GRETNA, Neb. -- When it comes to withstanding the whirling, violent winds of a good ole' Midwestern thunderstorm, Don Chew of Brighton, Colo., has probably seen or encountered just about everything.
But even Chew was chuckling June 25 as he made repairs to a canvas tarp that, until the day before, had tightly covered the cab of his 1917 Four Wheel Drive Automotive Company truck, after his convoy withstood a thunderstorm in western Iowa as it made its way along the Lincoln Highway, June 24.
"This one is 90-days old and I'm already making repairs to it," said Chew, standing along side the cab of the truck as he carefully pounded tacks into the tarp to keep it taut as sweat dripped from his nose and silvery hair from the 107-degree heat index that covered the Gretna (Neb.) Middle School Parking lot like a warm, wet blanket.
"That one over there," Chew said, pointing toward a larger canvas tarp that had been spread tightly over the truck's ammunition box, the words 'U.S. Army Ordnance' still visible, "it's 90-years-old and it's still in perfect condition."
"Go figure," he added, laughing.
Thunderstorms; broiling early summer heat; dusty, throat-clogging dust; periodic maintenance issues... these were just some of the obstacles that members of the 2009 Military Vehicle Preservation Associations's Transcontinental Convoy encountered as they neared the half-way point of their nearly 3,300-mile, 26-day journey from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, Calif.
The 2009 motor convoy is retracing the route of the first major motorized expedition across the United States in 1919. That U.S. Army convoy was designed to examine the feasibility of rapidly moving troops and equipment across the country as well as showcasing the military's use of the latest motorized technology.
Following the newly opened Lincoln Highway, the 1919 convoy set a world record of traveling 3,251 miles in 62 days, an average speed of six miles per hours.
According to Chew, the MVPA - which consists of a group of people dedicated to preserving military vehicles - decided that 2009 was the perfect time to recreate the convoy.
This year marks the 90th anniversary of the historic 1919 convoy. It's also the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, for whom the Lincoln Highway was named.
"We knew we would have a good trip," said Chew. "We did not know that we would have a wonderful trip."
On this hot early summer afternoon in late June, the convoy had stopped in Gretna, Neb., on the outskirts of Omaha for a day of rest and recuperation, which allowed many participants to make adjustments to their vehicles and fix broken parts while also talking amongst themselves or with the hundreds of curious spectators who had come out to see the motley collection of historic vehicles and a Nebraska Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter that had flown in for the event. Also stationed nearby was Nebraska Army Guard recruiting booth stationed near a brightly colored recruiting Hum-Vee and a historic Guard Jeep.
Unlike most of the convoy, Chew's truck, which he built by hand from various pieces he's collected over the years including the vehicle's unique ammunition carrier he found in an Iowa cornfield, isn't making the trek under its own power. It recently developed a problem with its pistons, so instead the truck is making the journey on the back of a flat-bed semi-truck.
"It's a technical problem we'll overcome when we get back home," he said. "Rather than take a chance and damage it, we're just statically displaying it or pulling it along."
"But it is fully operational," Chew added.
Even though it isn't physically driving down the road on this particular mission,
Chew's truck is still quite a sight. An avid four-wheel-drive vehicle fan, Chew said he began collecting FWD parts nearly 10 years ago. When he found an ammunition box in the Iowa cornfield several years ago, he said he knew his finished project would be extremely unique.
"There are very few (World War I ammunition trucks) in museums and none of them are running," said Chew, who has nearly collected enough additional parts to build a second FWD truck. "I kept working on it until I had a complete truck. Everything on there is technically perfect. It's not missing a thing."
Chew's truck isn't the only unusual vehicle participating in the convoy either. In fact, every one of the approximately 50 Jeeps, staff cars and trucks ranging from World War I to Desert Storm, has a unique story to tell.
For instance, take a 1941 sand-colored Willis Jeep sporting a bright British red-white-and-blue target insignia on its hood that's being driven by retired Staff Sgt. Saul A. Marquez, a former California Army Guardsman from Baldwin, Calif.
Marquez said his "love affair" with military vehicles began early on in his military career.
"When I first got into the Army, I was impressed with the Jeeps like anybody else," said Marquez, who started out as an active Army infantryman stationed in West Germany in the mid-1960s. "Army vehicles... they really impress the mind."
"When I was in West Germany, we used to run around M-151A1s. No canvas. Windshields down. No heaters. In the snow," Marquez said. "And we survived that."
After serving in Germany, Marquez moved on to an assignment in Great Britain, where he met his future wife. When his enlistment ended in 1967, Marquez returned to California and soon began working as an animal control officer for Los Angeles County. He also joined the Guard's 40th Infantry Division as an artilleryman in 1976, serving there until his retirement in 2002.
Through it all, his interest in military vehicles remained strong.
"When I got back, I thought I'd like to have a military vehicle, so I went shopping around," he said. "I had no idea where to get one, but eventually I connected with a friend of mine who told me that the Kingman, Ariz., fire department had an M-37 for sale."
Marquez said his friend, who knew jeeps inside and out, had inspected the Arizona vehicle and assured him that it was a good buy.
"So I drove down there. I had the money and bought it," Marquez said.
His collection now includes two jeeps and two trailers.
"My wife keeps saying to me, 'When are you going to stop''" Marquez said. "My answer is, 'I don't know.'"
Marquez acquired his current British 'Desert Rat' themed Jeep about three years ago from a friend who was moving overseas.
"He knew I wanted it," said Marquez. "I told him that I was going to keep it as it is because England is something that I've adored and loved forever because, for one thing, I met my wife in England back in 1966 and we're still married."
"I'm very much attached to England and anything British," he added.
Marquez can recite much of the Jeep's history with the British Army during the North African campaign. For instance, Jeeps were first sent to the British in North Africa in 1940-41 as a part of the American 'Lend-Lease' agreement between U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Once in North Africa, the British quickly realized how useful the diminutive Jeep could be in the desert environment.
"The British found out that this vehicle would work excellently against German airfields and logistical areas," Marquez said.
He said the British took off the windshield and back seat and then mounted twin machineguns on a pedestal in the back of the Jeep. It was also packed with Jerry cans filled with water and fuel, food and ammunition and sent in groups on deep reconnaissance missions "to raise havoc" behind the German lines.
"The Germans got smart and it was a short-lived idea," Marquez said, "but it did work."
Driving along the historic Lincoln Highway has given Marquez additional appreciation for what the Soldiers of 1919 accomplished during an age when superhighways, interstates and even paved roads were considered fantasy.
"The things that they had to do to accomplish their mission - yeah, I know they were Soldiers and they had to obey orders - but still they had a spirit of adventure. The idea that, 'Can we do this'' became 'We have to do this' and 'We will do this,'" he said. "And they did do it."
According to Marquez, the convoy participants are determined to represent the 1919 veterans well.
"We are determined to go across the nation and make history again," said Marquez, adding that the 2009 convoy has been a great opportunity to meet and hang out with other military vehicle enthusiasts from across the country.
"We're all walks of life," he said, adding that many of the convoy participants are doctors and other professionals. In fact, he said, a few days earlier he learned that a mechanic who was working on his Jeep's voltage regulator was a Physics teacher in civilian life.
"I think the main thing is that we're all attached to green," he added. "We have a love affair with military vehicles."
According to Chew, the experience of traveling along highways and gravel roads, often lined with flag-bearing people, has been one he's likely never to forget.
"The people are turning out by the hundreds and thousands along the road," he said, looking around as dozens of Nebraskans toured through the convoy's 'motor pool' area at the Gretna Middle School parking lot, often taking time to talk with the various participants or take photos of the dozens of historic military vehicles. "And everybody is enjoying it... waving flags and everything else."
"It's just like it was in 1919."