A man and his car: Vietnam veteran credits Corvette for getting him through the war

Published: Friday, July 20, 2012, 11:27 AM

By Kyle Campbell | kcampbe8@mlive.com


Joe Munch of Hampton Township behind the wheel of his 1966 Chevrolet Corvette Tuesday, July 17, 2012. Munch pulled the car out of storage about three months ago, after it sat there for 40 years. The car will be displayed at the Old Town Motorfest in Saginaw Sunday.

HAMPTON TOWNSHIP, MI — In 1966, when he was 17, Joe Munch bought his first car.

It was a brand new Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, and he paid the $4,900 price tag himself. He cherished the car.

He even credits the thoughts of his car as one of the few things that helped him get through his two years of military service in Vietnam.

But shifting priorities and a growing family led Munch, who lives in Bay County’s Hampton Township, to park the Stingray.

It was 1972, and with his wife Marsha expecting their first baby, Munch stored the Stingray in a friend’s garage, and there it stayed for 40 years.

“I started realizing that I couldn’t do things like I used to, and I put off my personal enjoyments when the kids came along,” said Munch, now 64.

In 2010, a brush with death helped Munch decide it was time to get busy living. He had a heart attack, then several minor strokes.

“After the visit in the hospital, I frankly feel that I was running out of time,” Munch said. “I should do that now, or it’s not going to happen. Someone will fight over it when I’m dead.”

Now, three months after hauling the car out of storage, Joe Munch is ready to show off his pride and joy in Saginaw’s Old Town Motorfest on Sunday. The show runs from Noon to 4 p.m. along Hamilton and Court streets in Old Saginaw City.

Registration takes place from 10 a.m. to noon at The Saginaw News office, 100 S. Michigan Ave., across from the courthouse on Court Street.

For Joe Munch and his car, it’s been a long journey to get where they are now.

Joe Munch drives his Corvette Vietnam veteran Joe Munch gets his Corvette out of storage after forty years. The car will be on display at Old Town Motorfest this Sunday. Watch video

Hard-earned cash

Joe Munch is a worker. His first job was at the now-defunct Wenona Beach Amusement Park, helping repair rides and games.

He was 5 years old.

“At that time, I did everything that the men did; taking care of the amusement park and the grounds,” Munch said. “We lived just a short distance from the park on Saginaw Bay, and that’s just where I gravitated to. When all my other friends were off playing in the park, I was there working.”

He said he enjoyed the work, especially learning about the mechanics of the rides, and  when his father died four years later, working became a necessity to help out his family.

Munch worked two jobs during high school along with additional work on the weekends. By the time his senior year rolled around, he decided it was time to get something for himself.

“I got up one morning when I was working and going to school senior year, I woke up late for school, and I say, ‘Man, I gotta get a car,’” he said. “I decided that’s what I wanted to buy. After I wore my mother down, she let me get it.”

It wasn’t just any car.

A light blue 1966 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray had with a big block 427 engine, 425 horsepower, a telescopic teakwood steering wheel with power steering, power breaks, power windows, AM/FM radio, rag top, hard top, heavy duty suspension — the works.

A few weeks and $4,900 later, Joe Munch had his car.

He recalls coming home to clean it every day between jobs, then fueling it up at the end of the day so he could cruise with his friends at night.

“I used to kid everyone that when I got into the Army I felt that I was sleeping in every day at 4 o’clock in the morning because that was the most sleep I’d had in a long time,” he said.

Off to war

In October 1967, Munch was drafted into the Army at 19 years old. He was deployed to Vietnam.

He was an infantryman and patrolled the jungles of Vietnam.

“I saw what I would consider quite a bit of combat,” he said. “We would make contact at the minimum of two to three times a week, so that would keep you pretty busy.”

During one mission while he was running point, scouting ahead of group, he tripped a booby trap and detonated a landmine, launching shrapnel through his left leg.

Throughout his two-year tour, a few things kept him going, and one was the thought of the Corvette waiting for him back home.

“It always was special to me,” he said. “It kept me going when I was drafted; all I thought about was the car.”

Munch fought through his injury to finish his tour. Afterward, he was awarded a Purple Heart, an Army Commendation Award and several Bronze Stars for valor during his service.

Another prize waited for him in Bay County.

Munch’s then-girlfriend and later bride, the former Marsha Collier recalls his plan to surprise his mother and two aunts, who didn’t know he was coming home.

“He didn’t want his mother to know he was home, so I had to go to his house and convince one of his aunts to let me take his car,” Marsha Munch said. “I took it, and I went to the airport to pick him up. He was so excited. I think (the car was) just the first thing he wanted to see.”

Family first

Six months after Joe Munch returned from war, he and Marsha married, and he took on a job as a supervisor at the Made Rite potato chip plant in Bay City.

He and his car regained their reputation around town.

Joe Munch’s children grew up hearing the legends of the Corvette. They heard stories about how their dad would have to shut the engine off a few blocks from home and coast the rest of the when he would return at night, so as not to wake up the whole neighborhood, or how the speed of the car could shoot a pack of cigarettes out of your shirt pocket.

But his son, Andrew Munch, 37, of Essexville said his dad wouldn’t brag about those kinds of stories.

“He would just tell us general stories, nothing that would incriminate him,” Andrew Munch said. “Stories about how he would drive it up and down Euclid or to the drive-in.”

Marsha Munch gave birth to their first child Michele in 1973.

Though he loved the car, Joe Munch decided it was not practical for a young family. Rather than sell it, he got convinced his friend, Robert Decorte, to let him store the vehicle in his barn. There it stayed for 40 years.

He visited the car from time to time, showing if off to his children. Michele Munch remembers he father putting her in the front seat once so she could feel like she was driving. Andrew Munch recalls his father once backing the car out of the barn, but that was as far as it went.

“Growing up, we always bothered him to take it out, and he always said, ‘Not until all the bicycles are out of the garage,’” James Munch said of his father. “Even after everyone was out of the house, he still wouldn’t take it out.”

A new lease on life

On Nov. 24, 2010, the day before Thanksgiving, Joe Munch suffered a heart attack.

That Friday, he underwent a triple bypass heart surgery, and two days later, he suffered a series of “mini-strokes,” his wife said.

He experienced partial-paralysis on the right side of his body. To this day he walks with a limp, his speech is slower and he said he has a difficult time remembering certain things. Joe Munch said the most difficult part was the loss of his self-sufficiency.

“I just can’t do some things,” he said. “I was a very independent type person for my whole life, and I had to do for myself. I’m not complaining, but I’m just used to it, and now it’s a lot of effort to do things, so I don’t get out like I used to.”

During the months after his heart attack and strokes, Munch began evaluating his life and realized that he had abandoned many of his old passions. He said his mind drifted back to the car that sat in barn just a few miles from his house.

It was time to start living for himself again.

Munch had long admired the work of Saginaw-based Dynamic Corvettes, 308 N. Hamilton, an automobile restoration shop that specializes in vintage Corvettes. He befriended the owner, Steve Snow, several years ago after a chance encounter at the Bringer Inn, 516 W. Genesee.

Snow said he and Munch regularly discussed the Corvette.

In April 2012, when Munch was ready to haul the car out of the barn, he turned to Snow for help. Snow said he was honored, but he came to find out that it would be more of an honor than he could have imagined.

“The key thing that really got me: The first day that we looked at the car, I’m standing there with him behind me, and he made a comment to me that I won’t forget. He said, ‘This is what got me through the jungle,’” Snow said. “And I did not realize until that point that he was a Vietnam veteran. Over the years, I’d heard a lot of stories about veterans and their cars. Joe was ready to drive his car again.”

Snow also is an Army veteran, having enlisted shortly after the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam. He said having that military bond with Munch made what they did all the more special.

A father’s surprise

The Saturday after Munch made his proposal to Snow, the two went to Decorte’s barn to take a look.

Courtesy of Steve SnowJoe Munch and his wife Marsha stand in front of his 1966 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray in April 2012 inside their friend’s barn in Hampton Township. Joe Munch stored his car in the barn for 40 years. This photo was taken the day the car was removed.

Though it was covered in dirt and surrounded by garbage, Snow said the car was in surprisingly good shape, with only one flat tire and a few other minor repairs needed.

A week later, Snow had a flatbed tow truck at the barn ready to take the dirt-coated car to his shop. But had Munch had another idea.

“We made arrangements with Mike’s Wrecker (Service) to go up and get the car up in Essexville, but Joe just asked us to take all the back roads so no one would see the car driving through town,” Snow said. “He wanted to keep it a secret amongst his four kids.”

Snow and his crew spent the next two months cleaning out the car, getting rid of the dust and the grime, and replacing the gas tank, the brakes, motor belts and a few other parts.

Snow said he had the car road-ready but Munch didn’t want to make any cosmetic changes to the vehicle. He wanted it the way he remembered it.

“When we brought it home, it was a couple weeks ago, and I was driving behind him, and it looked like him from the back when he was 18 again,” Marsha Munch said.

On June 16, the day before Father’s Day, Joe and Marsha Munch had their four children meet them for lunch at the Bringer Inn. Snow and his family met the Munches at the restaurant by feigned coincidence, and the topic of Corvettes came up in conversation.

Snow extended an invitation to the Munch family to stop by his shop, and they accepted.

Upon arriving, Michele, Andrew, James and Stephen Munch were met with a strikingly familiar blue Corvette with a vanity plate that read “JMUNCH.”

“All of just looked at each other like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s the car, and it’s in great in shape,’” said Michele Munch, 39, of Oxford. “To see (my dad’s) eyes light up was the best gift in the world.”

Joe Munch had his sons James and Andrew take the car to the Bay City’s Cool City Car Show on July 13 and 14, an experience that James Munch described as “the most American thing I’ve ever done.”

This weekend, Joe Munch plans to show off the car himself at the Old Town Motorfest. He said he is thankful to be alive and able to do what he loves.

“I just enjoy life, I guess … too much, some people would say,” he said with a laugh.


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