The US Army’s Cross-Country Convoy Starts Its Historic 1919 Journey

July 8, 1919

[This post is the first in a series of history pieces celebrating 100 years of The U.S. Army’s Cross-Country Motor Transport Train.]

The U.S. Army’s Cross-Country Motor Transport Train, making its way from Maryland and into Pennsylvania, completed the first full day of its ambitious and unprecedented journey across the United States. This military convoy, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. McClure, had officially launched its long-distance trip the previous day, departing the mile-marker monument known as the Zero Milestone (just south of the White House) at 11:15 a.m. “This is the beginning of a new era,” proclaimed U.S. War Secretary Newton D. Baker during the sendoff ceremonies for the convoy.

On its first day on the road, the California-bound procession of vehicles traveled 46 miles (74 kilometers) to Frederick, Maryland, and spent the night there. Leaving Frederick at 7:00 a.m. on July 8, the convoy headed north to the Keystone State. First Lieutenant Elwell R. Jackson, along with being the most junior officer on the convoy, was the designated observer for the Army’s Ordnance Department (present-day Ordnance Corps) throughout the transcontinental trip. Jackson also kept a daily log of the trip, cabling each day’s entry to the Ordnance Department. “Fair and warm,” Jackson wrote for July 8. “Roads excellent, with exception of two detours on account of unsafe bridge and repairs to Lincoln Highway. Made 62 miles [99.8 kilometers] in 10½ hours.”

The convoy reached the borough of Chambersburg in south-central Pennsylvania at 5:30 on that Tuesday evening and camped there for the night in a lot on South Second Street. “Sixty-three trucks, including ambulances, repair shops, and kitchens, composed the train,” reported the Chambersburg-based newspaper People’s Register. “The stop-off resulted in a big evening for Chambersburg. Thousands of people rode or walked out to the camp to see and greet the soldiers – and the event will be a long-remembered one.”

The citizens of Chambersburg did their best to make their overnight visitors feel welcome. “Everything possible was done locally to spread joy among the soldiers, of whom there were about 210,” noted the People’s Register. The convoy’s participants were provided with refreshments and entertained with a concert put on by a local group known as the Queen City Band. The soldiers, for their part, enthralled their hosts with a large anti-aircraft searchlight that was used to brighten the nighttime sky above Chambersburg.

The truck train left Chambersburg the following morning at 6:30 and headed westward to Bedford, Pennsylvania. The convoy was welcomed by 2,000 people in that Pennsylvania borough and treated to a series of speeches commemorating the occasion. Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower, who would become the most famous and consequential member of the convoy, later highlighted that visit to Bedford in his own account of the coast-to-coast trip.  He wrote, “Before we were through . . . there were times when the pace of our first three days would seem headlong, and the four speeches at Bedford only a slight taste of the hot air ahead.”

First Lieutenant Elwell R. Jackson’s daily log for the U.S. Army’s transcontinental motor convoy is available at https://www.eisenhowerlibrary.gov/sites/default/files/research/online-documents/1919-convoy/daily-log.pdf.

Additional information on Pennsylvania’s roads at that time is available in the January 1922 edition of Highway Engineer & Contractor at https://books.google.com/books/content?id=eWE4AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA57&img=1&zoom=3&hl=en&sig=ACfU3U0UaE7G3cLl1mbMdDjYLpyxMHWsWQ&ci=32%2C38%2C955%2C1390&edge=0.

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