BEN WHEELER, TX—One of the first three cars ever used in U.S. combat operations will is scheduled to visit Ben Wheeler for a festive afternoon on Saturday, Sept. 27. Gen. John J. "Blackjack" Pershing rode in the 1915 Dodge Brothers touring car as he led 12,000 U.S. troops into Mexico in 1916 in search of the revolutionary Pancho Villa; his drivers were Lt. Eddie Rickenbacker who later made a name for himself as a World War I flying ace and Lt. George Patton who went on to World War II fame.
The historic, four-door black convertible owned by retired oilman Jack Thomas of Mountain View, Arkansas, is coming to East Texas for the first time. It will highlight a 7.5-mile caravan from downtown Edom west along Hwy. 279 to downtown Ben Wheeler, where all of the cars will be on display from 2-5 p.m. The event will include war-era music from the Texas Doughboys, big-band music, concessions, and more.
Michael Gilbert, an accountant in Tyler, is active in both the Texas Military Historical Society World War II reenactment group and the Military Vehicle Preservation Association which collects and restores military vehicles. He plans to show off his own, later-model Dodge command car or a 1929 Model A during the event.
Gilbert said the use of the automobiles and an airplane in that 1916 excursion into Mexico was the first time the military used anything but foot troops and horse cavalry in combat operations.
Thomas found the touring car literally in pieces in an old machine shop in 1996, where it had been for more than 75 years. Nobody is sure how the touring car ended up in the shop.
"This car was completely disassembled and piled up in a corner of an old machine shop. That pile of parts was not moved until I got them," Thomas told local media outlets. "I worked six-day weeks accumulating more than 5,000 hours of mechanical body and paint work over five years. The only thing I didn’t do myself was the upholstery, but the original horsehair padding was put back in."
The son of a deceased machine shop operator in Holly Grove, Arkansas, knew that Thomas bought and restored old cars and trucks, and offered to sell the original parts to him. When Thomas balked, the man asked if he would just haul the parts away if the man gave them to him.
"It was in pieces, literally," he said. "Rusty, beat-up pieces. The whole car had been taken apart and all of the instruments were wrapped in newspapers dated 1918."
Not knowing what he had, Thomas began putting the car back together, beginning with the four wheels, then the fenders and doors. He finally found a Dodge Brothers emblem on the dashboard and the serial number, and wrote a letter to the Dodge Brothers Club seeking information. Within two weeks, the Library of Congress called him; eventually a serial number confirmed that the car was used by Pershing in the Mexican excursion.
The odometer actually worked. The car had only 10,967 miles on it and the gears, drive train, and steering were not worn much at all.
One of the few visible changes from the original car is that Thomas put a black convertible top on it instead of the customized military green Pershing wanted.
Thomas retired as owner-operator of Thomas Petroleum gas and oil distribution company, signing the company over to his children. He won’t say how much he’s been offered for the car, but has signed its deed over to his son, Randy, who may keep it or eventually may turn it over to the Smithsonian.
Ben Wheeler Development Company, which is spearheading the Sept. 27 event, is renovating a building to eventually house an antique car and motorcycle museum near downtown.
For more information on the Ben Wheeler show, CLICK HERE.