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By Sullivan C. Richardson
|By Jim Benjaminson|
|On August 19th, 1941, the Richardson Pan-American
Highway Expedition succeeded in achieving their goal, rounding Cape Horn aboard the Chilean naval tender Galvarino.
But in reality their trip was only half completed now it was time to turn around and make those 16,000 long, hard
miles back home to Detroit! It had taken them nine months and one day to reach the Cape-the return home, they determined,
would be much quicker!
The cruise out to Cape Horn and back to Magallanes had taken eight days. Arriving back in the world's southern most cities they spent the next three days resting, relaxing and making preparations for the return trip home. Originally the plans called for the Expedition to motor north to Buenos Aires roughly following part of the path they had already driven into Magallanes. The battle with the mud and rain of "El Districto Chocolate" made the decision easier to ship to Buenos Aires by boat. On Thursday, August 28th, the Expedition's white Plymouth was loaded aboard the steamer Magallanes-it almost proved to be a tragic mistake!
Although not chronicled in the book "Adventure South", the following excerpts are taken directly from Sullivan Richardson's notes, written that night on board the steamer.
"When I think how near we came to losing the car, the equipment, film, cameras, pictures and everything we owned today, my heart still just almost drops right out of my body. I was told yesterday that the boat would be in this morning early, and would probably leave tonight. I thought everything was in readiness, papers, passports and everything. I hurried over at 9:30 to the steamship office to check on a call they had left at the hotel for me and I found the boat was in and wanted to sail at 1 o'clock, and that I had to have more papers from the Argentine counsel to take the Chilean boat. There would have been no trouble at all if we had taken an Argentine boat!
A man from the (consul's) office and I began scurrying. He made out the papers and told me to meet him at the Consul's office at 10:30. In the mean time they wanted the car on the dock at 11 to take it out on a small 'lighter', out to the ship anchored in the harbor, a quarter of a mile out. I hurried back to the hotel and got Ken and Arnold packing and left the car to them. When I left his (the consul's) office and went out to the dock, I met Arnold coming back in. Mr. and Mrs. Barker (the American Consul and his wife) were with him. He began telling me then what had happened to the car.
The fenders were all banged in, two doors were crushed so badly one of them (the left rear) wouldn't open at all, one window was broken, the rear bumper was ripped loose and the tie rod end that holds the front wheels together for steering was broken clean, and on top of all that, the car, with everything in it, had come within a breath of plunging off the lighter into the bottom of Magellan Straits! I almost died right then and there. Arnold said that when they got out to the boat, they were preparing to hoist the car aboard when a wave caught the lighter and tipped it so badly that the car, with the brakes on, dove right backward, climbing a six-inch retaining wall and slid with the rear wheels right over into the water. He said they tried desperately to hold onto the front to keep it from going over, until they could get a rope or something under the rear end to hold it up. When they finally did succeed, they still could not get it back on the lighter for twenty minutes; the front wheels rolled back and forth on the top of the lighter with every wave, and the rear wheels remained suspended in danger every second of getting away and sliding the car right off into the Straits. There was no way either to get anything out of the car because the ropes jammed the doors.
When they finally got the front wheels secured they could not let the car down to get a proper hold under the back ones, so they tried to hoist the car aboard as it was. Just as they got it up and almost over the edge onto the boat deck the cable snapped, dropping the car three feet down onto the deck. It was far enough over the deck so it rolled on across with the last rear wheel. But the damage was done. The doors were caved, the sides scrapped, the fenders buckled, and with the crash--the tie rod snapped so that now the car can't even be towed unless the front end is hoisted onto a tow truck."
Despite the disappoint of the car's condition following its loading aboard the steamer, the Expedition could still feel thankful that the car had not been lost. Had the car gone overboard (in about 70 feet of water) they would have lost EVERYTHING, including the notes Sullivan Richardson had written each night at their campsites. Being a newspaperman by trade Richardson had taken his typewriter along--and each night-sat down in the car and written the notes of what had happened each day.
These notes, amounting to several hundred pages, formed the basis for the book "Adventure South".
The notes also served to record the thoughts and feelings of the Expedition as it had crawled and inched its way along that long route south to Cape Horn--recording the good times, and the bad times, the heart ache and the sweat, the defeats and the triumphs of the Expedition.
Closer examination of the broken tie rod end revealed a chilling fact--the tie rod end had been broken two-thirds of the way through BEFORE the loading accident! That meant had the accident NOT happened, the tie rod end might have snapped somewhere else along the route, perhaps while the car was speeding along or climbing over a treacherous mountain pass on the remaining part of the expedition. In either case it could have proven to be a fatal disaster.
Safely secured on board the steamer Magallanes the trio settled down for what they hoped would be a relaxing ride north to Buenos Aires-making miles without having to sweat or toil to do so-provided that they could conquer a new nemesis that have proven so upsetting to them on the ride out to Cape Horn--sea sickness!
The steamer landed them in Buenos Aires late in the afternoon of September 4th; the car would not be unloaded until that night. Anxiously awaiting its safe landing on the dock were not only Sullivan, Arnold and Ken, but their old friend Melton and Mr. Guy of the Fevre & Basset Chrysler agency. Under local law a dray firm was required to bring all "cargo" off the steamer to the customs house--and that "cargo" included the battered white Plymouth! A pair of draft horses pulled the car up to the customs house where everything in the car had to be unloaded for inspection--marking the first time on the Expedition's trip that the contents of the car was unloaded for inspection. Nothing was opened however.
Everything passed with the exception of the camera's and films, which were seized. It was not a happy moment for the trio. It took extensive efforts by Fevre & Basset, and until the next Wednesday, before they were released.
The days in Buenos Aires were spent resting, relaxing, sight seeing, preparing for the remainder of the trip through South America to Lima, Peru, and being hosted by the local Goodyear dealer, by Fevre & Basset and by countless others. The car spent its Buenos Aires vacation in the repair shops of Fevre & Basset where the engine was torn down and rebuilt (it was found the piston rings had crystallized from being so hot) and other work was done to get the car back on the road again.
On the Wednesday that customs finally released the Expedition's films and camera's Fevre & Basset gathered their entire dealership work force together on top their roof top race track (See "The Resta Brothers Magnificent Autodrome”. The Plymouth Bulletin for Jan-Feb 1982), set the Expedition Plymouth in the center of the group and had their picture taken with the "Miracle Car from the Home Factory" as they dubbed the car.
Nothing was too good, or too expensive, for the crew. Fevre & Basset did about $200 worth of work on the car but there was "no charge". The hotel tab was picked up as well.
Bidding farewell to their South American friends, Richardson, Whitaker and Van Hee loaded up their equipment the very next day and set out for Lima,
Peru--the last leg of their South American journey. They were determined, despite a bad case of "home sickness", to visit and photograph the ancient ruins at Cuzco and Macchu Picchu and a few other places they had missed when they had turned south nearly three months previous. On October 4th, they crossed their own path for the first time on the entire journey--in another 700 kilometers they would be in Lima and board a steamer bound for New York City.
From New York City it would be a quick swing down to Washington, D.C., and then the long awaited and welcome swing back home to Detroit. Detroit-motor car capital of the world--where the great white Plymouth would soon be the star of Plymouth's advertising--extolling the virtues of Plymouth's stamina and durability--three weeks after landing in New York the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Within sixty days all automobile production would be halted for the duration. By the war's end in 1945 the Richardson Pan-American Highway Expedition had faded into oblivion.
Using his idle time on the cruise home, Sullivan began gleaning his notes for the book "Adventure South"--it was published in 1942. And for the first year following their return home the Plymouth Division of Chrysler Corporation sponsors him on a lecture tour to the nation's college campuses--a tour which took him to every state in the continental United States except North Dakota --lecturing about their trip and showing the movie, also entitled "Adventure South" taken while on the trip. The movie still exists--nearly two hours of sound and color documenting the fantastic journey the Expedition had been on.
With the nation now at war, Ken Van Hee joined the CB's and spent the duration with them at Trinidad. Arnold Whitaker, trained by General Motors as a specialized mechanic, went to work for the Boeing Company where he remained until early in 1943 when the United States Government approached him and Sullivan Richardson.
The government asked if they would return to Mexico and Central America--the title of the project was "Photographing the Rural Peoples of the Other America's" but the underlying purpose had more to do with strategic materials locations. Readily accepting the assignment, Richardson and Whitaker packed up once again to go south - choosing for their transportation on this trip a four-wheel drive Dodge Power Wagon weapons carrier. Their "boss" for this mission was future United States vice-president Nelson Rockefeller. This assignment took them until late in 1944 to complete. At the end of the mission they met with Rockefeller in San Jose, Costa Rica, abandoned their Power Wagon in the jungle wilds and returned back to the United States.
Arnold Whitaker returned to work in the automotive tool business for awhile while Sullivan Richardson moved to Chicago and formed Viking Pictures; he was joined in this venture a few years later by Whitaker and both of them moved to Southern California in the early 50's where they still reside today.
Following the end of hostilities Ken Van Hee returned to the United States and went back to work for the AAA in Washington. D.C. (He had worked for the Michigan AAA before the South American expedition). As a field and road reporter for the AAA Ken drove an average of 90,000 miles per year. In the early 50s Ken and Arnold Whitaker teamed up again for a return trip to Mexico where they charted all of the roads for the AAA. Ken's Triple A career came to a halt in 1963 when the law of averages finally caught up with his driving and he ran into a "fully grown acorn" as he likes to put it, in the state of Tennessee. His injuries were extensive but after recovery he, too, moved to Southern California where he still lives,
Today, in 1982, Sullivan Richardson, age 81, and Ken Van Hee, age 78, are enjoying their retirement. Arnold Whitaker, 73, the youngest member of the Expedition is "retiring gradually" and runs a small camera shop on the Farmers Market in Los Angeles.
The Richardson Pan-American Highway Expedition, which faded into oblivion forty years ago, has once again come alive in the pages of the Plymouth Bulletin thanks to the kind generosity and help of the three expedition members. Without the help and assistance of Sullivan Richardson, Arnold Whitaker and Kenneth Van Hee this story could not have been told.
It is with great pleasure that I announce that the Officers and Board of Directors of the Plymouth 4 & 6 Cylinder Owners Club. Inc. have bestowed upon these three gentlemen the title of “HONORARY MEMBER”.
WHERE IS SHE TODAY?
The Expedition's white '41 Plymouth remained in
Sullivan Richardson's possession following the trio's return to the United States and served as his means of transportation
for the college lecture tour in 19.12. While on the tour the original engine finally gave up the ghost and had
to be replaced. The car's use in the ensuing years was limited mostly to following Richardson's movements around
the country--first to Chicago, then on to Los Angeles. For many years the car sat unused, rusting away under a
tree on the Richardson property in Nichols Canyon, Hollywood.
One last photo of the Expedition's
1941 Plymouth was taken during
THE END OF STORY
Page last up-dated 2006-03-04