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Posted on Mar 6, 2008 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

An Unusual Journey – Dwight Eisenhower’s Odyssey Across Rural America

By Carlo D'Este

As I sit down to write this month’s article, we are in the midst of a winter storm in my neck of the woods. Soon the roads will be cleared by the plows and life will go on. I’m reminded that we pretty much take for granted having an automobile to get us from place to place on (except in the boondocks of some parts in rural America) well-paved roads. It was not always so. Before we became dependent on the motorcar as our primary means of movement, America was a vastly different place.

We routinely use the interstate highways, but I wonder how many actually know that it is officially called the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. In 1919 there was no such thing as a highway system in the United States. Where roads even existed they were poorly constructed, dangerous and often impassable, facts that were not lost on the War Department which had experienced serious problems attempting to move units and equipment by road during World War I. Aware of the public relations value of such a venture, the War Department decided to create a transcontinental motor expedition whereby a convoy of eighty-one assorted U.S. Army vehicles would attempt to cross the continental United States — no mean feat in 1919.


“The 1919 transcontinental convoy had a Homeric flavor to it,” noted one writer. “The internal combustion engine was still in its infancy and was not as dependable as it is today. A transcontinental convoy had never been attempted before and the army, in fact, was not sure that it could be done.” (1) Most roads were still dirt and in places there were simply none at all; others were all but impassable in bad weather, while other so-called “roads” were little more than cart tracks or trails carved out of the wilderness. A journey by road in 1919 where the railroad was still supreme was truly an adventure not to be undertaken lightly. U.S. Army Tank Corps officer, Lt. Col. Dwight Eisenhower, was assigned to Camp Meade, Maryland, bored to tears and thirsting for adventure – anything to escape the humdrum existence of the peacetime post-World War I army. When he learned of the proposed expedition, he immediately volunteered and was accepted as a Tank Corps observer.

Ike was joined by a second Tank Corps observer, Major Serano E. Brett, a veteran tank officer who had commanded a battalion with distinction under Patton in the Meuse-Argonne. Next to Patton, Brett was regarded as the most aggressive tank commander in the entire AEF and was an officer Patton held in high esteem. After Patton was severely wounded during the first day of the Meuse-Argonne campaign, Brett assumed command of his 1st Tank Brigade for the remainder of the war, fighting the unit until all that was left were a handful of men and tanks. Patton recommended Brett for the Distinguished Service Cross and wrote a heartfelt letter, “putting in writing what I have long felt in my heart . . . As far as I know no officer of the AEF has given more faithful, loyal, and gallant service.” (2)

Like Eisenhower, Brett had opted to remain in the service after the war and was also assigned to Camp Meade where he and Eisenhower became friends. Brett was outgoing and great company, and from him Eisenhower learned what he had missed by not having been a participant in the AEF Tank Corps. Both were sufficiently bored with garrison duty to immediately volunteer for the expedition.

* * *

The expedition departed Washington, D.C. on July 7, 1919 bound for San Francisco, 3,251 miles away. Their orders were received too late for Eisenhower and Brett to attend the official send-off in Washington, held at the Zero Milestone marker situated not far from the White House. In attendance at the typically Washingtonian ceremony were a host of VIPs, that included secretary of war Newton Baker, U.S. Army chief of staff Peyton C. March, and a bevy of politicians. There were the usual long-winded speeches about which Eisenhower later gleefully noted, “My luck was running; we missed the ceremony.” (3) The two officers caught up with the convoy in Frederick, Maryland the first night.

To add realism to the expedition, the convoy operated under simulated wartime conditions as a motor march through enemy territory. The convoy consisted of motorized army vehicles, some with solid rubber tires, others with pneumatic tires. In addition to some sixty trucks (two of which had been turned into makeshift ambulances), there were also motorcycles (some with sidecars), staff cars, a tank transported on flatbed trailer, a powerful van-mounted searchlight, and various other trailers towed as mobile kitchens and repair shops. The expedition was sponsored in part by several of the major automobile manufacturers, including Willys, Packard, Mack and General Motors. Willys sent several “mystery cars” which were prototype models not yet available to the public. The lead truck was emblazoned with the words “We’re Off to Frisco!”

“We’re Off to Frisco!” – The 1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy
(Photo – Dwight D. Eisenhower Library)

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1 Comment

  1. I found this article while doing research on the mechanization of the U.S. Army in the interwar period. As is the case with all of Carlo D’Este’s writing, the article was fascinating, informative, and gracefully written. However, I cannot find the footnotes. How can I access these notes in order to pursue the topic further?