Meeting America At 30 MPH With The MVPA Transcontinental Motor Convoy
A convoy of military vehicles and their tired drivers roll into the small Midwestern town with little notice. The population sign listed 1,100 people, and that many look to be lining Main Street. How did they hear? Everyone is smiling and most are waving. Some hold American flags. Some carry homemade signs of a patriotic nature. At the center of town, a local high school band plays Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever." The mayor and town council wave regally and a color guard made up of local veterans present arms as the convoy motors by at a walking pace.
Along the road, there is a line of elderly people in wheelchairs, afghans across their laps. One elderly man in that group struggles to rise and catches the eye of a convoy member. A worn-out body makes this simple act as hard now as was charging an enemy position under fire many decades ago. The old man makes it to his feet, sways, and painfully forces his bent body straight. A gnarled right hand rises to his brow, and the bright eyes beneath scan to connect with someone in the convoy. The younger veteran in the convoy has seen the effort, and tears of pride and compassion run down his face. He locks eyes with the old soldier and returns what may be a last salute.
This display of American spirit and love was played out hundreds of times in 1919 when the First Transcontinental Motor Convoy (TMC) drove the proposed route of the nation's first coast-to-coast highway and, again, ninety years later, when the Military Vehicle Preservation Association (MVPA) reenacted the event along the same route.
The First Convoy
The 1919 Convoy was one of the longest and largest motorized expeditions ever attempted at that time. It combined a test of military transport doctrine with a headline-grabbing PR event to promote the proposed coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway. Each state was to build its own section of the roadway, but many were slow in getting around to it. The TMC was expected to provide motivation. Most of the convoy was made up of American soldiers and U.S. Army vehicles from the Motor Transport Corps, including 37 officers and 258 enlisted men. Civilians included members of the national organizations promoting the new highway riding in factory-sponsored Packard Twin-Six automobiles. Representatives of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company rode in Packard trucks shod with Firestone pneumatic tires and provided tire support.
The journey began in Washington, D.C. on July 7, 1919 and ended up in San Francisco, California, on September 1, 1919 after covering 3,250 miles. It was not an easy drive. What roads that existed for motor vehicles were located around cities. The eastern states had done a decent job on their part of the highway project, but there were large gaps out west where the roads were haphazardly placed and largely suitable only for horses, wagons, and foot traffic.
The list of vehicles included 46 trucks, only four of which were 4x4s. Of the two-wheel drives, the majority were 3-ton Model B "Liberty" trucks, produced in large numbers by various manufacturers to a common specification during World War I. There were Dodge 3/4-ton service trucks, GMC 11/2-ton ambulances and cargo trucks, Packard, Riker, White and Garford 2- and 3-tons, as well as five Mack Model AC 51/2-tonners. The passenger cars were mostly medium Dodges, but there were two heavy Cadillacs and three heavy Whites, plus a Cadillac searchlight car. There were nine motorcycles (Harleys and Indians), a number of specialty trailers, and a Maxwell crawler hauled on one of the Macks.
Of the four 4x4s, three were 3-ton FWD Model Bs and one a Militor 3-ton artillery tractor equipped with an 8-ton winch. The winch-equipped Militor was generally considered the hero of the journey and in constant service winching mired 4x2s back from the brink. The three FWDs also did yeoman service, hooking up to the two-wheelers and assisting them through the rough stuff. The Maxwell crawler was also used for towing, as well as for road- or bridge-building.