Willy the Jeep has come home to a hero's welcome 36 years after leaving this central California town to go to war.

That was the year Stockton High School's last agriculture teacher Mitch Lewis had his brainstorm-"The Great Jeep Project."

From 1943 though 1945 students and faculty had a spirited savings-stamp and war-bond drive. They sold the stamps and bonds thougout the San Joaquin Valley and contributed their own lunch money and earnings from odd jobs to support the war effort. For every $900 raised the government credited the school with the purchase of a new jeep. By the end of the war Stockton High had bought a fleet of 275 jeeps.

A 2-inch by 2-inch plaque place on the dashboard of each one of the 275 small, rugged, all purpose World War II vehicles read:

"This jeep is one of a fleet presented to the United States Army by the students and faculty of Stockton High School, Stockton, Calif. Please report periodically the fate of this jeep and return the plaque at the end of the war."

"Thousands of letters were sent to our school from the battlefields of the Pacific and Europe by grateful GIs describing their exploits and adventures while riding in Stockton High jeeps," recalled Marian Jacobs. She was the editor in 1944 of "Guard and Tacke," the school paper.

"Several letters students sent in reply were returned marked, 'Missing In Action' or 'Killed In Action.'

As the years passed "The Great Jeep Project" was all but forgotten. The high school has converted into a junior high school in the early 1960s and two years ago old Stockton high was demolished.

What happened to the jeeps after the war was anybody's guess. Those marked with the plaques were shipped from an Army staging depot in Stockton to the war zone, the vast majority to the Pacific, a few to Europe.

But none of the jeeps ever came back to Stockton. Not until recently.

The odyssey of Stockton High School's jeep No. 151, now affectionately called Willy the Jeep by towns people, has been carefully decomented.

This jeep has shipped to the battlefields of Italy, where German troops captured it as a war prize. The Germans had held the jeep for a year when Canadian paratroopers liberated it in Holland.

The Canadians, noting the Stockton high plaque, turned the jeep over to American forces at the war's end. The jeep was shipped back to the United States and wound up at an army disposal auction in Texarkana, Texas.

A Texas farmer bought it and used it as a utility vehicle for 10 years until it stopped running. The jeep sat in a field near the Texas-Oklahoma border for years, forgotten.

Enter Don Maclellan, a Dallas carbuff.

"I happened to run across the jeep in 1963. It was half buried in the field, mired progressively deeper by years of rainstorms," explained Maclellan in a phone conversation.

It was only recently, however, upon removing several coats of paint from the dashboard, that he discovered that Stockton High School plaque.

Maclellan's son, Don Jr., was critically injured in a traffic accident last year. To pay for medical bills, the Dallas man has been selling cars he had collected.

"I had 18 different offers from people wanting to buy the Jeep," said Maclellan picking up the story. "But in the back of my mind I knew I just had to contact that high school in California. I knew there had to be a lot of sentimental value for the jeep in Stockton."

Maclellan wrote a letter to the Stockton School Board. The letter had referred to Arch Brown, a former principal at the high school. Maclellan, when contacted by Brown, told the Stockton school official that a friend wanted to buy the jeep for $5,500. Others, he said, had offered more.

Brown told Maclellan the people of Stockton would match the $5,500. A story appeared in the Stockton Record about the jeep. Two brothers, third generation Stocktonians, World War II veterans and graduates of the war-years classes at the high school, clothiers Tom and Bob MacKeegan came forth immediately, wrote a check for the $5,500 and donated the car to the city.

Stockton High School's Jeep No. 151 was brought back to Stockton from Dallas, without charge, in a Red Ball Motor Freight truck - a company founded by soldiers who operated the famed World War II Red Ball Express for Gen. Patton in Europe.

The whole town turned out for Willy's homecoming. Alumni of Stockton High's classes of 1943, 1944 and 1945 walked behind the jeep in a parade through town that included several marching bands.

"Willy represents a chapter of the past many of us had all but forgotten over the years," said Don MacKeegan.

"For Stockton to have one of the jeeps is something really specially," added his brother Tom.