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UMass director debuts WWI documentary featuring Ford’s Model Ts

Before President Woodrow Wilson gained congressional approval for America’s entrance into the First World War, more than 2,500 U.S. ambulance service volunteers had already been in France to help in the fight against Germany.

Starting in November, there will be a PBS documentary on the American ambulance volunteers.  The documentary will air on two-thirds of the nation’s public television airwaves entitled “Model T’s to War.”

“Model T’s to War,” written by retired UMass biology professor Ed Klekowski, focuses on the Model T and its use by Americans in France on the Western front during World War I.

“Most of them, not all of them, were either entering college or were in the middle of their undergraduate career,” said Klekowski.

Klekowski explains that many American volunteers were well educated ,and sometimes, the overeager ones even paid their own way to travel to  France in order to  volunteer for service.

The Model T acted as the ambulance for an American force that often had neither driving experience nor medical knowledge.  Ford’s Model T was cheap, good at driving off road and had a high ground clearance, which was helpful when navigating potholes and obstacles on the wartime roads.

Klekowski tried to gain an understanding of what it was like for these American volunteers who went over before the country was officially at war.

“Driving is fairly new still,” he said.  “Throughout the whole war, horses were probably the main means of transportation.”

The Americans first served in a town in the northeast of France called Pont-a-Mousson.

When a soldier was wounded, they would either walk or, if they were too injured, carried to dressing stations for rudimentary medical assistance.  From these dressing stations, American volunteers used the Model T to transport injured soldiers to nearby wartime hospitals.

The Americans were always in range of German artillery and some Americans died as a result of the hostilities.

According to Klekowski, between nine and 10 million military had died in World War I.

Klekowski explained that after the success of the ambulance service at Pont-a-Mousson, Americans began volunteering at the battle of Verdun.  The documentary said that 350,000 people died in the struggle for control of the town.

Elizabeth Wilda, producer and director  of UMass media relations, filmed and edited the documentary in high definition.  “Model T’s to War,” she said took two, one-month stays in France filming over a two-year period to complete.

According to Wilda, the documentary’s national release has happened at an opportune time.

“It seems so timely with wars going on today.  Supposedly [World War I] was the war to end all wars,” she said.  “It’s kind of sad it wasn’t.”

Ed Klekowski’s wife, Libby Klekowski, conducted much of the historical research for the project.

According to the documentary, the leader of the volunteer American ambulance service was a Harvard professor named A. Piatt Andrew. It was said in the film that Andrew knew that because the United States was not yet involved in the war, much of the funds had to be raised by the volunteer outfit itself.

“Recognizing the importance of publicity, [Andrew] commissioned an hour long film documenting the heroic activities of the American ambulance volunteers,” said the documentary.

Funds began pouring into the effort. W.K. Vanderbilt, a member of the wealthy Vanderbilt family went to France in order to gain publicity for the American volunteers.

The Model T was meant to carry three people on stretchers in the back of the car.  During especially difficult periods, however, the car would transport up to seven injured people, in addition to the driver.  Three on stretchers in the back, two sitting next to the driver, and possibly, two more men laying on the fenders.

Despite all its use in the war effort, Ford motor company had made the volunteers pay retail price for the vehicles.

Ed Klekowski conducted much of his research by reading the personal memoirs of the American ambulance volunteers written during their time at war.

“I like to read original memoirs from the time rather than synopsis written ten years ago,” said Klekowski.

The memoirs hold a prominent place in the documentary.  To commemorate the debut of the film, members of the UMass theater department read the memoirs and narrated portions of the documentary.

Klekowski said, “The first time I ever heard someone reading for us, I didn’t know what that person would do.  I was stunned.  I had read the same thing at home… this guy reads this and my mouth falls off.  I guess that’s the difference being a professional.”

The National Archives was a main source of archival video footage for the project, according to Klekowski.  A VCR sat on a table next to Klekowski’s desk where he could review original footage for the project.

This interest in early American efforts in World War I will be the subject of Klekowski’s next documentary.  He said he is hoping to complete his next work by the spring of 2010.

“This new one we are doing is on the Yankee division, it was made up of all the national guards of the New England states.”

Congress officially declared war on Germany on April 6th, 1917, and because America had a small army of about 120,000, according to Klekowski, National Guard units were activated and sent to the front.

“This is the first full division from America on the western front,” he said.

The video, Klekowski said, “Really gives you the inside of what [the war] was about.”

Michael Phillis can be reached at

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