An Unusual Journey – Dwight Eisenhower’s Odyssey Across Rural America
The expedition consisted of 280 officers, enlisted men, some two dozen War Department observers and numerous others who tagged along through parts of the journey, as well as reporters and representatives of auto and tire manufacturers. Officially, its mission was “to test various military vehicles, many developed too late for use in World War I, and to determine by actual experience the feasibility of moving an army across the continent.” (4)
The trip also served as a selling point for the military. At virtually every stop, curious townspeople across America ventured out to view the expedition and hear speeches about its purpose. The members of the expedition were royally received at every stop. “Almost every town in the vicinity of the route of travel, and the nightly encampments, would provide some social activity as well as food and drink. These events ranged from dances and banquets, to melon feeds, and outdoor movies.” (5)
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The official report of the expedition stated that the meals produced by the mobile mess were dreadful at the start but improved part way through the journey after the officer in charge was replaced. An experienced army engineer, Master Sergeant Harry C. DeMars, had a different recollection. Shortly after the trip commenced, the mess truck was “left behind, as so many organizations were preparing meals for them when they entered the various towns. When crossing the desert, meals were brought to them. The soldiers stopped at Y.M.C.A.s to take baths.” Most of the men slept on cots outside their vehicles, but sleep remained at a premium; “Townspeople would mill through the camp all night.” (6)
At virtually every stop the people came from far and near to greet the men with open arms. In Sacramento, the governor lauded them as akin to the “Immortal Forty-Niners.” There were also seemingly endless speeches by VIPs, which severely tested Eisenhower’s capacity for enduring long-winded rhetoric.
In the tradition of the expeditions that opened the western United States, the motorcycles were ridden by scouts whose task it was to determine road conditions and, with road signs generally lacking, to determine the convoy’s route of march. To gain an idea of the hardships of crossing the United States, the convoy averaged fifty-eight miles per day at an average speed of 6 miles per hour.
The realism of this pioneering journey hardly needed the simulation of wartime conditions. Travel across the United States in 1919 was a major feat in itself. “For the next two months, through rain, mud and searing heat of summer on the western plains and deserts, Eisenhower and Brett learned firsthand why America needed a transcontinental system of highways.” (7) One of the most instrumental members of the expedition was a civilian ordnance technician from Raritan Arsenal, New Jersey, Edwin A. Reis, “who was given high praise for the success of the convoy for he frequently was the only person who could figure out what to do when vehicles broke down or were totally mired.” (8) Indeed, Murphy’s Law was in full bloom over the course of the expedition. Vehicles broke down with regularity, became stuck in the mud or quicksand, and sank when the roads collapsed beneath them or absorbed enormous quantities of choking dust. A truck sped out of control down a Pennsylvania mountain, tires shredded, ignitions failed, engines died, vehicles slid off the roads in ditches and gullies, and in Utah broke through the salt flats. Remarkably, however, the expedition lost only a handful of vehicles that could not be repaired.
Wyoming was particularly difficult. Most of the bridges were too light to cross with the expedition’s five-ton vehicles and either had to be replaced or jury-rigged. Sometimes both a truck and the tractor attempting to pull it out sank in the mud, necessitating Herculean efforts by the engineers to recover them. Often, roads had to be constructed or rebuilt in places. Some days the expedition averaged only a few miles. Overall, the engineers rebuilt or modified sixty-two bridges between Washington and San Francisco.
Although Eisenhower thought discipline was far too lax, he and Brett enjoyed a carefree interlude with few responsibilities and ample time for fun. The same prankish Eisenhower who delighted in pouring buckets of water on unsuspecting victims at West Point resurfaced during the expedition. Perhaps spurred on by the other, both men became first-rate pranksters who relished frightening the citified Easterners who made up most of the convoy. As time passed, the pranks became more and more comical and bizarre. In Wyoming, the two staged an elaborate hoax that the convoy was about to be attacked by rampaging Indians. The official expedition scribe was so taken in by this ruse that he would have reported the matter to the War Department had not Eisenhower and Brett intercepted his telegram at the last moment. Yet, another prank took place one night when Brett climbed a bluff behind the bivouac area and howled like a coyote.
Their most grandiose caper of all backfired after Brett pretended to be attacked and violently stabbed by an assailant; however, the intended victim took it so seriously that to avoid humiliating the man, they never revealed that it was only a prank. Scarcely a night went by without one or the other devising an even more devious scheme to bedevil the city slickers. Eisenhower thought their escapades were “part of an audience for a troupe of traveling clowns.” (9)
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By the time it ended in San Francisco on Labor Day, 1919, an estimated 3.25 million people had seen the expedition at first-hand. After gala festivities in Oakland, the participants paraded through the streets of San Francisco to the accompaniment of cheers and whistles blowing from ships in the bay. The mayor presented the keys to the city; “They had a big dance and a show at the St. Francis Hotel. Girls put on burlesque dances, which caused the mothers to take their daughters home. The mothers then came back to see the show and dance with the soldiers.” (10)
The expedition was officially disbanded in San Francisco and each participant returned to his own home station. The journey had taken sixty-two days, a mere five days behind the original timetable, a remarkable feat in early twentieth century American history. The official report noted that the expedition had suffered 230 road accidents, ranging from breakdowns, delays, mud and quicksand, most of them minor. The Army’s image was enhanced and many valuable lessons were learned that were incorporated into the future design of military vehicles. An awareness of the expedition reached an estimated thirty-three million Americans and helped to spur several state legislatures to begin enacting bills to build new roads. (11)
For a brief period during the summer of 1919 it had been a time of adventure that Eisenhower termed, “a journey through darkest America.”* (12) Thirty-seven years later, President Dwight Eisenhower would sign into law one of his highest priorities, the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, which created the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System.
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