeep’ Sanza—the mechanic who drove General George S. Patton Jr. around during the final year of World War II—died last Tuesday at age 99, The San Francisco Chronicle reports. Here’s a look at the man’s incredible story.
Born in 1918 to a Pennsylvania coal miner, Sanza was just the right age to be drafted into World War II in the spring of 1941. The army put him into the 3457th Ordnance Medium Auto Maintenance Company, where he began driving the tough new Willys MB 1/4-ton reconnaissance vehicle.
According to the Napa Valley Register, Sanza’s job was to “test-drive the stubby, agile four-wheel-drive vehicle the Willys-Overland company was developing for the U.S. military.” That little Toledo-built Willys (and also Ford’s GPW) ended up becoming known as the “Jeep,” and Stanza adopted it as a nickname as well after driving one into and out of some deep water during a demonstration for the “Supreme Allied Commander,” the San Francisco Chronicle reports.
Sanza was eventually chosen to become Patton’s driver and mechanic. And what a mechanic he was, adding bulletproof glass, an upgraded engine and a machine gun to his Willys. Plus—as he says in the American Veteran’s Center video clip above—he became extremely good at removing engines, saying:
I took an engine out in forty minutes. The guy from the Willys Company made me a special little wrench. It was about that long. That way you can get your hand in there and work, and you know. And you take the four bolts off the transmission, and took out the radiator, and then you disconnect the manifold, pull out the engine. Forty minutes, I did it.
Sanza, whom Patton referred to simply as “soldier,” spent a lot of time with the general, with the San Francisco Chronicle site writing:
From the preparations for D-Day, in May 1944, right up through the landing at Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge and the final push into Germany, Sanza was at the wheel of an open air Willys-Overland with the four-star general in the passenger seat, tapping at the windshield with his riding crop.
“Everything he did I saw,” Sanza said during a video interview for Profiles in Valor produced by the American Veterans Center. “He was very good to me. He never scolded me when I was driving him.”
The story goes on:
Sanza and Patton were together in Munich on V-E Day, May 8, 1945, and when the concentration camps were liberated. They never had their picture taken together because it was against regulations. But it would have been a good one, because he stood 5 feet, 7 inches and his boss was 6 feet, 2 inches.
The article states that, according to Sanza’s son, Nick, Francis didn’t talk about the war until he was in his ’70s. By then, he had married a woman who had helped build battleships and submarines during the war, and then settled in Napa, had children, and spent time working in an ammunition depot. In 1959, he became a beer distribution driver for Olympia Beer, and later a supervisor in 1975.
That’s when he and his wife started a milk distribution company out of their house until they sold their routes, and Sanza became a sales representative for dairy company Clover Stornetta full time until he was 96 years old. Surprisingly, he did not drive Jeeps after the war, preferring something a bit more comfortable, with The Chronicle writing:
He often drove World War II Jeeps in parades, but never owned one. He drove Cadillacs.
Can’t say I blame him.