The Liberty Tests its Limits: The 100th Anniversary of the Trans-Continental Convoy

Howdy and welcome back! I know that amongst the many anniversaries this year revolving around WW2 and with WW1 having completed its own centennial celebrations last year, the last thing on anybody’s minds right now is 1919. But this year we celebrate several anniversaries including the return of the First Infantry Division to the United States from German Occupation duty. For many in the world of military vehicles, 1919 is also celebrated for the infamous Motor Transport Corps Trans-continental Convoy (MTC-TCC) also known as the ‘Lincoln Highway Convoy’ named for its route. Though not the Army’s first attempt, it was the most thorough in terms of surveying and support, and the first to complete the trip from the east coast to the west.

The entire convoy somewhere around Utah
“The Whole Convoy, Utah”. This photo shows all 64 vehicles and trailers in use during the convoy in one of its toughest stretches out west. It was on this leg of the journey that paved roads and bridges ceased to exist and many trucks began to run into mechanical issues, general driver inexperience or exhaustion. (photo courtesy of the Eisenhower National Archives Collection)

The MTC-TCC was an attempt to cross from coast to coast with standardized military trucks and gain valuable data and experience from it which the military could use in developing the relatively new concept of motorized transport. It was a chance to test the several standardized classes of trucks and cars that the Army had used during the World War while also providing information to the government on the state of American roads and automotive infrastructure. Beginning July 7th, 1919 and ending September 6th (a total of 62 days and 3,110 miles traveled), the convoy involved some 64 vehicles (not including trailers) to include 22 Standardized Class B Liberty Trucks of the Second-series type. These Liberty trucks formed the largest amount of any one make or model of vehicle in the trip. The ‘B’s’ as they are frequently called in contemporary accounts entered the convoy part way and came down to meet them from Chicago, joining up in time for the most arduous portion of the journey from Iowa to California. In addition to the Class-B’s, other vehicles included:

-8x passenger cars (2 makes)

-6x light delivery trucks (3 makes)

-3x ambulances (1 make)

-4x 5 1/2-ton trucks (1 make)

-3x 3-ton trucks (all commercial make)

-3x 3-ton FWD trucks (all commercial make)

-9x 1 1/2-ton trucks (3 makes)

-6x Motorcycles (2 makes)

Route Map
The 3,110-mile convoy route of the Motor Transport Corps Transcontinental Convoy stretching from coast to coast. Most of the first half of the trip encountered paved or improved roads until about Cedar Rapids, Iowa after which the roads became increasingly difficult to traverse or even non-existent.

Present as one of a handful of observers, Ralph B. Burton accompanied the convoy through its duration and recorded many of the mechanical and engineering issues encountered. His suggestions and general observations were later published in a July 1920 issue of The Journal of the Society of Automotive Engineers. Throughout the article Burton makes mention of the Liberty Truck specifically on the whole as one of the more capable designs in the convoy and less prone to breakage. He specifically mentions the brakes saying, “the brakes on the Class B truck gave the least trouble of any on the convoy. These are properly designed, so that even though the drive be taken through the springs, there is no grabbing action or moving of the brake pedal and lever.” In contrast, Burton also goes on to strongly disapprove of one of my few issues with the Liberty design; the lateral accelerator pedal.

Driving Set up- arrows
The driving set up of the Liberty Truck. Blue arrows indicate the Clutch (left) and Brake (right) and the red arrow is the much smaller lateral accelerator as mentioned (and disliked) by drivers on the 1919 convoy.

For those of you not familiar, the accelerator pedal in the liberty is pushed to the right with the side of the driver’s foot, rather than depressed to the floor with the bottom of the foot as is the case with the clutch and brake foot pedals. When driving for longer periods of time unless wearing particular boots, the accelerator begins to dig into the side of the foot and is very uncomfortable, not to mention prone to slipping. It is a terrible design flaw which apparently was not much liked 100 years ago either as Burton makes specific mention of it as ” exceptionally hard to operate.” He goes on to encourage the standardization of depression pedals and the ‘clutch-brake-accelerator’ (ordered from left to right on the floor) configuration among all Army vehicles as the preferred design which at the time was not always a given nor was it among the various classes of vehicles in the convoy. Fortunately for us, the configuration stuck through today- making learning to drive the Liberty in 2018 far easier.

Check out this National Archives Film of the Convoy from YouTube!

Another draw back to the truck inherent in both experience and photographic evidence is the lack of any sort of tread or grip on the solid rubber tires. Having bogged down the truck myself in little more than wet grass, I can only imagine how many times the Class-B trucks and others found themselves slipping and becoming stuck- a fact proven by the many photos of wrecked, flipped or stuck trucks along the route. While chains were issued in a kit with the truck, they don’t appear to have helped or been used often.

LIberty off the road
One of the 22 Standard B Liberty Trucks encountered in the convoy, this one belonging to Co.E, 5th Engineer Regiment who were brought along to rebuild bridges and roads destroyed throughout the journey. Minor incidents like going off the road and breaking bridges were a daily occurrence on the convoy.  (photo courtesy of the Eisenhower National Archives Collection)

The trucks themselves were far from the only difficulty on the long journey across the United States. We take for granted the extensive system of paved roads we have in America- no matter their condition- but designated roads or paths weren’t a guarantee in 1919. In fact, by all accounts most paved or what we would called ‘improved’ roads essentially disappeared for the convoy west of Iowa. The route through Utah devolved into what was essentially sandy river and creek beds with the occasional wagon wheel ruts denoting them as regularly traveled.  On top of this there was the issue of bridges, for which the convoy brought an entire company of engineers- E Co., of the 5th Engineers to be precise. All along the route bridges would either be impassable, or left useless by the heavy trucks using them, resulting in the engineers having to rebuild over 80 bridges throughout the convoy route.

Liberty being pulled by another truck
A Class-B truck pulling another from the mire of western roads on the Lincoln Highway. The truck being pulled appears to have some sort of modification to the cargo body and has had its bows and canvas removed. The truck pulling it has a recruitment sign advertising ‘A clean start’ with the Motor Transport Corps. (photo courtesy of the Eisenhower National Archives Collection)

The convoy without a doubt played a huge roll in the future General-of-the-Army’s impressions on the importance of an interstate highway system. Spurred on by his roll in the 1919 convoy and further fueled by the road system he witnessed in Germany, Eisenhower would have been convinced fully of the need improved American automotive infrastructure. This year we mark the convoy’s 100th anniversary and as such, the Military Vehicle Preservation Association (of which the author is a member) will be traversing the very same route in a 100-vehicle convoy of historic military vehicles beginning August 10th in York, PA and ending 37 days later in Stockton, CA on September 15th. The convoy will include vehicles from the past 100 years of US military equipment and may also include one or two WW1-era vehicles. The convoy will make a stop at the First Division Museum in Wheaton, IL on Tuesday, August 20th and have all their vehicles out on display for the public throughout the afternoon. Be sure to check out their page at https://www.mvpa.org/convoys to see if they will be rolling through or stopping at a town near you!

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