In 1919, Lt. Col. Eisenhower, then 28 years old, joined the U.S. Army's first transcontinental road trip. To demonstrate its motorized capabilities and promote better roads, a convoy of 24 officers and 258 enlisted men aboard 80 trucks, cars, and motorcycles -- and a Molitor wrecker -- left Washington, D.C., along the Lincoln Highway, bound for San Francisco.
The plan was straightforward: Follow the route of the first major U.S. sea-to-sea road as defined by a 1916 law. The convoy would cross plains, mountains and deserts over 56 days, with evenings set aside for speeches, dinners and entertainment organized by local boosters.
The experience was sobering. The Army knew big chunks of the route consisted of proposed, not actual, roads. Each day, scouts drove ahead to find and mark the road so the convoy wouldn't get lost, a U.S. Department of Transportation history recounts.
The account identified four key challenges: the roads, bridges, vehicles and speeches. Most of the roads weren't paved. They were narrow and dusty when dry, muddy when wet.
Vehicles slid into ditches and bogged down in sand or mud. They had to be dragged out by the wrecker or pushed by soldiers.
Light-duty bridges also thwarted the convoy. The Army reinforced some, detoured around others and built new ones in some locations. The convoy ignored several bridges, finding fords and simply driving across low spots.
Vehicles broke down: tires, axles, bearings, motors and other parts shook off on the bad roads. Mechanics who were trained to repair horse-drawn wagons struggled with new technology. Eisenhower's diary said the converted mule-skinners' salty language "colored the air."
The convoy drew avid crowds. The 80 vehicles passing through a community often created the biggest local event in years. Soldiers grew to hate the speeches.
Eastern roads were passable, but deteriorated west of the Mississippi River. Eisenhower's report noted: "Two days were lost in the western part of [Nebraska] due to bad, sandy roads." The convoy fell behind schedule.
The worst travel came in Utah. It took a full day to pull each vehicle through 200 yards of quicksand. On another bogged-down day, water supplies had to be rationed until fresh barrels of water arrived from 12 miles away -- by horse-drawn wagons.
Six days late, the convoy reached San Francisco and a grand governor's gala. Its average pace over 62 days was 6 miles an hour. Eisenhower called the trip "an undoubted success," but added: "There was a great deal of sentiment for the improving of highways."