‘We have us a convoy’ | NevadaAppeal.com

‘We have us a convoy’

Steve Ranson
LVN Editor Emeritus

NEED TO KNOW

On Oct. 1, the Fall Lecture Series presented by the Churchill County Museum looks at the 1919 Transcontinental Military Motor Convoy that crossed the United States on the Lincoln Highway and made a stop in Fallon.

The presentation begins at 6 p.m. at the museum, 1050 S. Maine St.

A recreation of the convoy arrived in Fallon on Monday and will remain in the Lahontan Valley until Thursday when it heads west to Carson City and then Placerville, Calif.

Jim Bonar, director of the Nevada chapter of the Lincoln Highway Association, is the presenter.

A long, snaking line descended from one of the tallest passes in central Nevada. Slowly, the vehicles inched their way west from the 7,500-foot summit on a narrow, windy highway to their first stop for lunch at Eastgate, a major stop 100 years ago on the Lincoln Highway between Austin and Fallon.

Although the route between Austin and Middlegate, another stop on the Lincoln Highway, has been rerouted and redesignated several times since the early 1900s, that didn’t stop the early military pioneers from crossing Nevada in their marvelous driving machines. Less than a year after warring nations declared a cease fire to end World War I, the U.S. Army assembled 81 vehicles and 300 soldiers to traverse the United States from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco on the Lincoln Highway to evaluate the cross-country performance of an array of motorized military vehicles and thank millions of residents for their support of the military in the “War to end all wars.”

On the trip was Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who eventually became supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe during World War II and the 34th president of the United States. Convoy commander Dan McCluskey of Simi Valley, Calif., said the 28-year-old Eisenhower, a quartermaster officer who normally provided quarters, rations, clothing and other supplies, was temporarily promoted to the higher grade for the convoy.

“Eisenhower was to observe and determine logistics of moving the convoy from a quartermaster perspective,” McCluskey explained, adding he learned more about the future president. “In Sydney, Neb., we visited the hotel where he spent the night. We saw a copy of the register with his signature and Mamie’s (his wife) name. In Cheyenne, he took off to Denver for a few days to meet his wife.”

CENTENNIAL CONVOY

On the centennial of that 62-day trip, a modern-day convoy of vehicles ranging from a 1918 Dodge staff car and Harley-Davidson motorcycle and sidecar to vehicles represented the modern era. Participants included veterans, civilians and lovers of military history. Recreated by the Military Vehicle Preservation Association, the convoy traveled across Nevada for six days earlier this month, drivers and passengers first bedding down at the Ely City Park, the same site the original convoy soldiers stayed. From there, the convoy both visited or stayed at the same locations along the highway … Austin for a night before arriving in Fallon on Sept. 4 for three-days and participation in the city’s 9/11 remembrance.

“We’re averaging about 30 to 35 mph,” said spokesman John Gillich of Reno, one of three Nevadans on the trip. “During the morning we have one to two breaks and then lunch. In the afternoon, we have one to two breaks and then our stop for the night.”

The vehicles plodded along 35 to 40 mph and covered an average of 170 miles per day.

U.S. Army veteran John Cheney rode in his share of convoys during his 28-year career from 1954-1982 that included two years on active duty and the remaining time with the U.S. Army Reserve. The breathtaking descent down Carroll Summit in his M-37, three-quarter ton cargo truck, resonated with the retired field artillery officer and U.S. Army Command and General Staff College instructor. As the convoy participants rested on the day before 9/11, Cheney of North Baltimore, Ohio, near Toledo looked at footage of the descent shot from a drone.

“It opens up the road horizon to horizon, a panorama,” he described as he pointed to the long line of vehicles making hairpin turns on State Route 722 . “It really gets to me.”

Cheney felt every pass they crossed between Ely and Fallon unveiled a panorama showing both the solitude and beauty of an untouched rural Nevada. He also said the convoy followed the same routes, the same special places. The travel over Carroll Summit impressed McCluskey.

“We got to experience the same road and same grade the 1919 Army did,” McCluskey said.

But with one major difference. The route 100 years ago was a narrow dirt road, not paved. Wide vehicles experienced difficulty maneuvering over the pass and around the corners.

“During the original convoy, the only paved roads were in the towns,” he recalled. “In 1919 Ely, there were no paved roads … they drove on dirt roads.”

SLICE OF AMERICANA

The long journey that began at the Gettysburg National Military Park offered Cheney, who drove two sections in the Midwest on the convoy’s 90th anniversary in 2009, a better glimpse of Americana from behind a steering wheel and what makes the middle of the country tick. Like many others in the convoy, Cheney is hooked on old military vehicles and memorabilia.

“If anyone asks, patriotism is not dead in this country,” he said describing one scene where 150 students with miniature U.S. flags waved them at the convoy. “People are amazing when we pulled into a store. Everyone knew where we were going.”

Cheney said the smaller communities showed more enthusiasm for the centennial convoy. Military or service organizations fed the drivers and passengers while offering any support. Fallon was not different. Fallon residents waving miniature flags greeted the convoy, which rumbled downtown on Maine Street to the fairgrounds, and American Legion Post 16 provided a meal the night before they departed for Carson City. On their free day, a group interested in military vehicles drove to Sparks for a personalized tour of the Harrah Military Museum, while others visited the Churchill County Museum or stayed at the fairgrounds resting.

McCluskey, along with his wife Janine, hauled their military vehicles to Pennsylvania on a 32-foot trailer, first to the MVPA annual convention and then to Gettysburg. He ensured the 38 military vehicles and recovery trucks safely reached each destination once the group left Pennsylvania on Aug. 11.

It wasn’t hard to pick out from McCluskey with his military helmet and attire. He loved the task at hand by leading the convoy more than 3,000 miles. McCluskey reiterated Cheney’s assessment on the people they met.

“It restored your faith in the heartland of America,” he said. “There’s still tremendous support for our military.”

Before arriving in Fallon, McCluskey said the convoy received what he called fantastic receptions in Delta, Utah, and Austin. He said smaller communities turn out hundreds of people if not thousands, yet this wasn’t first visit to Fallon for the McCluskeys. In 2009, they joined the convoy in the “Oasis of Nevada” in early July.

“We drove a few sections in the West because our daughter was getting married,” Janine said. “We stayed at the Navy base and ate at the galley. We used the bowling alley, and we were here during the Fourth of July, which was so exciting.”

The 70-vehicle convoy became a spectator favorite on Independence Day by participating in the annual parade, and once it ended, the vehicles lined up along North Maine Street south of the softball field, drawing the attention of hundreds of people including many visitors who were in town for the annual Silver State International Rodeo.

As reported in the Lahontan Valley News, “Naval Air Station Fallon has offered to host the drivers and their vehicles the night before the parade, and businessman Ed Louie agreed to let the group set up a static display in the old Wal-Mart parking lot following the parade.”

When McCluskey and the others parked their vehicles across the street during this year’s 9/11 remembrance, several hundred people, like they did a decade ago, talked to the drivers and viewed the vehicles. Fallon Mayor Ken Tedford donned a helmet and sat in the sidecar for photos.

Besides the military convoy rolling into Fallon, Churchill County Museum Director Dan Ingram said the Lincoln Highway Association is also celebrating its 100th anniversary. Ingram said conditions for the soldiers were much different in 1919. For starters they cooled off in one of the area’s canals and slept on the ground under the clear, starry Nevada skies.

“History along the Lincoln Highway is worth remembering,” Ingram said.

Eventually, he would like to see the implementation of a historic district that would chronicle the events and history pertaining to the highway.

THE FINAL DAYS

Drivers and passengers arose early, moved their vehicles from the fairgrounds to the parking lot east of the indoor swimming pool. At 6:45 p.m. they stood for the national anthem, and 15 minutes later they drove onto Sheckler Road and headed west toward U.S. Highway 50.

Likewise, when the convoy stopped in Carson City on Sept. 12, hundreds of people stopped by the Nevada State Railroad Museum where the vehicles were on display.

“We ended up with a number of classic vehicles and the Elks Club showed up and fed them,” said Dan Thielen, museum director. “The mayor of Carson City (Bob Crowell) came out and visited with them for a while. It was a good day for us at the museum. It brought a lot of life in the day. We were absolutely packed that day.”

After lunch they left and drove over the Sierra Nevada to Placerville, their second-to-last night stop.

Thielen said moving people over that type of distance is always critical to the nation and its defense during so many eras.

“When Eisenhower went on that trip as an observer, he knew so much that benefitted America in World War II and has benefitted this nation,” Thielen said.

On the original convoy, Thielen said some vehicles shouldn’t have left the city limits or others that weren’t expected to travel 100 miles.

Both Tom Gunther and Doug O’Neil, who lived in the Sacramento area, joined the convoy in Fallon for the last leg, call themselves avid historians. They trucked a Vietnam-era ambulance to Fallon and drove over the Sierra Nevada to San Francisco. Both men said they had numerous friends on this year’s convoy. Gunther, who never served in the military, said he’s owned the vehicle for about 10 years. He saved the vehicle in its original state when he discovered the owner at the time was going to paint his company name on it.

Every year Gunther, a highway contractor and project manager, takes a trip on the backroads of the Sierra near Truckee with four or five other enthusiasts.

“You should see the look we get from people in the forest looking at our military vehicles,” he said with a grin.

O’Neil spent four years in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1979-1983. His anniversary to his wife, whom he met while on a two-month deployment in Denmark, coincided with his first day in Fallon.

“It’s our biggest anniversary,” he said.

O’Neil, an engineer for Hewlett-Packard, talks fondly of his time spent in Nevada. He worked for Bentley Nevada and lived in Carson City from 1989-1994, and his father, who lived in Fernley during the 1970s, worked on the construction of the Carlin Tunnel west of Elko on Interstate 80 in the mid-1970s.

‘GOT THE BUG’

Randy Constien of Findlay, Ohio, said he “got the bug” after riding in several convoys before tackling this year’s cross country journey. He is planning to participate in future convoys including one to the national parks in Oregon and Washington state. His daughter, Molly, has accompanied him on every convoy, and his girlfriend, Connie Bailey, joined them for the transcontinental trip.

Constien pulled a support vehicle and trailer not only to be part of something historic but also to pay homage to friends and family members who have died. He pointed to the names on his white trailer, each one honored with a short biographical account and photo. Additionally, Constien enjoyed his stay in Fallon, a familiar stop when he served in the Navy including 23 years in the Navy Reserve. He served off the Vietnam coastline aboard three different ships in 1972, 1973 and 1974.

“I’ve been to Fallon before with a detachment based in Hawaii,” he reminisced. “I also traveled to Alameda and San Diego.”

The retired chief petty officer, though, was recalled to active duty after the events of 9/11 more than 18 years ago. He was assigned to security operations and deployed to Dubai where U.S. Navy ships stopped on ports of call.

“I’ve also been to Turkey, Puerto Rico and southeast Korea,” he added.

Constien also visited NAS Fallon during the convoy’s stay.

“It’s nice, more modern looking,” he said, remembering the last time he visited decades ago. “The airplane display is awesome.”

Constien reflected on his recent visit across Nevada and his stay in Fallon.

“It’s cool to walk where Eisenhower did,” he said. “Different vehicles, different era. We saw deer on the road, a cow on the road, coyotes and jackrabbits. When we traveled on the highway we were going slowly. l love driving the side roads, seeing the old cemeteries.”

Constien said many highways the convoy crossed looked the same, but Nevada has a different aura, especially across the central part of the state.

“I enjoyed Nevada and Highway 50 but many people say it’s lonely,” he said. “It’s not lonely. Nevada is beautiful.”