While thousands of Utah military reserves and guardsmen gear up for Operation Desert Shield, the tiny Utah State Defense Force stands ready to offer two used trucks, a bus and rickety ambulance in time of war.

State and military officials don't think that will be necessary, thank you. But they say the 50 or so volunteer militiamen deserve credit for their willingness to operate on a shoestring with little likelihood of ever being needed.More than 2,000 Utah national guardsman and reservists have left for Operation Desert Shield, armed with the most sophisticated equipment and weaponry money can buy.

And tucked in a tiny office off a back hallway at the National Guard Armory, the defense force prepares to mobilize the state's manpower using "a couple of working typewriters and a passable Xerox machine," said USDF commanding Brig. Gen. Walter Summerville.

"We're getting the best we can for what we can afford," said National Guard Adjutant Gen. John Matthews. "If you want combat readiness, you have to pay for it. The state doesn't believe it's necessary to do that."

Indeed, Matthews and others would just as soon the militia stay away from guns and aggressive missions following a purge of gung-ho "wackos" three years ago from what was then known as the Utah State Guard.

During that time, the guard became a state-sanctioned-and-funded playground for a group of would-be commandos itching to play war.

Today, the force - not to be confused with the Army Reserves or the Utah National Guard - consists mostly of retired military personnel whose job it would be to organize and lead a larger state militia in an emergency.

"They are a cadre around which to build an additional force of people and equipment from the civilian sector," said Matthews. "It would depend on the job, but it could provide leadership that otherwise wouldn't be available.

Utah is one of 24 states which allow the governor to arm, maintain and mobilize a state militia against a perceived threat.

The governor also may conscript every "able-bodied man" between the ages of 18 and 45 into service in times of emergency.

The state militia has been activated just once since in its 70-plus years, and it has never seen combat or fired a shot in anger.

During World War II, about 600 officers and enlisted men, all volunteers unable to otherwise serve in the regular military, stood watch over empty armories and other state facilities.

The guard all but disappeared, except on paper, until 1981, when President Reagan announced that state militias should assume an active role in the country's defense.

But the force was poorly commanded, and some members twisted its docile custodial mission into one involving aggressive - and at times - bizarre training of young, inexperienced and sometimes questionable recruits.

During 1984-86, its membership ballooned to more than 400 members, most without any prior military background.

Its members included white supremacists with ties to the Aryan Nations Church in Hayden Lake, Idaho, convicted felons and some people with histories of mental illness.

"The guard, without proper mission statement, was attracting some individuals - wackos, quite frankly - who tend to gravitate to certain kinds of missions, combat missions, law enforcement missions," Matthews said in a 1987 interview.

"These types of people are `wannabe' soldiers, `wannabe' cops," Matthews said in a 1987 interview. "They want to go out and play Rambo."

The guard was reorganized in 1987 and given a new name to help it shed its old image.

"It's more in keeping with the national concept of defense forces," said Summerville.

"Our mission at this time is basically administrative and to fill in those gaps and support the command in whatever they want to do," he said.