The year 1919 doesn’t seem like ancient history, does it? Oh, sure, there are two very special things we have today that we didn’t have back then — computers and television; and no one in his right mind would claim they aren’t critically important to the modern world. However, if we think about the basic things that make our world what it is today, we had most of them back in 1919, didn’t we?
We had the electricity that runs everything in our houses and just about everywhere else. We had telephones and telegraphs. We had radios, phonographs, and motion pictures. We had cars, trains, and planes — and a lot more.
However, there is one thing we definitely did NOT have in 1919; and a young and virtually unknown lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army plainly said so when he was given orders to be an observer on the 1919 Motor Transport Corps Convoy. In his report he says, “I was detailed for duty as observer on the Trans-Continental Motor Truck Trip on the day that the train left its initial point, (Washington, D.C.). I have not at any time been furnished by any authority with information concerning the nature of the report desired.”
That young lieutenant colonel was Dwight D. Eisenhower, and he had plenty to say about a trip that was intended to test the ability of our military to move men and equipment speedily and efficiently within our borders should it become necessary in time of another war. Just listen to some of these facts:
The convoy was composed of cars, light trucks, heavy trucks, motorcycles, ambulances, trailers, kitchen wagons, tractors, and even a fully equipped machine shop unit. However, engines failed. Axles broke. Chain drives clogged with sand and refused to work. Wheel bearings burned out. Oil lines clogged. Wheels fell off. Entire rear ends had to be replaced. And more.
Over 225 times, that convoy had to stop for adjustment or repair of broken down vehicles, or extrication of them from ditches, mires, or other impassable obstacles. Nine vehicles didn’t finish the trip at all. Six “rest” days were declared during which the convoy didn’t move an inch.
The convoy began with 39 officers and 258 men. Of them, 21 were injured en route and didn’t complete the trip.
From Illinois through Nevada, the convoy found, practically all roadways were unpaved, some of them even being composed of sand into which the heavy vehicles sank and had to be winched out. On top of that, the convoy broke, and had to repair, 88 wooden bridges.
It took 62 days, or 573.5 actual driving hours, to cross the continent. The average speed at which the convoy traveled was under six miles per hour.
Thirty-three years later in 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president. One of his major priorities showed that he had never forgotten the lesson he learned so many years earlier. He fought with Congress until it reluctantly passed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956.
Last week, I spoke of an amazing improvement I saw in our national highways between 1958 and 1961. Those years marked the beginning of a new era in American highways.
Construction of the original part of the high speed, controlled-access highways across the nation was completed in 1991. Since then they have been extended. We now enjoy more than 48,000 miles in our National Highway System, and one out of every four miles driven is done on those roads.