Vintage military vehicles launch Route 66 cross-country convoy from DuPage fairgrounds
Ken Field won't mind the travel delays when restored military vehicles inevitably break down each day of a cross-country journey along the iconic Route 66.
In his 20-ton semitrailer, the Marine veteran will bring up the rear in a rare procession pulling out of the DuPage County Fairgrounds in Wheaton next weekend.
Field is part of a recovery team that makes repairs to vintage vehicles that look imposing but show their age on the road. Field isn't bothered by the setbacks, but instead invokes a military motto.
"Of all the convoys, we've never left anyone behind," the Florida man said.
Field will drive in his fourth convoy with fellow members of the Military Vehicle Preservation Association for a 29-day, 2,400-mile tour on the original Route 66. The trip is a social outlet for collectors and a chance to see small-town America.
But the convoy also is a show of respect for veterans and "history in motion," Field said. World War II-era jeeps will fall into rank in what organizers bill as the world's largest veterans parade.
So it's always an emotional sight when veterans on the side of the road return the favor and snap to attention at the procession.
"We're there to honor them, and they'll stand up and salute us," said Field, who served as a mechanic in Vietnam. "I'll never get over that."
The fleet of vehicles starts arriving at the county fairgrounds Tuesday. The owners have purchased many of them at government surplus auctions and recreated a military culture with a clear chain of command.
Lamar Rowland, for instance, is the safety officer.
"We inspect every vehicle," said the Coast Guard veteran, who's coming from Alabama.
During those final preparations for the trip -- culminating two years of planning -- folks can visit the fairgrounds throughout the week and swap stories with the owners of military motorcycles and trucks.
Civilians often want to talk mileage. Brad Nelson will drive a 5-ton cargo truck that gets about 8 miles per gallon. The convoy will travel no faster than 35 mph.
That means Nelson expects to spend hundreds of dollars on fuel alone. He's coordinated the Illinois-to-Missouri leg of the trip, helping to arrange police escorts, lodging and meals.
"I wouldn't miss it for the world," he said.
A fighter pilot in Vietnam, Nelson has completed three convoys through the Military Vehicle Preservation Association, a nonprofit group that hosts conventions, prints hobby magazines and boasts an international following.
In 2019, association members plan to travel the Lincoln Highway, which also passes through this area, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the first Army motor convoy across the country.
Making the Route 66 journey are restorers from as far as New Zealand and South Africa. The group selected the highway synonymous with the 1946 Nat King Cole hit in recognition of its heritage as a popular route for both workers headed to California for jobs in defense plants during World War II and for returning troops migrating West.
Along the way, students and tourism officials will greet the caravan with patriotic gestures.
"When you go through those towns and everybody's out there waving a flag, it's just so heart-rending," Rowland said.
The suburban trek launches with about 50 vehicles departing from the county fairgrounds at 7:30 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 16. The procession will head west on Manchester Road, south on County Farm Road, east on Roosevelt Road and south on Route 53 until the group picks up Route 66 in Bolingbrook.
As many as 65 vehicles will join the convoy by the end of the trip in Santa Monica, California, on Oct. 14.
When the procession stops in towns, Field is looking forward to bringing back some memories for fellow veterans who may have known some of the vehicles from their time in the service. Drivers have even offered them rides in past convoys.
When that happens, Field sees "big smiles and some tears."