Just days away from America's 242nd birthday, a very historic Harley-Davidson motorcycle used by U.S. Army soldiers in World War I France joined its latest rider as he checked out a special place in Jacksonville that a very famous ancestor helped found.
Pilote Christophe de Goulaine and mécanicien Pierre Lauvergeat are riding a 1918 U.S. Army Harley-Davidson on an epic 5,600-mile journey from Mobile, Ala., to San Diego on what they have named "Operation Twin Links," to honor what the U.S. did in World War I to help their country. But in the journey's early days, de Goulaine visited Jacksonville's Fort Caroline National Memorial for an emotional homecoming.
De Goulaine's family has lived in France's Loire Valley near the city of Nantes for centuries. Their Chateau de Goulaine began as a 12th-century castle, its foundations still part of the estate. But in the 16th century, de Goulaine's ancestor, French Huguenot Capt. Rene de Goulaine de Laudonniere, went to America with Jean Ribault to look for potential colony sites. They found Fort Caroline, America's first European settlement.
On June 30, de Goulaine and Lauvergeat parked the olive green motorcycle next to the cannon in front of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve site as he met National Park Service Supt. Chris Hughes and veteran Ranger Craig Morris. Hughes and Morris gave them a tour of the recreated fort to honor its 454th anniversary, then went to the nearby Ribault Column on the banks of what we know as the St. Johns River, but called the River May by the Huguenots.
"Thank you for being here. Thank you for doing the tour to honor the American soldier who fought for our native country," Morris said. "Welcome home!"
"You make the story very real and thank you so much," de Goulaine told the rangers and crowd. "Come and visit us in France."
Later, the Propeller Club, with chapters in the sister cities of Nantes and Jacksonville, hosted lunch at Orsay restaurant with a World War I U.S. Army soldier's uniform on display. The club is helping organize the trip and meet-ups with Harley-Davidson clubs and gave the team a city proclamation for their journey.
"It has been such a pleasure to be back today. Today is something special because we are fascinated by a vintage motorcycle, especially an American motorcycle," de Goulaine said there. "Ten years ago, I bought this Harley-Davidson. It it was a barn find and very derelict. Pierre spend nine months working on the bike and suddenly, one kick start and we heard the engine -- a miracle! We had this idea for a challenge to come to America 100 years later with this special motorbike."
Harley-Davidson was a big presence in World War I in Europe, the U.S. Army sending thousands of its motorcycles there to help soldiers fight World War I. Many saw duty in France, including the Model 18J ridden by de Goulaine and Lauvergeat. With an 18-horsepower engine good for 55 mph with its sidecar, it was said to be the company's most powerful motorcycle at the time. It weighed just over 300 pounds without sidecar and has a three-speed transmission and chain drive. French and American flags fly on its front fender in front of an original acetylene headlight, while the wide leather saddle is original, stamped "Harley-Davidson."
"We don't know whose soldier it was, but now we are not soldiers. We are fascinated to go around America and say thank you,' de Goulaine said before a champagne toast. "The story of America and France is very simple. It is an old couple who forget to say, 'We love you.' So I say, 'We love you.'"
After lunch, the riders and Harley-Davidson joined Propeller Club supporters for photos in front of sculptor Charles Adrian Pillars' "Life" statue at Memorial Park at 1620 Riverside Ave. Dedicated in 1924, the names of more than 1,220 Floridians who died in World War I were inscribed on parchment and placed inside.
The motorcycle has had a hiccup -- its carburetor caused problems as the team approached Jacksonville. Worked on at Adamec Harley Davidson, the Harley-Davidson team got help from Team RS. That's a Jacksonville-based group of motorcycle enthusiasts who compete in September's cross-country Motorcycle Cannonball with St. Augustine's Norm Nelson on a 1911 Reading Standard.
"Operation Twin Links" trip ends in San Diego, de Goulaine saying he hopes to find the name of the soldier who rode their motorcycle in France in 1918. They plan to return to France by Nov. 11 to ride down the Champs-Elysees in Paris to celebrate Armistice Day, as soldiers did at World War I's end.
Photojournalist Olivier Touron and journalist Tierry Butzbach, on modern motorcycles, are joining de Goulaine and Lauvergeat on their classic as they hit the road.
"Operation Twin Links" can be tracked on Facebook.
Dan Scanlan: (904) 359-4549 ___
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