On March 9, 1916, a group of around 1500 Mexican rebels angered by the changing winds of American support for the various factions in their country’s civil war crossed the border and struck the town of Columbus, New Mexico. The attack, commanded by the infamous revolutionary Pancho Villa, left 19 innocent townfolk dead and their city in flames. The American response was decisive. 5000 American troops under General John J. Pershing were sent across the border in pursuit of Villa. The campaign, which was unsuccessful in locating Villa, would last until February 1917 and would today be just a minor footnote in American history except for one thing, it was the first time that trucks and aircraft were used in American combat operations.
The US Army had been experimenting with internal combustion powered vehicles as early as 1901 but because automotive technology was still rapidly evolving at the time, the Army Quartermaster had waited until 1910 to being building up a fleet of trucks. By 1916, the Army had decided that as far as transport and logistics duties in urban areas with established roads was concerned, the truck held great promise as it could travel almost twice the daily distance of horse drawn wagons which averaged only aruond 20 miles per day. However, as far as actual field operations went, the truck remained untested and so America’s entry into Northern Mexico presented an opportunity to actually try them under combat conditions.
General Pershing’s force included 588 new trucks, 67 specialized vehicles, and numerous other vehicles like passenger cars and motorcycles. Because the trucks were thrown into the field with little preparation, they were often overloaded and suffered from frequent failures. Replacement parts soon became a problem and many took months to arrive on scene. Trucks that broke down beside the road were soon stripped for bare by Army mechanics in order to keep others working and maintenance became such an issue that Pershing began to rotate his truck companies on a schedule of eight days in the field and two behind the lines in order to give them enough time to make required repairs.
One of the major lessons learned from the Mexican adventure was the need to consolidate the Army’s trucks into one, specialized type. Because Pershing’s trucks included those built by various manufacturers that shared little parts interchangeability the Army Quartermaster was required to stock parts for all of the vehicles. Trucks built from a pool of common parts, they realized, would be easier to maintain in the field, allowing parts to be swapped from a damaged truck to any other, and simplify the entire logistics train. By 1917 the Army had two working prototypes (one of which can be seen in the photo above) and although the demand for trucks in World War I soon overwhelmed the manufacturer’s capacity to build them, leading again to the purchase of vehicles from different manufacturers, by World War II the goal of standardization had been fully achieved.
Today, General Pershing’s pursuit of Pancho Villa is a minor footnote in history, a small operation lost in the shadow of the Great War that was already raging in Europe, a fight that would soon have American doughboys in the trenches as well. Pancho Villa was not caught by the American forces, in fact there is no evidence that American troops ever got close enough to the elusive revolutionary to engage him in battle, but a message was sent and Pancho Villa never again attacked American territory. Eventually the civil troubles in Mexico calmed down and Pancho Villa “retired” to an estate with many of his soldiers. In 1923, he again became involved in his country’s politics and was assassinated by one of his rivals.
General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing went on to command the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I and in time became the highest ranking military officer to ever serve in the US Military, General of The Armies. He served as a mentor to an entire generation of military officers who, in their own time, would join the pantheon of great American heroes, George C Marshall, Dwight D, Eisenhower, Omar N. Bradley and George S, Patton among others.
Military trucks have continued to evolve and today are, along with ships, rail and aircraft, an important part of the military’s logistics operations. They have served in every combat operation since 1916 and will continue to do so as long as men and equipment need to be moved across a battlefield.