KATHLEEN, FL -- More than seven decades earlier Bill Peck, on the sands of North Africa, had maintained similar olive drab machines to the one in front of him Friday.
Peck, a veteran of the U.S. Army's campaign against Axis forces in the Second World War, was reunited with a Harley-Davidson WLA as part of his 97th birthday celebration. Years ago, he had told a driver with VISTE, an organization that provides services to elders, that he wanted a photo with the motorcycle.
Don Huffman, the retired former owner of Harley-Davidson of Lakeland, has one, and welcomed Peck to take the seat of the motorcycle that was at the center of his service in the U.S. Army.
"I have seen each part on this thing," Peck said, like the leather scabbard formed for a Tommy Gun mounted to the front fork, the blackout headlight and the 45-cubic-inch twin cylinder "high compression" motor that would run on 74-octane gas.
There's a picture of Peck in North Africa, the myriad parts of the motor spread out on a tarp used for weather protection, a gas can for his work bench.
"We have repair manuals if you want to go to work," Huffman joked.
"I don't need them," Peck responded.
Peck enlisted in 1940 and started as a truck mechanic. The war-ready Harleys were introduced to the service that year at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and Peck became a motorcycle mechanic since he had owned one. He said he preferred working on the bikes.
Since the war, he had a chance to ride "civilianized" WLAs twice, he said, but hadn't seen one in military trim since 1944.
"I just like to see," Peck said, "remember what they were, what they looked like. ... There was no particular reason -- just one of those things."
With some effort, Peck moved from his motorized scooter and sat on the bike. The only thing that would have made it better would be to ride it around, he said.
"Think you could fall asleep on one of these?" he asked a reporter Friday. "Probably not."
But in 1941, he was part of a convoy from Fort Knox to Louisiana, stuck behind a half-track vehicle for the slow journey, breathing fumes.
"I was still on the motorcycle when I woke up," he said, and the convoy was nowhere to be seen.
Luckily, he knew where they were going, he added.
Huffman's collection includes two wartime Harley-Davidsons, the WLA, based on the civilian W line, and an XA, a model that saw its production run cut at 1,011 with the end of combat in North Africa.
He takes the WLA to shows and parades, lets people get a look at the motorcycle that earned the nickname "Liberator" in Europe.
"This is what it's for, it's why I got it," said Huffman, an Air Force veteran. "You can't find these motorcycles everywhere."
The WLA was a primary vehicle for couriers, military police and light, urgent transportation.
Peck, a sergeant in the 1st Armored Division, and his two crewmen, were responsible for maintaining 32 of the machines.
Early in the distribution of the motorcycles Peck discovered a flaw, he said: moisture would get trapped in the carburetor after the bikes were washed. He came up with a fix that was later replicated in production.
He was in Africa during the first U.S. land campaign of the war in the European Theater, aiding British and Commonwealth troops against Italian and German forces led by Erwin Rommel, a talented commander who earned the nickname "The Desert Fox" for his wiles there.
After his separation from the Army in 1946, Peck continued life as a mechanic. He said he had always been mechanically inclined, having disassembled and reassembled a car motor at the age of 15.
Now, he returns to his workshop in his Lakeland home daily where he fixes furniture and appliances, and until recently, had a hobby of repairing watches and clocks.
Peck's birthday celebration started with a gathering of area veterans at his house. The trip to Huffman's garage, with VISTE President Steve Bissonette running the ruse, had been an added surprise.
"It's wonderful," Peck said of his birthday celebration. "This made it a little better. ... I'm glad to see it."
Christopher Guinn can be reached at Christopher.Guinn@theledger.com or 863-802-7592. Follow him on Twitter @CGuinnNews. ___
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