With a cracked windscreen, bent hood and a lot of rust, the crumpled 1945 jeep was a very sad reflection of the wartime workhorse credited with helping to liberate Europe.

Found languishing in a field without an engine, it would take a lot of imagination, a few trips to A&E after things went horribly wrong with a welding torch and the kind of fighting spirit that helped win the war to ever get it moving again.

But in a few months’ time, the now gleaming US Willys-Overland jeep, complete with some very poignant passengers – the signatures of more than 400 Second World War veterans – will proudly make its way from Chirnside in the Borders bound for Portsmouth.

It has been restored to former wartime glory by an ex-Royal Signalman and firefighter who is in the grip of his own epic battle: recently diagnosed with an untreatable and rare form of cancer, he is now racing against time to ensure his beloved jeep can take part in June’s 80th anniversary D Day events.

Despite having only limited knowledge of basic vehicle maintenance, John Cairns taught himself how to breathe life back into the decrepit jeep from YouTube videos, learning how to tackle decades of rust, spark the replacement engine into life and to weld its broken parts.

The Herald: The jeep was a rusty wreck before restorationThe jeep was a rusty wreck before restoration (Image: George Cairns)

With no garage to work in, most of the restoration was carried out singlehandedly in the street outside his Borders home and, much to his wife Tania’s despair, sometimes spilling inside.

At one point, the vehicle’s cylinder head gasket was stored in the family’s oven while John, 57, attempted to bake on its new paint.

His supreme effort came to a head in November when, for the first time, he was finally able to gently steer the former US military vehicle onto the open road – 13 years after he had first clapped eyes on its rusty frame.

Alongside the labour of love involved in teasing it back to life, John embarked on a momentous effort to collect as many signatures of WW2 veterans – from men who played an active part in the D Day effort to German former prisoners of war and even Dame Vera Lynn.

The signatures cover the upholstery, glove box, jerry can and other car parts, making it a mobile museum that tells the story of the jeep’s role in the conflict but also the men and women who were really there.

They include Billy Drake, a Battle of Britain fighter pilot and air ace, credited with destroying 20 enemy aircraft, Johnny Johnson, an original member of 617 Squadron and of the 1943 Dambusters raid and its last surviving pilot, Squadron Leader Les Munro.

There are signatures from their foes too, Oberleutnant Walter Shuck alongside US First Lieutenant Joseph Peterburg who shot him down, and signatures from members of the US ‘Screaming Eagles’, 101st Airborne Division.

Also among the signatures is John’s mum, Fiona, whose Clydebank home was bombed during the Blitz.


The Herald: The jeep will carry 400 signaturesThe jeep will carry 400 signatures (Image: George Cairns)

John’s effort to restore the jeep was entering a crucial stage last year when, just months after having marched down the Royal Mile as part of the Queen’s funeral entourage, he suffered a heart attack.

Further investigation led to the diagnosis of incurable AL amyloidosis caused by abnormal plasma cells in his bone marrow.

Faced with a grim prognosis, he threw his effort into tackling the old vehicle, working through chemotherapy and fatigue to bring it back to life.

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John, a former member of the Royal Signals’ Motorcycle Display Team, the White Helmets, said he felt compelled to carry on as a personal tribute to the sacrifices and courage shown by countless others during the Second World War.

“It’s important to remember what happened on D Day was crucial – we were so close to losing the war,” he said.

“I’d seen a guy on YouTube restoring a Jeep and thought it would be good to the same, and to get as many veterans as possible to sign it.

“Every one of them has a story to tell, but unfortunately as time goes on, it becomes forgotten.

“I wanted to do something to try to make sure they wouldn’t be forgotten.”

Codenamed Operation Overlord, D Day, on June 6, 1944 was a pivotal day in the war, when 160,000 Allied forces launched the biggest combined naval, air and land operation in the history of warfare.

The Normandy landings were the beginning of a brutal campaign intended to wrestle north-west Europe from German occupation, while the American-produced 4x4 1⁄4-ton utility trucks would play be major part in providing support, leading to President Eisenhower once calling the jeep "one of three decisive weapons the U.S. had during WWII”.

The Herald: John has taken the restored jeep on the roadJohn has taken the restored jeep on the road (Image: George Cairns)

The one spotted by John in a field in England had been brought from America, stamped with the day it was built in Dallas, Texas: May, 29, 1945.

“It was a complete mess, it didn’t have an engine, but I looked past that and kept thinking it couldn’t be that difficult to fix it up.  Nearly 13 eyars down the line, I’m not so sure… But I wanted to try it.

“I remember my wife laughing when it came off the trailer and saying ‘what the hell have you bought?’ But I couldn’t see past the history behind it.”

The mustard shade of yellow peeking through the rust has led John to suspect it might have had a role with the US Air Force. But its exact war service is less important that the wealth of signatures the jeep now carries and what it symbolises.

“Presidents, kings, queens, soldiers, everyone used it,” he says. “The jeep is iconic.  If you watch a war film, you’ll see a jeep somewhere.”

Now almost finished, he concedes the restoration had its challenges, from accidents caused while attempting to teach himself how to weld, to spells when he struggled to get motivated to finish.

His diagnosis last year, however, was a turning point.

“Sometimes I didn’t have the urge, and it was sitting outside in the cold under a cover.

“When I was told I might have five to ten years to live, I wondered what was the point?

“Then I thought I might as well get on. These guys went through a war and kept going, I couldn’t stop, I had to get back into it.

“The 80th anniversary of D Day gave me something to focus on and inspired me to get it done, not sitting here in self-pity.”

He plans to hook it up to trailer in summer, bound for Portsmouth and the focus of the D Day commemorations.

The Herald: Work on the jeep is almost finishedWork on the jeep is almost finished (Image: George Cairns)

But there’s one last job to do.

“I’m going to call the jeep ‘Tribute’,” he adds, “I’ll paint in white so it will be recognised as just that.”

John’s work on the jeep has been captured in YouTube videos filmed by his brother, George. View part one  here