A grueling 62-day journey by a motley collection of motor vehicles would help shape America’s modern highway system.
THE CONVOY OF AMBULANCES, ARTILLERY TRACTORS, MOTORCYCLES, WATER TRUCKS, and kitchen trailers caused tremendous excitement and curiosity in the dusty little towns through which it passed. The odd assortment of vehicles even included a 15-piece band. And there was certainly enough time for those locals to get an eyeful as the caravan wound its way slowly across the United States. The tortoise-like procession of metal that was grabbing such attention was the U.S. Army’s First Transcontinental Motor Convoy, which had left Washington, D.C., on July 7, 1919, for San Francisco. Though it has been all but forgotten today, the convoy would have a significant impact on one of the most omnipresent aspects of modern American life: the U.S. interstate highway system. In the summer of 1919 the United States was bound together by railroads and an unorganized patchwork of mostly unmarked, rutted dirt, sand, and occasionally paved roads. One of the most industrialized nations on earth was woe fully unprepared for the changes about to be wrought by the internal combustion engine. Between 1915 and 1919, U.S. automobile registrations tripled to 7.5 million. Not until 1917, however, had all 48 states passed laws permitting state aid for highway construction. By 1919, only 12 percent of the country’s rural roads had been “surfaced”–a definition that included dirt and gravel surfaces–and those were usually maintained locally. To make matters worse, with no higher authority overseeing construction, what roads there were were unconnected and broken into thousands of star-like clusters. Henry B. Joy, president of the Packard Motor Car Company, once asked a distributor in Omaha for directions to the road headed west. The distributor accompanied him westward until they came to a fence and then told Joy, “Just take down the fence and drive on and when you come to the next fence, take that down and go on again.”
Even when a road was found, there was no guarantee that it would be marked. Carl G. Fisher, who was instrumental in building the Indianapolis Motor Speed way, recalled losing his way one rainy night nine miles outside of Indianapolis:
…one of us thought he saw a sign on a pole. It was too high up to read and we had no means of throwing a light on it, so there was nothing to be done but climb the pole in the wet and darkness and see if we could make out some road direction on the sign. We matched to see who should climb. I lost. Eventually by hard climbing, I got up to the sign. I scratched a match and before the wind blew it out I read the sign. It said: “Chew Battle-Ax Plug.”
Perhaps understandably, Fisher was one of a number of early automobile pioneers who saw the need to develop an improved road network. After much hard work he obtained pledges of four million dollars toward the construction of a coast-to-coast highway. He was also influential in the formation of the Lincoln Highway Association (LHA) in 1913. The association’s purpose was “to procure the establishment of a continuous improved highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific, open to lawful traffic of all description without toll charges: such highway to be known, in memory of Abraham Lincoln, as ‘The Lincoln Highway.” ‘
After its founding, the association set to the task of promoting road improvements and demonstrating the capabilities of motor transport. By the time of America’s entry into World War I in 1917, many of the association’s members had gained considerable experience traveling by automobile. This experience, in turn, led to a close relationship between the LHA and the army as the country geared up for war.
During the winter of 1917, Henry C. Ostermann, field secretary of the association, piloted convoys of government trucks along the Lincoln Highway’s eastern section. A colorful character, Ostermann had traveled with William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West show. It was while guiding military convoys that Ostermann became interested in the idea of sending a large convoy of trucks along the entire length of the Lincoln Highway as a promotion. At the time, the LHA’s highway was more conceptual than tangible, with only short sections on the East Coast actually completed. Nevertheless, Ostermann and the association secretary, Austin F. Bement, began to lobby army officials with their idea.
Unable to do much more than plan while the country was at war, the LHA had to wait for peace before the army took a serious interest in their proposal. However, a report by a convoy observer credits Captain Bernard H. McMahon for working up the plan. Impressed by what it had seen of the motor vehicle’s capabilities during the war, the army wanted to conduct experiments on the military applications of vehicles and accepted McMahon’s plan.
The First Transcontinental Motor Convoy consisted of Companies E and F of the 433rd Motor Supply Train, comprising 12 officers and 210 men; Service Park Unit 595, a repair unit of one officer and 38 men; Company E of the Fifth Engineers, with two officers and 30 men; a medical and a field artillery detachment; and 17 commissioned observers representing nine branches of the army.
Sources disagree on the number of vehicles in the convoy, with estimates ranging from 63 to 81, perhaps depending upon whether kitchen trailers, motorcycles, and vehicles added or retired on the way were counted. In order to test the capabilities of a variety of army vehicles, the convoy included a number of different types of cars, trucks, and motorcycles including Cadillac and Dodge passenger cars; White observation and reconnaissance cars; Garford, Mack, Packard, Riker, and White trucks; GMC ambulances; and two- and four wheeled kitchen trailers. “Pilots,” who marked the route ahead of the convoy, rode Harley-Davidson and Indian motor cycles. Two trucks were outfitted as mobile machine shops, one as a black smith shop, and a one-ton Cadillac searchlight truck went along. Standard Class B military three-ton trucks, including three that served as gasoline and water tankers, also made the trip. Two vehicles that proved especially valuable to the convoy were the tracked five-ton Maxwell artillery tractor and the three ton artillery wheeled tractor known to its operators as a Militor.
Brigadier General Charles B. Drake, chief of the Motor Transport Corps, explained the convoy’s objectives to curious reporters just prior to departure:
We hope in conducting this first transcontinental run of an army transport convoy to give an exhibition to the general public of the vast development of the motorized branch of the army and of the motor vehicle for military purposes, which development is conceded to be one of the principal factors contributing to the winning of the war. It is also hoped that the trip, in addition to providing experience and data required by the War Department, will serve the purpose of indicating the need for the immediate development of transcontinental highways and of through interstate connecting roads as military and economic assets
The convoy’s departure on July 7, 1919, was coupled with the dedication of the Zero Milestone, south of the White House grounds. Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Peyton March, government officials, and several members of Congress were present to see what the New York Times described as “the largest aggregation of motor vehicles ever started on a trip of such length.”
Aware of the public relations opportunities offered by the convoy, a number of civilian companies attached themselves to the procession. Three tire manufacturers were represented. Among them was Harvey F. Firestone, who sent his son, Harvey, Jr., to promote the Firestone “Ship by Truck” advertising campaign. Goodyear sent the 15-piece band.
Following several speeches and photos, the convoy left Washington at 11:15 a.m. The log of 1st Lieutenant E.R. Jackson, one of the observers on the trip, explains some of the difficulties encountered on that first day: “Stopped for lunch at Rockville, Md., 12:30 p.m. Trailmobile Kitchen”” broke coupling, 2:50 p.m. Fan belt broke on White Observation Car. Militor towed Class B, with broken magneto coupling, one mile into camp at Frederick Fair grounds. Fair and warm. Roads excellent. Made 46 miles in 7¼ hours. Arrived Frederick, Md., 6:30 p.m.
No one knew it at the time, but one of the journey’s most important travelers joined the convoy at Frederick. Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower and a friend, Major Serano Brett, traveled from Fort Meade, Maryland, to join the convoy. The two men had been sent as the Tank Corps’ observers on the day the convoy left Washington, and they brought with them a small Renault tank. Not long after joining the convoy, Eisenhower began to experience some of the tribulations of being a part of the trek across the country. Decades later he recalled that the four orations at a town early in the trip were “only a slight taste of the hot air ahead.”
At Gettysburg the convoy joined the route of the Lincoln Highway. Jackson noted: “Militor pulled Class B Machine Shop #414319 (10 tons) out of mud on bad detour near Emmitsburg….No accidents to personnel. Fair and warm. Roads excellent, with exception of two detours on account of unsafe bridge and repairs to Lincoln Highway. Made 62 miles in 10 hours. Arrived Chambersburg, Pa., 5:30 p.m.
On the third day the convoy made 57 miles. Following his daily inventory of breakdowns and difficulties, Jackson remarked upon the “excellent driving for untrained personnel.” Eisenhower was less impressed: “The convoy had been literally thrown together and there was little discernible control.” On July 10, it rained all day, making the roads slippery. Jackson noted that one truck “skidded over the road on the Laurel Hill descent near Ligonier, Pa. and was lost down the mountainside beyond hope of recovery.” Practically all of the equipment was new when the convoy left Washington. But bad roads and inexperienced drivers had already begun to take a toll. On July 12, Jackson reported the main drive shaft in a three-ton, four-wheel-drive truck “was twisted off at the rear trans mission bearing, when an inexperienced driver threw in reverse gear and dropped in the clutch while coasting down hill at high speed, intending to use the motor as a brake.” That afternoon the vehicles reached East Palestine, Ohio, near the Pennsylvania state line, ending the first week. A newspaper covering the convoy said it had slowed for a parade through Pittsburgh, “where the city officials, the Chamber of Commerce, and the automobile associations combined to make the greetings particularly hearty.”
A publicity officer rode with the flamboyant Ostermann in a white Packard pilot car ahead of the convoy. This gave Ostermann a chance to use all of the promotional skills he had acquired while traveling with the Wild West show. Unfortunately, Jackson reported that the publicity “was in a large measure counter acted by the exaggerated and misleading statements” issued by the publicity officer. “It is to be regretted that after having read the newspaper accounts of the Convoy, the people of many communities were somewhat disappointed when the train of trucks arrived.”
Not everyone, however, was disappointed. Two historians have noted: “The excitement of a circus parade and the patriotism of a Fourth of July celebration attended the arrival of the convoy in a community. Mechanical equipment, recently used to defeat Germany, naturally drew crowds in 1919. So did the soldiers now home from the continent victorious.” One soldier in the convoy later recalled that he had traveled coast to coast between two lines of cameras.
Meanwhile, drivers, many of whom were raw recruits, were gaining valuable experience. Some, however, learned faster than others. On the 13th day of the trip, a mechanic joined a driver whose vehicle kept stalling. Before the days of starters and generators came the days of cranks and magnetos, and the poor driver was nearly exhausted from cranking his vehicle every few miles. Before long, the mechanic discovered the problem: The driver had no idea what a clutch was. For 13 days he had ignored his vehicle’s clutch pedal and used only the accelerator and brake. “How he got to be a driver, I’ll never know,” the frustrated mechanic recalled. Nevertheless, Jackson reported that only three trucks were “retired from service en route.” One was the hard-working Militor, which was left behind just west of Salt Lake City. Jackson reported that the Militor “always brought up the rear of the train, and rescued any vehicles that had gone into the ditch, or took in tow those that were disabled.” This routine was sometimes a hardship for the tractor’s driver. According to Jackson, the driver drove across central Ohio “from 8 a.m. July 15th to 2:50 a.m. July 16th, without sleep or food, no rations having been sent back to him.”
The kitchen trailers also hindered progress. Twenty-two miles out of South Bend, Indiana, a two-wheeled kitchen dropped its stack and rear section in the road. Two days later the back portion of another two-wheeled kitchen trailer dropped into the streets of Joliet, Illinois. The Mississippi River was reached on the afternoon of July 22, and, much to the relief of the weary soldiers in the convoy, when they reached Denison, Iowa, local officials constructed a temporary shower at the truckers’ campsite. There were refreshments and dancing in the square, and Jackson saw the “Largest crowd in history of Denison gathered to participate in welcome to Convoy personnel.” On July 29, the convoy crossed the Douglas Street Bridge over the Missouri River and entered Omaha, Nebraska. Convoy officers joined officers stationed at Fort Omaha, along with some prominent citizens, for a dinner at the new Omaha Athletic Club. Meanwhile, citizens held a dance with refreshments at Krug Park for the enlisted men.
While many towns provided the convoy participants with welcome diversions, on the road they had to find their own entertainment. Eisenhower wrote: “Early one morning, several of us, riding in a reconnaissance car across the plains of Nebraska saw a jack rabbit loping across the road” One of the party shot the rabbit and they carried it with them until they neared their scheduled campsite. They found a bush and propped the now-stiffened rabbit against it. That same evening, Eisenhower and his friend Brett “persuaded two of our eastern friends to drive out with us to do a little shooting. We took only .45 caliber pistols. As we drove along, Sereno suddenly said, “Stop! Stop! Look over there–see that rabbit!” At that distance, and in dim ming light, one could see him only in imagination.” According to Eisenhower: “We described him so carefully that the easterners admitted they could make out his outline. Sereno said I was one of the finest pistol shots he had ever known. ‘Ike, why don’t you take a crack at him?’ ” Eisenhower said he aimed in the general direction of the long-deceased rabbit and fired. Brett exclaimed: “You’ve got him! You’ve got him! He fell.” Brett retrieved it and “brought the rabbit toward us but when he came within thirty or forty yards and was sure that we had all seen it, he threw it aside and said, ‘Well, let’s turn back.’ ”
The easterners protested, naively thinking the rabbit would make a good addition to their rations. “No matter how unappetizing the ordinary jack rabbit, we didn’t dare let them see one which had been shot twelve hours earlier.”
Such pranks must have given the participants welcome relief after dealing with perhaps their most form id able foe: thick mud, called gumbo, which formed after it rained. Fortunately the convoy had encountered rain only once between Ohio and Lexington, Nebraska, but at that point their luck ran out. Jackson reported that they left Lexington at 6:15 a.m. in light rain and about 15 miles later at Cozad the entire convoy stopped to attach non-skid chains. Shortly, how ever, the road got much worse: “25 trucks skidded into the ditch during day. Very apparent all trucks should be equipped with chains for front wheels as well as rear.”
The convoy was behind schedule now and skipped the usual Sunday rest to reach North Platte, Nebraska, the previous night’s scheduled stop. It took about 10 hours to make the 34 miles to the town. Three days later, and running two days late, the convoy traded gumbo for sand at Big Springs, Nebraska. Jackson noted the Red Cross Canteen Service furnished lemonade and cigarettes to tired soldiers. By the time the convoy arrived at Salt Lake City on August 19, it was running four days late. Undaunted by the delay, a reception committee escorted the convoy into the city at the head of several hundred commercial trucks. Jackson recalled that the parade was “reviewed by governors of Utah and 18 other states. Large purple and white floral motor truck presented to Expeditionary Commander. Dinner dance at Hotel Utah Roof Garden.”
After leaving Salt Lake City, however, there was little to celebrate. The convoy made the slowest time of the trip so far, not reaching its camp until 10:30 p.m. And the following day was even slower. A part of the intended route, heading southwest from Salt Lake City toward lbapah, was under construction and impassable. The convoy was instead forced to detour across a salt marsh with a thin, hard crust that quickly broke under the weight of the vehicles. Jackson recorded, “Practically every vehicle was mired and rescue work required almost superhuman efforts of entire personnel from 2 p.m. until after midnight.” They averaged less than two miles per hour. The day’s difficulties meant that the convoy ran short of water, and, ironically, a Utah highway official had to haul tanks of water by horse team to the struggling vehicles and men. The convoy continued across Nevada and reached Fallon on August 29. After leaving Fallon, the caravan took 11 hours to drive 12 miles. According to Jackson, “All heavy vehicles, including Cadillacs had to be pulled and pushed through by combined efforts of Tractor and men, over wheel paths made of sage brush.” Company E reached Carson City at 11 p.m., other vehicles straggled in three and a half hours later, and a tractor towing a Mack with a bad clutch did not arrive until 11:30 a.m. the following morning.
Preparations were now made for the ascent of the Sierra Nevada at King’s Grade. One man on each vehicle stood ready to block the wheels at each halt. Jackson wrote of the difficult trip: “Reached altitude of 7630′ at summit, over narrow, winding road of sand and broken stone, cut out of, and, in places, built up on mountain side. Total climb 14 mi. made in 6 hrs. slow progress being necessary to prevent accident. Grades 8% to 14%. Crossing Sierras without accident may be considered noteworthy achievement for heavy vehicles.”
The members of the convoy had been eating dust for the better part of two months, having seen little pavement since Illinois. The trip was near an end, and the weary participants were becoming excited. From Placerville to Sacramento, they traveled the entire route downgrade over bitumen- surfaced concrete roads lined with palm trees, through peach, almond, orange, and olive orchards, as well as vineyards. Residents showered the convoy with fruits. The well-worn vehicles entered Sacramento leading a parade of motor trucks. They camped in the state fair grounds with a fair in progress. Dinner and a cabaret for the convoy’s men were provided, courtesy of John N. Willys, at the salesroom of the Willys-Overland Company, followed by dances for both officers and enlisted men. In the dinner program, Willys wrote that convoy participants were like the “immortal ‘Forty-Niners,” saying, “Their blood is the blood of the Western country: strong-virile-self-reliant.” He continued that they, too, had blazed new trails “of Commerce, Highways, Mechanical Achievement, and the Protection of the Flag.”
At Stockton new clothing was issued for the final parade in San Francisco. A group of officials, a reception committee, the War Camp Community Service, the fire department, and a parade met the convoy 10 miles east of Oakland. According to Jackson’s log, they were “escorted through Court of Honor and flag festooned streets, while all whistles around Bay were blowing. Elaborate electrical and fireworks display. Dinner, Hotel Oakland. Dance, Municipal Auditorium.” On the final day, September 6, 1919, the convoy crossed San Francisco Bay on two ferries and immediately paraded through the city to Lincoln Park. The Lincoln Highway Association presented medals to all the personnel, another milestone was dedicated, and the vehicles parked at the Presidio. Jackson’s log concluded simply, “Arrived San Francisco, Cal. 11:30 a.m.”
The cross-country journey had been grueling. A report by Captain William C. Greany, the convoy’s statistical officer, compared living conditions “to those generally experienced in the advance zone of battle operations, but the tour of continuous duty was of a longer duration than is usual for such service.” He said that the convoy’s personnel got an average of only five and a half hours of sleep per night.
Greany figured that “1,778 miles or 54.7 per cent of the mileage was made over dirt roads, wheel paths, mountain trails, desert sands, and alkali flats.” He added that 500 hundred miles was practically impassable and required “combined efforts of the most extraordinary character.” He counted 230 road accidents, which included “instances of road failure, and vehicles sinking in quicksand or mud, running off the road or over embankments, overturning, or other mishaps.” After the convoy, highway interests , including the army and the LHA, continued to push for increased federal aid for road improvements. In testimony before a U.S. Senate committee in 1921, General John J. Pershing supported federal assistance for a well-planned system of roads. He reminded the committee, “You will, of course, recall the campaigns of the Civil War in Virginia and that the armies were bogged time and time again.”
In his next annual report as chief of the Motor Transport Corps, General Drake wrote that among the lessons of the convoy was the fact that a comprehensive system of national highways was a real and urgent necessity, both for commerce and from the standpoint of military defense. He also wrote that existing roads, especially in the middle and western states, had deficiencies that made them a national problem.
In response, Congress appropriated federal aid for highway construction, but the interstate system we know today did not take shape until very early in Eisenhower’s administration. On February 4, 1953, while still writing thank you messages regarding his inauguration only two weeks earlier, the president forwarded a study to Gabriel Hauge, his administrative assistant. He told Hauge the study discussed building a highway system and “high-speed highways traversing some of our big cities.” Eisenhower noted: “Our cities still conform too rigidly to the patterns, customs, and practices of fifty years ago. Each year we add hundreds of thousands of new automobiles to our vehicular population, but our road systems do not keep pace with the need.”
On June 26, 1956, the Senate approved the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, by a vote of 89 to 1. Eleven years later, Eisenhower recalled how the convoy and his later experience in Germany set the stage: “When we finally secured the necessary congressional approval, we started the 41,000 miles of super highways that are already proving their worth. This was one of the things that I felt deeply about, and I made a personal and absolute decision to see that the nation would benefit by it. The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land.”
Kevin L. Cook is a retired librarian living in Oklahoma.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2001 issue (Vol. 13, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Ike’s Road Trip
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