When Cadillac went to war
An elderly veteran of the Great War is being honored in the nation’s capital. That may seem impossible, given that World War I ended nearly a century ago, but given that this veteran is made of steel and iron rather than flesh and blood, it’s understandable. The honoree is an automobile, a 1918 Cadillac Type 57, and it’s one of five vehicles being displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., this spring by the Historic Vehicle Association. All are listed in the National Historic Vehicle Register, an archive of significant vehicles within the Library of Congress.
The Cadillac is on display through April 30.
When the U.S. committed to the horrific struggle that was World War I on April 6, 1917, its supply of military vehicles was meager and war production was just ramping up. But America was building passenger cars by the tens of thousands, so some of them went off to war. Most failed to return from that cataclysmic struggle, but this Cadillac survived in largely original and unrestored condition.
Today, the veteran Cadillac is owned by Marc Lessen of Gardiner, Wash., but when it went off to war, it was the property of Dr. John H. Denison, who served with the YMCA in support of the troops. Cadillacs were the preferred transportation of many American generals, so when Dennison joined the war effort he shipped over with his car. Too old for combat and hobbled by a leg injury, he served as chauffeur for a French welfare organization and was present at the horrific battle of Marne. What appears to be a bullet hole in the automobile may well have been earned at Marne. Denison’s war duties aren’t fully documented, but we do know that when Eleanor Butler Alexander-Roosevelt, daughter-in-law to President Theodore Roosevelt, followed her husband, Theodore Jr., to Europe, Denison drove her around France in an effort to select military leave sites.
The Cadillac that Eleanor would later describe as luxurious in her autobiography was built on a 125-inch wheelbase and powered by a 314-cubic-inch, 70-horsepower V-8. It left the factory with dark blue paint but was redone in ordnance green at some point, possibly at the conclusion of the war. Lessen said that blue is still visible under coats of green.
The war ended on November 11, 1918, and Dennison and the Cadillac travelled to Nice, where he managed a military leave area that accommodated troops remaining in Europe. Dennison was discharged the following summer and returned to the U.S. without his Cadillac. But he traveled to France in 1920, found the car, and shipped it back to his Santa Barbara home.
Most military vehicles that remained in Europe after the war were auctioned or disposed of in a bulk sale to France. Dennison’s Cadillac was spared, perhaps because he remained on duty in Europe for a time following the armistice. That helps explain while it may well be the only complete and largely unrestored example of a military Cadillac.
When Denison died in 1936, the Cadillac was purchased by a military vehicle collector named Major M.C. Bradley. Bradley subsequently sold it to a Santa Barbara car dealer, who, in turn, sold it to Senator George Wingard. It changed hands a few more times until Graham Jackson of Spokane, Washington, unaware of the car’s history, sold it to Lassen in 2005.
Given the Cadillac’s olive-green paint, Lassen suspected that it had been a military vehicle, but a search of GM records revealed that the car hadn’t been purchased by the U.S. government, as was true of most vehicles that saw war service. But GM files did indicate that the owner was named Denison, so Lassen persisted. His diligence paid off when he was able to document both Denison’s service and that his car had accompanied him when he served in Europe.
Now, nearly a century later, the veteran machine’s service has been duly noted.