1919 Transcontinental Convoy: A Tale of Sand and Slow Progress in Nebraska

August 5, 1919

A week after the U.S. Army’s Cross-Country Motor Transport Train had traveled across the Missouri River to enter Nebraska, it continued to make its way through the Cornhusker State. Early on the morning of Tuesday, August 5, the convoy’s participants left North Platte after spending two nights there.

The expedition’s efforts to reach North Platte in the first place proved to be a lot easier said than done, due to the overall condition of the roads throughout the state. “In Nebraska, the first real sand was encountered,” noted Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower in a report on the transcontinental trip that he prepared later that year for the chief of the Motor Transport Corps. Eisenhower singled out the western part of the state for its “bad, sandy roads.” In his daily log for the journey, First Lieutenant Elwell R. Jackson made similarly dismal observations on road conditions encountered in Nebraska. “Roads gumbo mud,” was part of his entry for August 2. He noted for August 3, “Roads sandy, some quicksand.”

These travel challenges caused the convoy to fall behind schedule. The original plan had been for it to arrive in North Platte on August 2, but the excessive wear-and-tear the road surfaces were inflicting on the Army vehicles led the convoy’s commander Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. McClure to order a stop at the city of Gothenburg to spend the night there instead.

A Militor in action, c. 1919.

The following morning, the convoy left Gothenburg to travel the remaining 34 miles (54.7 kilometers) to North Platte. As Jackson confirmed, this trek proved to be a tough slog. He wrote, “With the exception of the Engineers’ trucks and the [front-wheel drive vehicles], the Militor [a tractor used for pulling stalled or otherwise stuck vehicles] towed every truck in the Convoy at least once during the day. At one time, 9 trucks chained together were unable to move under their own power, and the Militor pulled them through.”

Finally, at 5:15 p.m., many of the expedition’s vehicles reached North Platte. “The arrival of the train was announced by a prolonged whistle at the water plant, and the streets were lined with hundreds of cars and thousands of spectators,” reported the North Platte Semi-Weekly Tribune. “The train entered the city over the Lincoln Highway, down to Front, west to Locust and thence to the city park.”

It was not until 10:00 p.m., however, that the final portion of the convoy – eight trucks carrying McClure and the engineering corps – arrived in the city. The North Platte Semi-Weekly Tribune explained, “The delay of these trucks was due to the big repair shop truck going through a bridge or culvert east of Maxwell [a village between Gothenburg and North Platte], and a stop was necessary to extricate the truck and repair the damage to the bridge.”

Upon his arrival in North Platte, McClure was formally welcomed by a committee led by the city’s mayor Alexander F. Streitz. Grace Streitz, the mayor’s wife, presented McClure with a large likeness of a key made out of flowers. The extended stopover of two nights in North Platte allowed the convoy’s participants to perform needed mechanical readjustments and other types of maintenance on every vehicle after the arduous past several days of travel. The soldiers, along with having the opportunity to meet many of the area’s residents, were also treated to lemonade and ice cream by local members of the Knights of Columbus.

The time spent in North Platte turned out to be especially positive and poignant for Eisenhower. His wife Mamie and their son Doud Dwight (nicknamed “Icky”), who had been born in 1917, were staying with her parents John and Elivera Doud at their home in Denver. Mamie and her father had been closely following the progress of the convoy, placing pins on a map to help keep track of the expedition’s various stops along the way. With the convoy in Nebraska, they decided to join it. Mamie, accompanied by her son and parents, left Denver to brave the rough roads during a 13-hour drive in a Packard automobile to reach North Platte.

This reunion in the midst of the convoy’s campout in North Platte was a happy one. It was the first time in six months that Eisenhower had seen his wife and son. Mamie and the others in her party would remain with the convoy as far as Laramie, Wyoming, before returning to Denver. Her husband very much enjoyed their time together on the road. He later wrote, “This was a fine interlude, and I decided that it would be nice, being in the West already, to apply for a leave with my family at the end of the tour – if indeed we ever reached the end.”

Additional information on the U.S. Army’s transcontinental motor convoy (including its travels through Nebraska and Wyoming) is available at http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.tra.037.

For more information on Dwight D. Eisenhower’s participation in the convoy, please check out the article “Ike and ‘The Great Truck Train’ -1919” (by John E. Wickman) in the Autumn 1990 issue of the journal Kansas History at https://www.kshs.org/publicat/history/1990autumn_wickman.pdf.

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