At the end of World War I, in which vehicles played a vital role, the U.S. War Department wanted to know if the country’s roads could handle long-distance emergency movements of motorized army units across the nation. As a test, the Transcontinental Motor Convoy—some 80 military vehicles and 280 officers and enlisted personnel—set out for California from Washington, DC, on July 7, 1919.

In the manner of the wilderness scouts of the nineteenth century, army personnel mounted on Harley-Davidsons instead of horses, would run ahead of the convoy to check out the conditions that lay just ahead. The vehicles broke down, got stuck in dust, quicksand, and mud, and sank when roads and bridges collapsed under them. Sixty-two days after it left Washington, DC, the convoy reached San Francisco. It had covered 3,251 miles, averaging 58 miles a day at an average speed of 6 miles an hour. The official report of the War Department, chronicling the 230 motor accidents of the convoy, concluded that the existing roads in the United States were “absolutely incapable of meeting the present day traffic requirements.”

One of the army observers on the convoy was Armored Corps representative, Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower, a 28-year-old officer grown bored with his peacetime posting at Fort Meade. His summary report is presented here.