Location #1: CNY Living History Center at 4386 Route 11,
Cortland NY 13045
On January 24, 1959, four volunteer Argentinian Bombaros [Spanish for firefighter]: a butcher, a locksmith, an engineer, and a chauffeur, climbed aboard an antique Brockway fire truck for an adventure that, unbeknownst to them, would become a national sensation, forever cementing their trans-centennial tale in Cortland County history.
In honor of the Buenos Aires Volunteer Fire Dept’s 75th anniversary, the four Bombaros decided to replace their faithful Brockway Fire Engine. After 35 years of outstanding service, the truck had accumulated 87,500 miles protecting its citizens from flames. It seemed only fitting that it be replaced by a new Brockway truck, manufactured exclusively in Cortland, NY. The Brockway Motor Co. had been building custom, heavy-duty trucks since 1912 and was considered an industry leader.
The four men climbed aboard the old 1925 fire engine with just $650 dollars in their pockets, a diary, well wishes and a promise to return with a new Brockaway fire truck. The volunteer firefighters- Sgt. Leonardo Antico, Corporal Felix DiMango, Pedro Centrone and Alberto Bonillo- foolishly assumed the 20,000-mile overland journey across nearly impassable terrain from their firehouse in Buenos Aries, Argentina, to the Brockway factory in Cortland, New York, would take a mere 4 months.
According to their diary, the Bombaros’ misadventures began almost immediately. Traveling along Argentina’s Spiral Route 336, named for 336 hairpin turns along the 17,000 foot mountain, the poor truck struggled in the heat of the day, crawling up the mountain at agonizing 3 miles an hour, frequently overheating. When the foursome finally reached the precipice, they were met by a dark, gaping hole in the mountain. The train tunnel, not intended for automobiles, plummeted steeply for nearly 13,000 ft. Maneuvering the truck tires to ride atop the tracks, they began their descent into the inky darkness. The sharp grade and slick tracks caused the brakes to smoke and squelch as they navigated the heart-stopping turns, praying they didn’t encounter a train.
Safely at the foot of the mountain, their left axle promptly broke from the strain. Unable to find a replacement part, they were forced to have it wielded, only to have the right axle break just a few days later. Grease caused the axel to slip, bouncing off the mountain down into the ravine half a mile below.
“Aided by ropes, we lowered ourselves to the river which ran at the bottom. The water current and vegetation which covered the edges of it made the search difficult. We tied ourselves to one another, foreseeing the possibility of being dragged into the water, which was a little cold. After five hours of searching, we found it, around nightfall, hidden in some high thickets; taking it up was hard work.” [Excerpt from the Bombaros’ Diary]
Unable to flag down a ride in the direction they were heading, Leonardo was forced to backtrack and repair the axel. Eventually, the weld was made, and the generous Mayor of Antofagasta took pity on the crew, flying Leonardo and the axel back to the truck waiting on the side of the mountain. In Bolivia, relentless rains descended, flooding everything in sight and making travel impossible. The crew was forced to camp- hunting, gathering, and waiting for 40 days. Finally, on July 24, they resumed their journey.
Just before reaching the Peruvian border, the clutch broke. The Arica Fire Department offered the Bombaros shelter and a place to repair the truck. They were back on the road 18 days later. In Tacna, Chile, the local fire department helped the men take apart and fully restore the old truck’s engine. Following 17 days of scrubbing carbon from the overworked valves, a reception was held on behalf of the intrepid travelers- after which, “we were on the road again under the roaring power of the Brockway, which had recovered 10 years of its youth!” [Excerpt from the Bombaros’ Diary]
The axle broke again just 30 miles later. “We felt like dying. I remember we just sat on the ground with tears in our eyes from anger, from helplessness, from discouragement- but this was just for a few moments. We were all still novices in such struggles. We looked up at each other, and I know that look held only one thought- get up and get to work; we just had to go on.” [Excerpt from the Bombaros Diary]
While working to restore the truck, Leonardo’s index finger was sucked into the gear train, instantly severing it. “He screamed, holding his injured hand, squeezing it, and upon getting close, we saw the finger on the mudguard. This accident shocked us greatly. After a few days, when the danger of lockjaw disappeared, we again began the trip to Huaguillas. [Excerpt from the Bombaros Diary]
Upon reaching Ecuador, the foursome discovered that 2 rings in the second cylinder were nearly destroyed. In their diary, they recorded, “How are noble ‘old man’ made it, we do not know. We are completely convinced that we could go anywhere with ‘him’. It is quite a funny thing, but one becomes attached to the machine, and one gets to consider it as a flesh and blood live person with feelings. I believe at one point I spoke to the Brockway, and ‘he’ answered me.” [Excerpt from the Bombaros’ Diary]
In Cali, Colombia, the firemen found themselves delayed for another 2 months. The Brockway needed to be shipped to Panama, and its crew were now officially broke. On January 19, 1960, nearly a year after their pilgrimage began, the Ambassador of Argentina took pity and made the necessary arrangements to ship the Brockway and its crew to Panama City. After making port, the Brockway was loaded onto a train to Costa Rica, where upon arriving, the Bombaros found themselves again penniless and stuck. With no means to transport the Brockway, the Bombaro’s journey continued once again behind the wheel of the old Brockway.
“Therefore, we decided to take off by land. There was no road, only a planned route for the Pan-American Highway, which would be delayed another four years before being completed. Fortunately, it was not the rainy season. Therefore, from Palmer Sur, we commended ourselves to the saints and went ahead.”
Driving along the roughshod route, the Brockway Truck and crew foraged 14 rivers, often building the necessary rafts with logs. At the Terra River, the men loaded the “old man” onto a raft, and it promptly began to sink. Half-submerged, they had no other option but to drive the Brockway through the quarter-mile-wide river. Miraculously, the truck emerged sputtering but no worse for the wear.
“Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and the U.S.A. to Atlanta saw us pass swiftly and content without a single cent but millionaires in faith and hope.” [Excerpt from the Bombaros’ Diary]
Location #2: Cortland Fire Department at 22 Court Street,
“In Flightstown, the “old man” passed out from emotion and the flywheel, which had cost the Sergeant [Leonardo] his finger in Falara, broke again. It was raining in torrents. A policeman advised a group of men in that city of our trouble, and they towed us to the [fire] station. We made repairs, and the next day, New York, astonished, saw enter through one of its many entrances, the Lincoln Tunnel, four men riding in their old truck!” [Excerpt from the Bombaros’ Diary]
This is the last entry in the diary of volunteer firefighters Sgt. Leonardo Antico, Corporal Felix DiMango, Pedro Centrone, and Alberto Bonillo. When they arrived at the New York City Fire Department, they assumed they had reached their destination. However, Brockway officials, having heard the news of the Bombaros’ wild adventure, immediately sent a representative to guide them on the last leg of their journey.
The Brockway team put the four weary wanderers up at the Cortland County Fire Department, where they were fed and rested. Never could they have imagined that their journey would end nearly a year and a half later. Proudly bearing the signatures from fellow firefighters who assisted the motley crew on their transcontinental pilgrimage, the “old man” was brought to the Brockway factory to be polished until “he” gleamed, and a huge celebration was planned in their honor.
“An entire town turned out today, with parade, bands and fire sirens, to welcome four volunteers and goodwill ambassadors who have performed the incredible feat of driving a 1925 fire engine from their fire station in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to the Brockway Truck factory in Cortland, New York, where the fire engine was made 35 years ago.”
The foursome drove their beloved ‘old man’ one last time at the head of a parade in their honor. More than 300 firemen celebrated their arrival in downtown Cortland. Each of the four men were presented scrolls by Mayor Gabriel, extending to them honorary citizenship in the city of Cortland. In return, they presented the mayor with a badge, making him an honorary Buenos Aires fire chief.
“Vern Phillabaum, Assistant General Manager of Brockway Motor Trucks, the company which made the truck in 1923, accepted the 35-year-old engine for the Brockway historical collection and presented the Argentines with title and keys to a newer and modern Brockway truck which will be driven to New York and there be crated for overseas shipment to Argentina.”
The Bombaros, after a few weeks of celebrations throughout Cortland County, made their way back home via ship and without misadventure. A few months later, their brand-new Brockway Fire Engine arrived. While the pilgrimage far exceeded their four-month expectations, so did their wild, unforgettable adventures.
1. Brockway Motor Company, “Argentine Fireman Here with 1925 Brockway Truck”, May 1960 [Press Release]
2. Brockway Motor Company, “Whole City Turns Out to Welcome Argentine Fireman”, May 1960 [Press Release]
3. Bombaro’s 1959-1960 Diary, Translated by Ballagh & Thrall, Cortland County Historical Society Resource Center
4. Staff Writer, “Argentines Drive 17,000 in 1925 Fire Truck” Automotive World, 1960 July