When Johnny came trucking home
How World War I helped inspire today's trucking industry

By Bill Hudgins, contributing writer

In addition to Thanksgiving, there's another holiday in November that's important to truckers – Veterans Day. Now embracing all veterans, Nov. 11 was originally designated to remember the fallen in World War I. But there's another reason truckers should remember Veterans Day. In an indirect way, WWI helped inspire today's trucking industry.

World War I ignited in 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on June 28 of that year, but the various rival powers had been eying each other through gunsights for years before that. War was expected, anticipated. After all, European nations had fought each other repeatedly for centuries. And it was time once again, overdue even.

Accordingly, they had been gearing up for battle, and their planning included transporting troops and war materiel by water, rail, bicycles, horses, mules – and cars and trucks.

The major powers had been experimenting with trucks since soon after the turn of the century, with various degrees of opposition from traditionalists who scoffed at the crude mechanical contraptions.

But field tests and actual combat began to dispel those doubts like a cloud of exhaust. When the German army began its massive sweeping attack toward France in August 1914, trucks trundled alongside horse- and mule-drawn wagons. The German armies would use thousands of trucks in all sorts of ways – even as rolling shoe shops and kitchens.

The other European powers would field trucks as well. And while America maintained neutrality until 1917, then-Col. John J. "Blackjack" Pershing took trucks with him in his futile pursuit of Pancho Villa in 1916.

Between the time America declared war in April 1917 and the war's end, American builders cranked out more than 227,000 trucks. Mack almost immediately comes to mind when thinking about trucks and World War I, but other makes gave noble service, including Ford, White, FWD, the Nash Quad four-wheel drive, Packard, and the Army's own Standard B model that was immediately christened the Liberty Truck.

The vehicles – and their drivers – performed heroically. The French government even awarded the White Standard Model A the French Croix de Guerre.

When all the Johnnies came marching home after the Armistice in 1918, they found that America wanted trucks and truck drivers.

Fortunately, the Army was downsizing and disposing of its fleets of unneeded vehicles. In 1919, the Army sponsored a coast-to-coast convoy including 65 trucks, in part to demonstrate the feasibility of using trucks for longdistance transport in case of military emergency.

The convoy also dramatically demonstrated the need for good roads, taking almost two months to make the 3,250-mile run from Washington, DC, to San Francisco. Dirt roads composed about half of the route, and obstacles ranged from quicksand to creaky bridges that collapsed under the weight of the steel vehicles.

Part of the convoy included two trucks owned by Harvey Firestone and equipped with pneumatic tires that outperformed the solid rubber ones on the Army vehicles. Afterward, Firestone became a leader in the movement to replace 19th-century dirt tracks with modern paved roads.

Also among the Army officers was a 28-year-old lieutenant colonel named Dwight David Eisenhower. This experience, plus seeing the German's Autobahn system in World War II, convinced him America needed a similar system.

In 1952, Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1952, which authorized the first funding for the envisaged Interstate Highway System.

Four years later, President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. This law called for 41,000 miles of roads – far more than the 1952 act – as well as setting out design standards and funding rules and creating the Highway Trust Fund to help pay for it all.

Today, that superslab you're on is officially known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

So, as you salute the veterans who fought for our freedoms and to preserve our way of life, think about the doughboys who wrestled cranky, solid-tired Macks and FWDs across the rutted, scarred mud of France. Like today's truckers, they brought good things – mail, medical supplies, beans and bullets – and won a war.

And when they came home, they transformed a nation. Let us give thanks. LL