Epic road trips are close to the heart of every automobile enthusiast, and among road trips, venturing into uncharted territory has been an ultimate experience achieved by very few. Doing such a journey in a famous post-World War II vehicle is an experience as rare as spotting a unicorn. An individual who did all of these things was Wendell Phillips, an American explorer, adventurer, and archaeologist who organized and led expeditions to discover lost cities of ancient civilizations buried under the sands of remote areas of Arabia. He made these journeys in 1950-52 with early examples of the Dodge Power Wagon, the ¾ ton military truck of the Second World War made into a pioneering civilian four wheel drive light truck in 1945. Little known six decades later, the expeditions and the role of the Power Wagons in them are one of the great American stories of man and machine.
Wendell Phillips is a figure whom most will immediately declare to be a real-life Indiana Jones, but it is more accurate to say that he lived a far grander life than Steven Spielberg would have dared dreamed up. At the age of 26 in 1947, a paleontology degree holder from the University of California who had served in the U.S. Merchant Marine during the Second World War, he conceived and organized an expedition from Cairo to Capetown for the University of California. In 1949, he made preparations for a far larger expedition to South Arabia, as the first archaeologist to excavate lost cities that once had been wealthy centers of the frankincense industry and of the trade routes between the Roman Empire and India, in the kingdoms of Qataban and Saba (the Sheba of the Old Testament, home of the Queen of Sheba).
The lost cities of Timna and Marib, in present-day Yemen, were far inland in a roadless region of deserts and mountains, with no organized government outside of the British colonial port of Aden and riddled with tribal feuds. The area was so isolated from the outside world, even the port of Aden, that many tribes accepted only 18th-Century Maria Theresa thaler coins from Austria as real money, having used such coins for centuries. (In anticipation of this, the expedition brought a large supply of newly minted Maria Theresa thalers stamped with the year 1780.)
The expeditions into this difficult environment were made possible by Phillips’ ability to persuade sponsors to contribute a seemingly limitless stream of supplies and state-of-the-art equipment. They included gasoline from Shell Oil (donated by Shell Vice President Jimmy Doolittle, the 1920s-30s aviation pioneer who had led the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in 1942); movie and still cameras from Eastman Kodak and Graflex; Zenith, Link, and Hallicrafter radios; Fairbanks Morse generators; typewriters from Remington Rand; canned food from General Foods, Hormel, and Borden; and Winchester and Marlin rifles and Colt revolvers, many of which ended up as goodwill gifts to sheikhs along the way.
Credit for the expeditions’ Power Wagons should go to Chrysler Corporation President K.T. Keller. Best known to automobile historians and enthusiasts as the highly conservative executive who kept Chrysler styling upright and square at the start of the longer-wider-lower era, Keller was far from conservative in supporting the expeditions lavishly. When Phillips met Keller to describe the first expedition and its requirement for 10-12 Power Wagons, Keller immediately got Dodge Division President Tex Colbert on the telephone and told him to give away 15 Power Wagons to Phillips. The generous donation of Power Wagons, with their four wheel drive and ¾ ton cargo capacity, gave the expeditions the essential asset without which they would have been far more difficult, if not impossible.
In 1949, few civilian off-road vehicles were in production. The Power Wagon, Willys CJ (Civilian Jeep) and Jeep Truck/Jeep Station Wagon, and Land Rover Series I (introduced in 1948 and unproven) were the only such vehicles available, aside from limited production Marmon-Harrington conversions and heavier military trucks such as the 1.5 ton 4×4 Chevrolet G506 and the 2.5 ton 6×6 GMC CCKW. The ¾ ton Power Wagon was the right size to serve as the expedition’s sole type of vehicle – important for maintenance and repair in the field – while the Jeeps and the Land Rover (available only with an 80 inch wheelbase until 1953) were too small to carry the considerable equipment and supplies essential to the expedition.
Phillips made the four expeditions with teams combining individuals with many fields of knowledge and skills. Each had 11 to 16 members, with archaeologists, language experts to study the little-known script used in ancient South Arabia, photographers to record discoveries, a doctor, and mechanics to keep the Power Wagons running. Power Wagon enthusiasts who consider their trucks to be too tough and manly for women should note that the business manager and ace driver of the first expedition was Gladys Terry, wife of African explorer and expedition photography director William Terry. In Phillips’ 1947 Cairo to Capetown expedition, she had driven a 2.5 ton cargo truck. In the first expedition in 1950, she managed finances and drove the lead Power Wagon as the vehicle convoy’s pathfinder.
Getting the Power Wagons ashore at the start of the first expedition in the spring of 1950 was challenging enough, because to start the journey inland at the most appropriate place, the vehicles and equipment had to land at the small port of Mukalla in eastern Yemen instead of the major port at Aden. Instead of being dropped by crane onto a dock, the Power Wagons had to go ashore perched precariously on small, open-topped dhows that had originally been built as grain conveyors. Fortunately, none were lost, and the expedition moved inland with all of its vehicles and equipment.
Reaching the archaeological site at Timna first required crossing a mountain range more than 5,000 feet above sea level. Although heavily loaded, the Power Wagons with their high torque flathead six cylinder engines handled the ascent without any problems.
The Power Wagons also provided the expedition with shelter during the journey. In night encampments, the Power Wagons were parked in a square formation to create instant forts, like circled Conestoga wagons on the western frontier. They helped to create security against possible attack by bandits or hostile tribes.
With tribal territories along the route unmapped and often violently contested, with rival tribes and other trespassers attacked, guides with local knowledge were essential to get through the region alive. William Terry is shown here reviewing a map of the route with two local sheikhs riding with the convoy as guides, and as insurance against hostile action by their own tribes.
Not all sheikhs were desert nomads, and some of the wealthier and more sophisticated sheikhs eagerly welcomed the expedition and assisted it. This photo shows the Power Wagons parked at the palace of Sayid Abu Bakr Al Kaf, whose family had business interests dating back several centuries in Southeast Asia, where many of them had settled as traders. Abroad in Singapore at the time, he allowed the expedition to use his house as a temporary headquarters during the inland journey.
Near Sayid Abu Bakr Al Kaf’s palace, the expedition visited the “skyscraper city” of Shibam. Dating back to the 3nd Century AD, this city of high rises built of mud has buildings up to 11 stories high, many of them 500 years old. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.
From there, the expedition continued further to the archaeological site at Timna, a journey of over 300 miles. There, the excavations discovered the first major artefacts of the Qatabanian civilization, dating back to the 1st Century BC and 1st Century AD. To this day, they are the foundation of knowledge of this ancient civilization.
The second expedition in early 1951 retraced the steps of the first and returned to Timna. The Power Wagons did additional heavy duty at the start of this journey, using their winches to haul ashore a road grader made by LeTourneau, a maker of heavy earthmoving and construction equipment that had also built the BARC 60 ton amphibious cargo vehicle. Requested by the Sultan of Mukalla’s customs officials as a “donation” during the first expedition, it helped to ensure duty-free treatment of the expedition’s vehicles and equipment. The deeper excavations of the second expedition made further discoveries dating back to 1000 B.C., even earlier than the time of the Queen of Sheba.
The third and fourth expeditions in 1951-52 finally reached the Queen of Sheba’s capital at Marib, but only after delicate negotiations with the nominal ruler of the region, Imam Ahmed, the King of Yemen. Requiring permission from the King, Phillips visited him with generous gifts of Marlin rifles, Colt revolvers, a Hallicrafter radio, a Polaroid camera, and many other valuable items of equipment. The appreciative King flew Phillips in the royal DC-3 to his capital at Sana, which he himself had not visited for years, after the assassination of his father there by tribal enemies. After a tour of Sana in one of the royal cars, a blue 1946 Chrysler, the King granted him permission to excavate Marib.
Marib was only 40 miles from the expedition’s base at Timna, but it was practically a world away. It could be reached only by cutting across sand dunes that were previously unexplored by westerners and rarely crossed even by local Bedouins. In their Power Wagons, Phillips and his colleagues worked their way through mountainous dunes of loose sand, counting a total of seven ranges of dunes, covering a roundabout 75 miles to cross 20 miles of desert.
It was even more a world away in that the people living in the modern town of Marib (shown, with an excavation site in front of it) were as hostile and greedy as the people of Timna had been friendly and helpful. When the Power Wagons emerged from the desert and arrived at Marib, Phillips found himself confronted with massed rifles by a hostile tribe that had never seen westerners or automobiles before. Taken as captives despite their protests that they had the King’s permission, Phillips and his men were saved when the King’s brother in law arrived the next morning on a white horse with an armed retinue, announcing that the expedition had the King’s endorsement. He arrived only moments before the local governor arrived with a band of camel-borne soldiers to take Phillips and his men away, probably to be held for ransom.
Two brief expeditions to Marib began the excavation of structures over 2,500 years old, briefly glimpsed by Europeans during the 19th Century but not visited by westerners since then. The only structure above ground was the Marib Dam (shown), originally built in the 8th Century BC and a foundation of Marib agriculture and power until it fell into disrepair and burst during the the 6th Century AD. Temples of pre-Islamic pagan gods that had been buried for centuries were partially excavated as well.
Phillips and his archaeological team barely scratched the surface at Marib, however, because the local tribes acted increasingly greedy and then outright hostile during the second and last expedition to Marib. Believing that the archaeologists were uncovering buried treasure, local sheikhs demanded and sometimes forcibly seized artefacts, none of which were gold or otherwise valuable since the ruins had been conquered and looted over a thousand years earlier. The situation became far graver in early February 1952, when after a tribal war had broken out between tribes allied to the King and Phillips’ friends in Timna, a Somali named Jama who supervised the expedition’s locally hired laborers learned of an imminent plot to kill all of the Americans in Marib and take their equipment and other possessions.
By this time, most of the Power Wagons that the expedition had brought to Marib had broken down and needed repairs, leaving them with one good runner with a dump truck body and a stake bed with a dead battery and rear differential on its last legs. Needing two vehicles to carry all of the Americans and local laborers out, the team stealthily drained and transferred all remaining gasoline to the two operable vehicles, while Jama took the dead battery into town to be recharged. Jama also worked all night to prepare the remaining weapons, ammunition, and water to be quickly loaded into the Power Wagons in the morning. The plan was that at 6:40 AM on February 12, 1952, ten minutes before the usual start of the work day, the stake bed would quietly drive away with Phillips at the wheel and half of the expedition party, followed five minutes later by the dump truck with everyone remaining.
The escape instead was far more harrowing. Two of the expedition’s main tormentors unexpectedly showed up early with a squad of soldiers to ride along for what they expected to be a day of confiscating artifacts found by the archaeologists. Phillips and his men had to improvise, and in the middle of the desert, they halted and lured all of their antagonists out of the vehicles, then gunned it and left them behind to “the wonderful roar of our Power Wagons,” with Phillips covering them with a Colt in each hand.
The drive back through the sand dunes to friendly territory at Timna was equally fraught with danger as Phillips at the wheel of the stake bed struggled to keep up. In sand driving that had been difficult in a fully operational vehicle, and already concerned about the failing differential, he found that first gear would not engage in four wheel drive low range – a potentially deadly problem if he stalled the engine, as the battery had already proven to be barely capable of starting the engine. They made it through the sand dunes and to a dry riverbed just ahead of troops from Marib on camelback. After reaching refuge in Timna, Phillips and the team went to Aden to deal with a war of words and accusations with the King of Yemen.
The hair’s-breadth escape from Marib and the loss of most of his vehicles and equipment did not end Phillips’ adventures in Arabia, as he soon moved his efforts to a more friendly place. The Sultan of Oman, whom Phillips had met in 1949, renewed an offer that he had made then for Phillips to conduct excavations in the remove province of Dhofar, on the border with Yemen. It had no known archaeological sites, but Phillips moved his remaining equipment and people there and soon found ruins of an ancient frankincense-trading port at Samharm. The Sultan of Oman also granted him concessions for oil exploration that made him a major player in the oil business, reputed to be the largest individual holder of oil concessions in the world. When he died in 1975 at the age of only 54, he was fantastically wealthy with a fortune estimated at $120 million (over $500 million in 2014 dollars). He also held 21 honorary doctorate degrees and was a sheikh of the Bal-Harith tribe whom he had befriended in Yemen (shown here with the tribe’s leading sheikh, at center).
Wendell Phillips’ archaeological work continued after his death, under the leadership of his younger sister, who organized expeditions back to Yemen beginning in 1982. The excavations at Marib, ended in great haste in 1952, resumed in 1998 and continue today under the American Foundation for the Study of Man, an organization that Phillips had founded. What happened to the approximately dozen lost Dodge Power Wagons is a mystery, though. These vehicles that made the expeditions possible and saved the lives of its members at a critical moment are as lost as the ancient cities of Yemen were before Wendell Phillips excavated them. If anyone spots a derelict 1940s Power Wagon in a photograph from Yemen, they will almost certainly have found one of these long-lost modern ships of the desert, which made an all-time great series of road trips over 60 years ago.
All photos from Wendell Phillips, Qataban and Sheba: Exploring the Ancient Kingdoms on the Biblical Spice Routes of Arabia, Harcourt Brace & Co., 1955, except for 2, 3, 5, 18, and 19, from www.smithsonianmag.org; 4, from www.imperialclub.com; and 14, from digitalpostercollection.com.