California or bust
November 24, 2009
Five antique military vehicles, representing every conflict from World War I to Vietnam, convoy through Washington's morning rush hour at 30 mph. The mirrors, lights and signals are microscopic, and one car doesn't have signals at all.
Morning commuters pass, cut into the convoy and honk, repeatedly. Whether it's in excitement or annoyance is anyone's guess.
It was one of the scariest and thrilling rides of my life.
The day before the Military Vehicle Preservation Association left Washington for California on a transcontinental convoy in June, I hitched a ride to the Pentagon in the back of Art Pope's 1942 Ford sedan. As Pope stuck his hand out the window to signal, I bounced along on the springy backseat (no seatbelts), and wondered, "He's going to take this all the way to California'"
Indeed he was. In fact, Pope had painstakingly restored the car and worked for months to ensure it was road-worthy.
The trip was to commemorate the 90th anniversary of a convoy the Army undertook in 1919 to test Army vehicles and demonstrate the need for a good road system. One of the participants was Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who as president in the 1950s, said his experience on the convoy influenced his support of the interstate road system.
It took the original convoy of 81 vehicles 62 days to reach San Francisco from Washington, averaging 6 mph over dirt roads and the incomplete Lincoln Highway, and collapsing several bridges under the weight of the vehicles. They endured 230 breakdowns and other incidents and lost nine vehicles during the trip. Twenty-one of the 297 Soldiers were injured and left behind for treatment.
Most of the 150-odd vehicles participating in the re-enactment dated from World War II and Vietnam, and included everything from jeeps, trucks and motorcycles, to sedans like Pope's, used to transport staff officers. But two of the vehicles were actually old enough to have been around for the original convoy-a 1917 Four Wheel Drive Co. truck (which may have had parts used on the original convoy), and a 1918 Dodge command car, the oldest car to make the entire trip-more than 3,000 miles.
Sergeant 1st Class Mark Ounan of the 324th Military Police Battalion purchased the car in Utah for about $10,000, and although it was in "very good shape" (with only 1,320 miles on it), he said he spent about a year and a half restoring it. He spent another $30,000 to return the car to mint condition, repainting the car, and replacing the top and the seat leather.
Ounan explained that the Dodge's narrow wheels made it far more challenging to drive than a modern vehicle, saying that it tended to hit ruts and drift into other lanes. A 75-mile, three-hour trip from his home in Gettysburg, Pa., to Washington for the kick-off was exhausting, and Ounan said he wasn't looking forward to the days the convoy would travel 200 miles in 10 or 12 hours.
Because he wouldn't be able to tow the car to just any mechanic in the event of a flat tire or engine trouble, Ounan packed plenty of spare parts, and even his own mechanic, Master Sgt. Eugene Latsch, an MP from Fort Meade, Md., who hitched a ride for the first few days. At each stop, the two meticulously checked the engine and fluid levels.
"We look at the engine, because the engine is what carries you, your basic wear and tear, your tires and your driveline. But the engine is what's going to carry this vehicle across the United States," Latsch said, adding that it was amazing for a 91-year-old vehicle to be driven cross-country.
"You look at a vehicle today and 90 years-it ain't going to survive it. But you've got a 1918, fully refurbished (vehicle) that's going to take this trip across the United States-3,000 miles."
The trip did take a lot out of the Dodge, Ounan said in an interview after the convoy, especially because much of the Lincoln Highway is still made up of dirt roads, and it was easy to get stuck in the mud or drive into a ditch. Just days into the trip, he said his car started stalling and sputtering when going fast or up a hill.
"I would have to pull over and try to figure out what was going on. That happened for days and days and we tried to fix it. Tried doing this, tried doing that, and we couldn't figure out what it was. Finally, we discovered the crack in the (fuel) line and repaired it. And within 10 minutes it worked fine for the rest of the trip," Ounan remembered, explaining that a team of mechanics followed about five miles behind the convoy to help whoever broke down. And someone broke down every day.
Ounan said the long days of driving (up to 15 hours) were worth it because of the local people who came out to see the convoy, or just wave as it drove by. Some people waited hours for their arrival, and Ounan said he was overwhelmed by their patriotism and appreciation for Soldiers and veterans.
"They were very supportive of the military," he said. "They don't get to see Soldiers doing Soldier things in their area that often, so when they did see us, they all wanted to come up and talk to us. They all wanted to say, 'Thank you for doing what you do,' and for protecting them and keeping them safe. They all wanted to thank us just for being around."
That was in the towns fortunate enough to have convoy stops. Ounan said that as MVPA members planned the route, they were often contacted by local officials asking them to change their plans and visit their towns, something Ounan said the MVPA had in common with the 1919 convoy.
"(History) was the main reason I went in the first place, and that actually got even more important to me as we went along, because the car was having problems, the other vehicles were having problems, and we were facing some of the same problems that those guys faced back then," he said. "We could really relate to them even though we did have it a lot easier than they did. We could feel a little taste of what they had to go through just to keep their vehicles running and to make it through a town that was washed out or whatever.
"We also had a lot of experiences with the towns, where the same exact thing happened to us that happened to those guys. One of the things I did before the trip was read this book about the trip called 'American Road.' One of the things they talked about was when the Lincoln Highway was first mapped out and the convoy was going along that road, there were a lot of towns that were left off the route. A lot of towns complained, 'Why aren't you coming here'' 'Don't you want to see our town'' 'We want you to come and stay here.' 'We'll throw you a party.' 'We'll do this.' We'll do that,'" he continued.
It was like that all the way to California, and driving at a slow pace in an open car, allowed Ounan to see the country-the mountains and woods of Pennsylvania; the flat plains of Indiana and Illinois; the mountains of Wyoming; the deserts of Nevada; and finally, Oakland, Calif.
Against all odds, they made it. The end was both exciting and anticlimactic, Ounan said, because many of the drivers simply didn't know what to do with themselves the next day. It was just time to turn around and go home-with vehicles that had to be towed in their no-longer-mint conditions. Ounan's Dodge needs a new electrical system, gearbox, top and running boards.
"That car will never be the same again," he said. "It's been well-used. It's 3,250 miles we drove."
Ounan added that most vintage cars only drive about five or 10 miles in a year, and are usually hauled by trailers to parades or car shows. "Most people don't drive them. It's going to need a lot of work to get it back into shape."
But would he do it again' "Yes. Yes, absolutely."