Reliving the 1919 Army Transcontinental Convoy 90 years later
June 19, 2009
By J.D. Leipold
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, June 18, 2009) Aca,!" Nearly 90 years ago on July 7, 1919, the country's first Army transcontinental convoy of 81 brand new military vehicles departed from mile marker zero near the White House and headed cross-country via the Lincoln Highway to San Francisco, Calif.
The convoy included 46 trucks, five ambulances, 11 military staff cars, nine motorcycles, a Maxwell caterpillar tractor, four kitchen trailers, a pontoon trailer, a mobile searchlight and a recovery vehicle. The punishing quest took the 295 young Soldiers through middle America down roads that ranged from concrete to tracks across quicksand and mud and over bridges that collapsed underneath the weight of the vehicles.
Two months later, on Sept. 6, 1919, and at 6 mph, the convoy creeped into San Francisco, battered and bruised, but whole. Its mission was accomplished in showing the public the importance of a mechanized military and offering a brutal demonstration of the need for good roads. An unwritten objective was to say thanks to Americans for their support during World War I.
Last weekend, history began to repeat itself when, in conjunction with the Army's 234th birthday, members of the 9,300 strong Military Vehicle Preservation Association left from mile marker zero in Washington, D.C. and headed for San Francisco.
This time around, the number of vehicles retracing the coast-to-coast trip stands at about 45 vehicles. The vehicles date from World War I through Vietnam, and include staff cars, jeeps, a deuce-and-a-half, half-ton trucks, motorcycles and even a 1961 M37B1 three-quarter-ton Dodge cargo truck that's hauling an olive-drab painted 1965 Airstream travel trailer.
Owner and retired Army warrant officer Talmage Heath, who spent his career in the automotive maintenance field, converted the vehicle and trailer so it would be up to par with today's motor vehicles and would be able to make the trip west then back to his home in Florida. He replaced the gas engine with a 180 horsepower, four-cylinder diesel engine with an automatic transmission, and spent the better part of the last five months readying his vintage vehicles.
The trip won't be as grueling for Heath as it was for the Soldiers in 1919, who were literally setting up camps in the towns they'd pass through. He admitted, however, that those Soldiers were younger than this group of collectors. Most of the participants will stay in hotels along the way, but Heath is traveling in style.
"I've got a good bed, a stove, air conditioner and a shower," Heath said. "I got everything I need in 'General Halftrack' there... fridge, freezer... got some beer in there too."
He also said with the new engine, his fuel economy has been good, even though he's carrying an extra 100 gallon fuel tank, spare tires and everything else he needs in the event of a breakdown -- which are near inherent with antique autos.
"It took me three days to get up here from Florida, I had a few breakdowns along the way, but nothing I couldn't fix," he said. "Being an old maintenance officer, I fixed things up and came right on into town."
"I can cruise at 60 mph with the trailer attached and get about 15 miles to the gallon, whereas the gas engine would only get about nine to the gallon without pulling anything," said Heath, who also owns 14 other vintage military vehicles. While he could cruise at 60 coming up to Washington from Florida, the trip westward will average the top-end 35 mph speed of the slowest vehicle in the convoy, which also happens to also be the oldest.
Owner and Reserve Soldier Sgt. 1st Class Mark Ounan of the 324th Military Police Battalion, has the pleasure of owning the slowest and oldest of the fleet. He will generally be the lead car all the way to California. His pride and joy is a 1918 Dodge Brothers military staff vehicle that he bought about four years ago.
"It needed a new paint job, new leather seats and a new top. While I was doing that, I went ahead and rebuilt the engine because I was determined to go on this trip," he said. "With a 34 horsepower engine and weighing two-and-quarter tons, this car will go between 35 and 38 mph, but the comfort level is gonna be tough...this will be a lot of hard work for a 91-year-old car."
Ounan said the other challenge for him is that back in the car's heyday, people were much smaller.
"They had to have been because when you climb into this car Aca,!" and I'm not that tall at 5'11" Aca,!" but when I get in my knees are up in my face. I'm just squeezed in behind the steering wheel," he said. He added the car doesn't have a trunk, and because people are always asking for rides that he wants to oblige, he keeps his luggage with another vehicle.
Army veteran Arthur C. Pope, who was on active duty in 1957 and 1958 as a second lieutenant, will be driving what is arguably the plushest ride -- a 1942 Ford sedan with fat, overstuffed bench seats. He'll also leave each morning about two hours before the rest of the convoy to coordinate with local police and the media in the next town.
"It's got a 100 horsepower V-8 engine and it's very comfortable to drive," he said. "I drove for 12 hours straight, from Detroit to Hagerstown, Md., but it doesn't have air conditioning, heat or a radio."
All the 1942s were built in 1941 and introduced to dealers in October of that year. Pope said right after the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941, the Army ordered all the four-door sedans it could get its hands on, which were all painted in olive drab and used throughout World War II in Washington as well as in London.
While many of the men making the trip are veterans from all branches of service, they share commonalities as to why they own vintage military vehicles, and why they are making the trip.
Active-duty Soldier Master Sgt. Eugene W. Latsch Jr., with the 200th MP Command, helped Ounan restore his 1918 Dodge. He said it was important to show younger kids today what it was like in the Army 90 years ago, as a comparison to what the Army is like today.
"I think this will get them interested in the military... the convoy will definitely get their attention," he said. "When we start going through these small towns these kids who don't see this kind of thing will be amazed. It's something new but something old. It might be a good recruiting tool for the Army because the 1919 convoy was really the start of the motorized Army."
Pope wanted to be part of the commemoration because in 1919, the convoy followed much of the Oregon Trail across the country to publicize to Americans that the country needed highways.
"The idea was to get towns, cities and counties to start building roads that connected the country -- so they did a good job of publicizing that. But it took them 62 days," he said. "We're doing it in 26 because we have those highways."
Along on that 1919 trip was 29-year-old observer, Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower. His experiences with the transcontinental convoy made such an impact on him that when he was president he established the country's first interstate highway system.
For Heath, making the trip is about thanks. "I'm making the trip because I appreciate what the military did for me," said Heath. "I just thought I'd honor the retirees and those who went before us and those in between and after us."
That's something the MVPA convoy project manager, Terry Shelswell, echoed to the convoy participants in his send-off speech, June 13, from the Ellipse in front of the White House.
"The fifth reason for the convoy in 1919 was unwritten, but it was equally important: that was to say 'thank you' to the American public for their support during World War I," he said.
"Our mission today in 2009, which is the most important, is to say thank you to our Soldiers and their families and our veterans. So when they come out to meet us, let's give them a really solid thanks for their service."