23 June 2015

The Last Surviving WWI Veteran

When the living connections to history begin to vanish, all we are left with are objects. And while these objects cannot speak for themselves, they still carry within them as many stories and memories as those who were there. With the last World War I veteran having passed in 2011 at the age of 110, there are no longer any living links to that time before widespread electricity, radios and cars, not to mention good roads on which to drive them. But out of this, one relic of the Great War has continued its storied existence well beyond that of its human counterparts: the 1918 Cadillac Type 57 (U.S. 1257X).

Purchased in August 1917 by the Rev. Dr. John Hopkins Denison of New York, the V-8-engined car was immediately shipped across the Atlantic for service with the Young Men’s Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.). Thanks to surviving documentation and the tireless research work of its current steward, Marc Lassen, it has been determined Dr. Denison took delivery of the Cadillac bearing serial number 57A704 on Aug. 9 from New York Cadillac distributor Inglis M. Uppercu. This was just days before Rev. Denison sailed to France.

Once in Europe, Rev. Denison utilized U.S. 1257X in order to scout out and establish the Y.M.C.A. leave area program for American soldiers serving under the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). It was the 257th passenger car to be registered for official military use. U.S. 1257X traversed much of France with Denison at the wheel, including a stint at the front lines and trips to the cities of Paris, Aix-Les-Baines and Nice, among others.

As one of the pioneers of the leave area program, Rev. Denison worked with a famed American, Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. Mrs. Roosevelt was the daughter-in-law of the former president, and was instrumental in the establishment of many leave areas and was also charged with organizing a significant portions of women’s activities related to the Y.M.C.A.’s war efforts. Most notably, Rev. Denison, Mrs. Roosevelt and others from the Y.M.C.A. toured in the Cadillac in fall 1918 in southern and Central France with the express purpose of selecting suitable casinos, hotels and resort towns for the soldiers. Mrs. Roosevelt refers to the event in her autobiography Day Before Yesterday, where she recounts: “We went in luxury in a big open Cadillac…”

Mrs. Roosevelt, Rev. Denison, and U.S. 1257X all survived the war, with only the Cadillac showing signs of battle from its time on the front lines during the Second Battle of the Marne. Upon returning home, Mrs. Roosevelt was presented with a citation from Gen. George Pershing for her work in establishing the Y.M.C.A. leave areas for the A.E.F. Rev. Denison returned to New York in August 1919, however his car remained in France. Unlike the majority of vehicles that served in WWI, this car was spared surplus sales in Europe. Before shipping the car back to the U.S., Rev. Denison returned to Europe and toured once more, this time without the threat of battle. Once back on U.S. soil, Denison fittingly toured his home country in the machine that served him and the nation so proficiently abroad.

From there, the memories become clouded, with time passing and the vehicle’s exact whereabouts unaccounted for. Somewhere along the lines it received a few new coats of paint; the leather seats gradually began to split, showing the effects of time and countless passengers shuttling in and out. But despite all of this it remained structurally sound, a rolling reminder of a quickly vanishing period of American history.

Nearly 100 years later, U.S. 1257X was granted yet another honor. In 2014 it was added to the National Historic Vehicle Register, becoming the fourth vehicle on the Register and first with a military record. Largely in original condition, the car serves as a link to a time that now exists only within the pages of books. With both its physical existence and story now preserved for generations to come, U.S. 1257X will continue as a reminder of the Great War, a living link to our increasingly distant past.

The mission of the Historic Vehicle Association is to promote the cultural and historical significance of the automobile and protect the future of our automotive past.

2 Reader Comments

  • 1
    RJ W. MI June 24, 2015 at 18:03
    It might be noted that the car is on display in the Cadillac building at the Gilmore Car Museum - at least as recently as this Spring.
  • 2
    Tom Musson Yorba Linda, CA June 25, 2015 at 11:23
    You forgot to conclude the story with the fact that this famous Cadillac has been rescued and resides on a part time basis at the Cadillac & LaSalle Club Museum at the Gilmore Museum site in Hickory Corners, Michigan.

Join the Discussion