Flashback: Military convoy rolls through Ohio in 2009

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1919 military convoy
The Maxwell tractor, driven by Sgt. Reese of the Army Ordinance Corp, pulling a Mack truck belonging to Co. E, 5th Engineers through the mud near Gothenburg, Nebraska on Aug. 3 or 4, 1919. (Photo courtesy of the late Pvt. Andrew Jackson Coleman, Sheila Panzone and Mike Tyler)

Last week (see story on page B1), a military convoy made up of restored vehicles of the Military Vehicle Preservation Association (MVPA) bivouacked at the park in East Palestine, Ohio, and was treated to a meal by East Palestine residents, same as the original U.S. Army cross-country convoy did in 1919. 

A week ago last Thursday morning, the trucks rolled through Salem on their way to lunch in Alliance. 

The convoy left York, Pennsylvania, Aug. 10, and plans to arrive in Frisco about Sept. 14. It seems an appropriate time to dust off and rerun a column I wrote 10 years ago.

•••

American Road, the Story of an Epic Transcontinental Journey at the Dawn of the Motor Age by Pete Davies, tells the true story of the original trek. 

A U.S. Army convoy of 81 vehicles, 17 officers and 285 enlisted men left Washington, D.C., on the morning of July 7, 1919. 

They were led by a white Packard Six touring car driven by Henry Ostermann, who had already made the coast-to-coast trip 19 times and was probably the only man in the convoy who knew the way. 

The convoy arrived in San Francisco on Sept. 6, after taking 62 days to travel 3,251 miles, averaging 58.1 miles per day and 6.07 miles per hour of running time. 

The Army brass, steeped in the tradition of horse cavalry and Studebaker wagons, had not paid much attention to the new-fangled motor vehicles that appeared about the turn of the 20th century. 

This began to change after General Pershing made good use of both cars and trucks in Mexico in 1916. 

Based upon this experience, Pershing used a large amount of motor transport to move and supply the AEF in France during World War I. 

The objective of the 1919 operation, which was organized by the Motor Transport Corps of the U.S. Army, and dubbed the “First Transcontinental Motor Convoy,” was 

“…to service-test the special-purpose vehicles developed for use in the World War, …and to determine by actual experience the possibility and the problems involved in moving an army across the continent.” 

Challenges

As it turned out, the possibility was somewhere between slim and none, and the problems were many and daunting. 

After a send-off ceremony at which Secretary of the Army Newton Baker presided, the vehicles rumbled out of Washington and headed north through Frederick, Maryland, and into Pennsylvania. 

At Gettysburg, the convoy met up with the famous New York City to San Francisco thoroughfare known as the Lincoln Highway and turned west. 

In 1919, the Lincoln Highway was generally in pretty good condition from New York to the Mississippi River, with sections of brick, concrete, macadam, stone and gravel in most places. 

The occasional dirt sections were usually well-graded and only impassable in very wet weather. West of the Mississippi, the so-called “highway” was another story, however.

Dirt roads that were ankle-deep in dust in dry weather, and knee-deep in mud when wet, took the trucks slowly across Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming. 

The “Militor,” a huge 5-ton artillery tractor with four-wheel drive and a heavy-duty winch, as well as a 5-ton crawler tractor, accompanied the convoy and both were almost constantly in action rescuing stranded vehicles. 

As if the road surface wasn’t challenge enough, 88 wooden bridges and culverts were destroyed or damaged and had to be repaired or rebuilt by the engineer detachment that accompanied the convoy. 

After a rousing welcoming celebration put on by Salt Lake City officials, the most difficult part of the trip began. 

To add to the problems, the big artillery tractor had finally given out and had to be left behind in Salt Lake City for repairs. 

Slow journey

The story of the snail-like progress, as well as the superhuman efforts of every man of the convoy as they inched their way across the Salt Lake Desert, and then the desolate alkali flats of Nevada, makes exciting reading. 

In many spots, the men attached long ropes to the trucks and literally dragged them through the soft ground by hand. 

The convoy finally reached Carson City, Nevada, late on a Saturday night and, luckily, had Sunday off to rest and go over their vehicles before tackling the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains, the last obstacle before they reached smooth sailing on the approaches to Sacramento. 

After a hairy crossing, where the steep mountain trails were barely wider than the trucks, and the temperature dropped to 30 degrees, they safely reached Placerville. 

The road out of the mountains was good from Placerville to Sacramento, the weather was warm and another huge celebration awaited the men in California’s capital city. 

Arrival at destination

The rest of the run, from Sacramento to San Francisco, was an anti-climax. 

The men got new uniforms at Stockton and rolled into Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco the afternoon of Sept. 5, to a huge celebration with lots of food and dancing. 

This was before the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge existed, so ferries loaded up the convoy on Saturday morning and carried them across the bay to San Francisco, the final stop of the journey. 

After a huge parade, and a luncheon of hot dogs, cookies, pie and coffee served by the Red Cross, the convoy was disbanded. 

The expedition commander, Lieutenant Colonel Charles McClure, sent a telegram to the War Department: CONVOY ARRIVED FINAL OBJECTIVE SAN FRANCISCO TEN MORNING ALL EQUIPMENT ROLLING NO MECHANICAL DIFFICULTIES OR CASUALTIES DETAILS REPORT LATER.

•••

The present-day convoy stopped in East Palestine, where they were fed by local residents at the city park. 

The 1919 convoy also laid over in East Palestine, but the officers, including Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower (who, despite many present-day accounts, was not in command of the column, but merely along as an observer for the Tank Corps), and men were treated to a chicken dinner at the family farm of Harvey Firestone east of Columbiana. 

Somehow, I think Colonel McClure and his men would be amused by the recent “reenactments” of their arduous three-month struggle to cross the continent. 

McClure wrote in 1926: “Only those who accompanied the expedition can realize the obstacles to progress that were encountered.” 

Eisenhower recalled, “There were moments when I thought neither the automobile, the bus, nor the truck had any future whatsoever.” 

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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.

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