Heroes: the Army
"...The two had a couple of guns but they never ran into hostile Indians or wild animals. The exception was snakes. The Indian workers would kill these snakes by snaring them and chopping off their heads with machetes..."
- Branch of Service: Army
- Unit: HQ. Co., 405th Regiment,
102nd Infantry Division
- Dates: 1942 - 1945
- Location: European Theater
- Rank: T/5, Bronze Star Medal
- Birth Year: 1925
- Entered Service: Buenos Aires, ARG.
A Special Ozark
Juan Rebuffo, 405th-HQ, got to be an Ozark the hard way. He started in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1939. He and his buddy, Julian Lecea, decided they could drive a 1925 Ford from there to Detroit. It took them 28 months.
They hacked their way through jungles and built rafts to ford rivers. They heard the machine-gun chatter of a revolution. They inched over quick-sand on chicken wire and watched natives hack boa constrictors apart with machetes.
They were 19 when they started their great adventure and 21 when they finished it 2 1/2 years later. And they were still grinning.
It was July 15, 1939 when they started their adventure with a 1925 model T Ford worth $15. It was Nov. 28, 1941 when they shook hands with Henry Ford in Detroit.
As the young men stood smiling beside Ford, the great inventor, and a Detroit newspaperman snapped their picture, things had changed in the world. Europe was at war. The U.S. was about to be, and for two 21 year olds an epic had ended.
Rebuffo, who now lives in California and Texas, tells the story of the Model T and their youth and the funny misadventures that were part of the big adventure.
The boys wanted to demonstrate that it was possible to build a Pan American highway and they wanted to be on the ground floor of a talked-about car race from New York City to Buenos Aires. The race was to be in 1941 and the purse was to be 100,000 pesos. They started in the Model T, for which parts were readily available (Ford made T's from 1908 to 1927). Their trip, a zigzag, covered 18,000 miles.
When they got to Catacocha, Ecuador the town mayor told them they were crazy to try to get a car through the jungle. The mayor wouldn't help, so Juan went to the priest and talked. Juan said " I believe in God, Father, and I believe we are going to get there." The townspeople of Catacocha took a holiday to help the young adventurers hack away through the jungle. Rebuffo had also explained to the merchants what a Pan American highway would mean in prosperity for their town.
The town also loaned them 20 natives and two mules. And so it went through the jungle. As the boys left one district They would be given the loan of a new group of machete-wielding natives.
Before leaving Catacocha, they gave everyone in town a ride in their car. This was a ritual that became necessary at each new village.
In Catacoha they also assembled a Model-T for a lady in town. She had purchased it in 1925 and it still lay in the packing crates (in 1939) because no one in the village knew how to put it together. The pair had disassembled their own car completely three times to move it through difficult country.
One time it got disassembled coming down a steep hill. The Indian workers were supposed to guide the car down the hill with ropes. "Coming down the hill we told the Indians we'll go inch by inch," said Rebuffo, grinning, "but they wanted to see the car run fast so they let it go."
In Catasmayo, Equador, they moved the car on a giant bamboo raft and at Turvo, Columbia they crossed quicksand by spreading chicken wire over it. In Turvo, Lecea caught malaria so the boys took the car apart and took a fishing boat. "I never got sick" Rebuffo confided. "I always used to have my little jug of cognac."
As the two progressed through the jungles and the months, word of mouth had made them famous in the villages. Their families, in tears when seeing them off, could follow their progress in La Critica, a Buenos Aires newspaper that was helping to sponsor the trip.
During the trip the car went through two axles and three sets of tires. "We used to be able to fix the engine with our eyes closed." Rebuffo said.
The two had a couple of guns but they never ran into hostile Indians or wild animals. The exception was snakes. The Indian workers would kill these snakes by snaring them and chopping off their heads with machetes.
One of the worst "adventures" occurred in La Paz, Bolivia, when a general was murdered and a five-day uprising, complete with machine guns, kept them pinned up in a hotel.
Rebuffo told of a funny incident in Richmond, VA where a motorcycle officer stopped them and asked why they had a 1939 license in 1941. Rebuffo said he wasn't going back and get another one. He said he wanted to see the president. The officer didn't understand their language but he finally let them go. The pair didn't get to see the president, but they saw Cordell Hull. And of course Ford.
When Rebuffo and Lecea arrived in Detroit, they presented Henry Ford with a flag from each county they had passed through. These included Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, San Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and the United States.
Rebuffo said of Ford "He was nice friendly people." Ford asked them to start the Model-T and let it run. It went 'clunk, clunk' and he listened. "It's the number one connecting rod." said Ford. "He ought to know; he built the car," was Rebuffo's response. Ford accepted the gift of the old car for his museum and he promised the pair a new Ford after the war. But they didn't get it. Henry Ford died in 1946 when Rebuffo was still in the U.S. Army.
After the war he went back to Detroit and approached Henry Ford II, grandson of Henry Ford Sr. about the verbal agreement made with his grandfather for him to obtain a new car. Ford advised him that without a written agreement he could not do that." I admired Henry Ford Sr. so much for his knowledge and integrity that it never crossed my mind to have a written contract." said Rebuffo.
"My car was used for metal during the war as there was a shortage, but I had also left my suitcase used on the trip, 7 flags from various countries we had visited and a scrapbook of autographs of all the Ford Motor companies along the route with greeting to Mr. Henry Ford Sr." Henry Ford Sr. had died while Rebuffo was still in the Army.
How did he get there? A native of Argentina? He went to work in Ford's factory in Detroit at the end of his adventure trip, living at the YMCA. He was drafted there and spent training time with the 102nd in Camp Swift, Texas Then his unit was scheduled to go overseas.
He got as far as the point of embarkation when an officer pulled him out and told him he couldn't go overseas with his group because he wasn't a U.S. citizen. Did he want to become a U.S. citizen? Rebuffo spent a bad hour thinking it over and decided he didn't want to be separated from his Army buddies.
What followed was a three-minute (or less) swearing-in "ceremony" and Rebuffo was off to Europe with the 405th. He became the Regimental Commander's jeep driver - a good choice. (Wonder if he could fix that engine with his eyes closed?)
After the war Rebuffo was in business in Mexico - he had his own wire products factory in Mexicali - and was for a time a fire fighter in Anchorage, Alaska where he got chased by a big bear but "That's another story."
In 1990 Rebuffo received an invitation from Gregory C. Speirer, Director of the Pan American Institute of Highways, U.S. Department of Transportation (Federal Highway Administration.) He participated in a meeting, hosted by the University of North Carolina Institute for Transportation Research and Education. This meeting, held in June, had participants of the Advisory Committee and Latin American Technology Transfer Directors of the Pan American Institute of Highways. Juan was called upon to display his scrapbook, and explain his experiences along his trip.
Juan's goal now is to drive from Detroit to Buenos Aires over what is now completed of the Pan American Highway. He understands that a portion of it is named for him.
----- Juan Rebuffo
(Editor's note: Attempts were made throughout the text of the following story to place full names to the men listed in the story. For the most part, this is an educated guess and some names may very well be mistaken in their identy. The names were all taken from the division history book: With The 102d Infantry Division Through Germany, edited by Major Allen H. Mick. Using the text as a guide, associations with specific units were the basis for the name identifications. We are not attempting in any to rewrite the story. Any corrections are gladly welcomed.)
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The above story, "A Special Ozark", by Juan Rebuffo, 405th HQ., was originally published in the 102d Division "Ozark Notes", Vol. 52, No. 1, Oct/Dec., 1999, pp. 4-6. Images from the story are also included.
The story is re-printed here on World War II Stories -- In Their Own Words with the kind permission of the 102d Infantry Division Association, Ms. Hope Emerich, Historian. Our sincerest THANKS for the 102d Infantry Division Association allowing us to share some of their stories.
We would also like to extend our sincere THANKS to Mr. Edward L. Souder, former historian of Co. F., 405th Regiment. His collection of stories of the "Kitchen Histories Project" series entitled, Those Damn Doggies in F, were responsible for bringing the stories of the men of the 102nd Division to the forefront.
Original Story submitted on 7 October 2004.
Story added to website on 12 October 2004.
September 5, 2002.
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