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.
Eighty Years Later
The 2009 Convoy was made up of restored military vehicles, some dating back to the days of the original Convoy. Its purpose was to celebrate the veterans of our country, living and dead, the original Convoy, the Lincoln Highway, and the positive impact it had on our nation.
The idea had popped up in MVPA ranks two years before. None of the people who brought this epic event to completion wanted anything more than shared glory, but most point to former Supply Line Editor John Varner for the idea. While the '09 Convoy didn't face the travails of overloaded vehicles on "roads" that would otherwise be known as goat paths, they faced a sea of red tape, a river of paperwork, and a tidal wave of local, state, and federal politics. The route had to be prerun and a convoy doctrine developed to make the trip safe. Fortunately, the MVPA has a brain trust of military motorheads with lifetimes of experience in such matters. A team of about 15 MVPA members worked long hours well in advance of the event, some without the "payoff" of being able to participate in the actual event.
Some 32 vehicles started in Washington on June 13, 2009 and those same 32 rolled into Lincoln Park in San Francisco on July 8. Along the way, another 125 Historic Military Vehicles (HMV) joined the Convoy, some for only hours, others for days. They ranged in size from motorcycles to a gigantic 221/2-ton Oshkosh M-911 8x6.
Of the 32 rigs that made the entire trip, the crown jewel was Sergeant First Class Mark Ounan's 1918 Dodge staff car; officially a car, passenger, medium, open (Dodge). Ounan is an active-duty soldier with 26 years of service. He bought and restored the Dodge with the express purpose of driving the convoy. Collector Don Chew's 1917 FWD Model B 4x4 was also along-though only for the ride on a trailer. (With a top speed of only 14 mph, it was too slow to drive under its own power.) Several other WWI-era vehicles showed up at display points in the journey, including more FWDs, Liberty Bs, Nash Quads and other WWI hardware.
In the 32 vehicle core group, there were two motorcycles, including a World War II Harley-Davidson WLA and British Royal Enfield, several WWII-era Willys Jeeps and Ford GPWs, post-WWII M-38, M-38A1 and M-151 Jeeps, a '41 1/2-ton Dodge Weapons Carrier, a couple of WWII Dodge Command Cars, a WWII International Harvester M-2-4, an '80s Chevy CUCV, a couple of M-35-series deuce-and-a-halves, two 5-ton 6x6s towing van trailers, M-37 Dodges, and a few other rigs.
Keeping vehicles as old as 91 years going for 26 days and 3,300 miles was a challenge that the maintenance detachment, under the guidance of Dennis Boots, was prepared for. They had tools and spare parts loaded into two 30-foot military shop trailers towed by 5-ton 6x6s. Of the 32 vehicles slated to drive the entire route, reliability was good because the owners had prepared well. That wasn't true of some of the vehicles that joined later, when their owners discovered a 65-year-old parade truck that gets 50 miles per year isn't necessarily ready to drive hundreds or thousands of miles at a stretch. The maintenance detachment then had to take up the slack. Ethanol-blended gasoline was a constant problem with the old rigs. It broke loose gunk, clogged filters, and caused innumerable vapor-lock problems in hot weather.
Terry Shelswell ramrodded the Convoy and put the necessary talent in place in the various departments to get the jobs done. Once the convoy hit the road, Terry "led from the front" in his own M-38A1 Jeep. Art Pope drove his own '42 Ford Staff car as the advance party made sure the stopping points were ready. The Maintenance trucks made innumerable stops while the convoy was underway, getting balky old rigs going along the roadside, or loading them up onto trailers when they could not. The hands-on guys, most commonly Bernie, Bob, and Ken Field, never had to worry about evening plans or days off. Likewise, Brad Nelson, the "Commo King," knew a fair part of his evening would be devoted to making sure the radios were collected and charged for the next day. And Dr. James Lawes, MD, the official Convoy sawbones, had no major catastrophes to deal with, but plenty of advice for keeping healthy along the way.
The Convoy was divided into groups by vehicle type, each with its own unit leader and tailgunner. The slowest vehicle, the '18 Dodge, was always at the front and setting the pace. Generally, that was about 32 mph, but the old timer pushed to 40 a few times. The really big iron came next, followed by the smaller stuff by group. In several states and a few cities, the Convoy got police escorts. There was only one incident, and while it was in the "major" category, it did not occur while the convoy was underway. In Rawlins, Wyoming, during a day of rest, motorcyclist Ian Wallace was struck by a car shortly after leaving a restaurant and was badly injured. Though hospitalized, Ian insisted that his damaged Royal Enfield motorcycle be loaded onto a trailer to complete the trip. This was done, and Ian is recovering well.
When the Convoy reached the western terminus of the Lincoln Highway in San Francisco, they had driven 20 days, rested six, covered at least 3,250 miles and passed though 350 cities, towns or villages in 11 states. They drove unrestored portions of the original highway in several states, over dirt roads, through rainstorms and herds of range cattle. They met two people who remembered the original convoy passing through. Most of all, they experienced the heart and spirit of our great country in the love, support and respect heaped upon them by many thousands of Americans. Most of all, they cherished the veterans. Shelswell said it best in his wrap-up letter:
"We were encouraged and supported by far too many people to count! Our veterans standing there (rain or shine) straight as an arrow and saluting us. Somebody shoulda told them . . . we were doing it for them. They had it backwards."
So what's next Maybe a Seattle to Alaska Convoy in 2012 to commemorate the building of the Alcan Highway. Don't be surprised to see 100-year recap of the TMC in 2019, either.