It was an epic battle against nature.
One hundred years ago, the U.S. Army set out on a journey across the United States to demonstrate to a nation entering the automotive age the importance of paved roads to national security. With World War I barely in the rearview mirror, there was a fear of a land invasion from Asia and a desire to be able to move military vehicles around the country more easily.
On Sunday, a convoy of civilians and their restored military vehicles stopped in Gretna as part of the group’s cross-country journey to commemorate the original Motor Transport Corps convoy.
The difference that 100 years makes was obvious to all.
“Once you got outside of a town, the roads turned to dirt tracks, and when it rained, they turned to mud tracks,” said Dan McCluskey, convoy commander. It took the convoy more than two months — under forced march conditions — to make the trip. “Most of their time they were either rebuilding bridges that had broken with their heavy trucks or they were bypassing bridges and going through ravines.”
Sometimes, it took 100 men to pull the vehicles up out of the ravines, he said.
In 1919, of the 3,251 miles traveled, less than half was paved. In some areas, the men had to push and pull their vehicles through gumbo mud. In the alkali flats of the western U.S., the dust was 2 feet deep. In other areas quicksand pulled vehicles down several feet.
The average speed in 1919: about 6 mph. On an average day, the convoy made about 58 miles.
According to an account of the trip, the men encountered “almost continuous and excessive amounts of strenuous work, insufficient rest and sleep, lack of shelter, ration difficulties, lack of bathing facilities, and at times the scarcity of even drinking water.”
Only military discipline and “extraordinary character” enabled them to accomplish their task, according to a brief of the official report.
“It was a different world, it’s hard to even imagine,” said Mike Hendrick, who, along with his wife, Colleen, was among the metro area motorcyclists providing the convoy an escort from Bellevue to American Legion Post 216 in Gretna.
“We think we have it bad with potholes, but they had it really hard,” Colleen Hendrick said as the couple toured the parked vehicles at the Gretna American Legion.
McCluskey said the trip accomplished its objective — demonstrating the need for a paved cross-country highway.
“It was an incredible leap forward, it was almost like throwing down the gauntlet to the states,” McCluskey said.
While it would take years, a network of roads would develop. A young military officer on the 1919 trip would prove critical to the development of the nation’s roads. Then-Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower would later become president, and during his administration the federal government developed a plan for an Interstate highway system.
The route traveled this year mimics as much as possible the original route, which hewed to the route laid out for the Lincoln Highway, much of which became U.S. Highway 30.
In 1919, the convoy consisted of about 300 officers and enlisted men along with about 80 vehicles. This year’s group consists of 100 to 120 people and 40 to 50 vehicles, McCluskey said.
While the trip 100 years ago took more than 60 days, this trip will take less than 40 (the restored vehicles are averaging 35 mph). The convoy, which McCluskey described as a “parade across America” is scheduled to arrive in San Francisco in mid-September.