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The Last Railroad War Kissel

The Last Railroad War Kissel

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Published by: Nancy on Aug 05, 2012
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The Last Railroad War Kissel, RobertWorld War II04-01-2004Byline: Kissel, RobertALTHOUGH RAILROADS today have a relatively low profile in the public'sconsciousness, no nation depended more on, or demanded more of, its railroadsthan did die United States during World War II. Every bullet, bomb, tank, vehicleor service member sent to war by the "Arsenal of Democracy" traveled part of theway by rail.That such a logistical feat was accomplished remains one of the greatest Americanachievements of the war. One critical component was the Army's Military RailwayService (MRS), which was responsible for providing train crews, shop and trackmaintenance and signalingpersonnel, as well as its own motive power and rollingstock, to ensure the uninterrupted flow of men and materiel to combat units inthe field.Like the rest of the military, at the beginning of die war in 1939 the MRS waswoefully unprepared for die challenge it would soon face. Despite the well-knownneed for adequate rail transport (a lesson painfully learned during World War I),the Army did not have a single railway operating battalion until mid-1941, whenthe 711th Railway Operating Battalion was formed at Fort Belvoir, Va., and sentto Camp Claiborne, La. Perhaps reflecting the sad state of military railcapabilities at that time, the new unit's first assignment was to construct a 50-mile railway line between Camp Claiborne and Camp Polk, La. It was reasoned thatnot only would such an assignment provide a badly needed rail link between thetwo expanding facilities, it would also serve as a training exercise for thefuture expansion of the Army's railway organizations.With so much ground to make up, it was fortunate diat while additional railwayunits were being organized die Army could turn to the reserves, which containedwithin its ranks 29 railway operating battalions and five shop battalions ofexperienced railroaders. In addition, once war came in December 1941, the armedforces could call on civilian railroads for additional trained personnel. Thecivilian railroads also provided resources to train Army recruits in the ways ofthe "iron horse."In March 1942, as the scope of U.S. involvement in the war rapidly expanded, theArmy placed the coordination of all motive power, rolling stock, marshallingyards, trucks and ships under the control of die Army Transportation Corps. Priorto this move, all military transport had been die responsibility of theQuartermaster General's Department in the War Department.IMAGE PHOTOGRAPHLeft: A Military Railroad Service (MRS) train races down tracks laid tofacilitate the movement of supplies to Russia. Right: Three MRS crewmen chat witha Soviet soldier in the Tehran, Iran, railroad yards prior to departing forRussia.Further steps were taken to meet the needs of the Transportation Corps in june1943, when the Army activated die Transportation Corps Replacement TrainingCenter at Camp Claiborne. The mission of the center was to train personnel for
 
die railway operating battalions. Processing centers responsible for handling theinflux of draftees to the Army were told to keep their eyes open for any man withprevious railway experience. Once identified, diese men were sent first to CampPlauche, La., for basic infantry training and then on to the training center atCamp Claiborne, where they would be transformed into Army railroaders. Theclasses at Claiborne generally consisted of 200 men and covered every aspect ofrailroad operations-preparing engineers, firemen, brakemen and telegraphers.From its humble start in 1941, the MRS had grown by the end of the war to morethan 44,000 officers and men, nearly all of whom served overseas. The MRS-trainedcrews could be found building and operating rail lines in Europe, North Africa,Alaska, the Pacific, the China-Burma-India Theater (CBI) and the Persian GulfCommand. Less glamorous than its Air Transport Command cousin, the MRS oftenprovided die crucial link in the Allies' supply lines.When German U-boats had all but closed the seas to Allied ships trying to bringsupplies to Russia via die extremely hazardous Murmansk run, die MRS operatedtrains on the Iranian State Railway diat moved shiploads of Lend-Lease materielfrom the Persian Gulf to Russia. Many Americans who kept that lifeline open inthe heat of die Iranian desert had previously worked on die White Pass &Yukon Railroad in Alaska.The MRS performed a similar critical role in the CBI. When aircrews flying die"Hump" route from India to China via die Himalayas found the passage too costly,a back door was found using the India-Burmese railroads. MRS crews bravedprimitive conditions to bring Lt. Gen. Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell the supplieshe needed to continue resisting die Japanese in China and Burma.Although rail lines were often miles behind die front lines, MRS crews frequentlyfound themselves under fire. In one instance, when Field Marshal Erwin Rommelbroke through American lines at Kasserine Pass in February 1943, an MRS battalionoperating nearby was fed into the line as an infantry unit and suffered heavycasualties. It was this experience diat convinced Army Transportation Corpstraining staff that the recruits at Camp Claiborne should first undergo six weeksof basic infantry training.While the MRS was busy managing and operating rail lines around the world, theUnited States' civilian railroad system was far from idle. Despite its previousdominant presence in American industry, by 1941 the civilian rail system in theUnited States was dealing with many long-standing problems of its own. Withrevenues depleted during the long years of the Depression, complicated freightregulations and increasing competition from highway carriers and automobiles, theonce-mighty American railroad industry found itself underfinanced and unpreparedfor supporting a global war.Railroad magnates were also haunted by the threat of again losing control oftheir industry to government takeover, as had been die case during World War I.In 1917 a transportation crisis had developed as the United States found itselfinvolved in the war in Europe. Despite efforts to prepare and support theAmerican Expeditionary Force, there was a shortage of 140,000 freight cars wherethey were needed. At one point there were 10,000 loaded cars stuck on East Coastsidings awaiting ships to receive the cargo. To remedy the situation, a
 
frustrated President Woodrow Wilson had ordered a government takeover of dienation's rail network and appointed William Gibbs McAdoo, a political friend, asdirector of U.S. railroads. The ensuing fiasco explains, in part, why Americansoldiers went into battle with British- and Frenchsupplied weapons and equipment.In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt vowed not to repeat die same blunders.When war came, he consulted railroad industry leaders for advice and input. Theresult of diese consultations was the Office of Defense Transportation (ODT),which was headed by Ralph Budd, the highly regarded president of the Chicago,Burlington & Quincy Railroad. The ODT was given absolute control over allcivilian rail matters. The cooperation engendered between government and industryworked to everyone's advantage, and after a slow start, the nation's railroadswere in a position to move die wealth of materiel emerging from U.S. plants andfactories.The war was not only a shot in die arm for the hard-pressed railroads but also aboon to American industry in general. By mid-1941, the United States producedmore steel, oil, coal, aluminum and motor vehicles dian all of the warringcountries combined. Moving this materiel to where it was most needed was the jobof the ODT.It was a tremendous task. For example, it took 25 flat cars, four Pullmans, akitchen car, a caboose and an engine just to move a single armored division withits vehicles and men, and the Army had raised some 20 armored divisions by war'send. Almost every World War II veteran has a story about riding a troop train. Inmany instances they recall the grindingly slow speed as the train made its way toits destination, frequently sitting at sidings while odter, more "important"trains were sent ahead.Troop trains often generated patriotic emotion in the communities diey passedthrough. Among the towns and cities that were stirred to generous action wasNorth Platte, Neb. Beginning on Christmas Day 1941, every troop train that passedthrough the city was greeted by local volunteers who handed out food, gifts andcheerful greetings to those on board. At the height of its operations, the NorthPlatte canteen was serving 3,000 to 5,000 men and women in uniform a day. Thepeople of North Platte kept their canteen open every day until April 1946.While many trains moved troops, others moved freight. With gasoline rationing anda shortage of tires, more and more freight shipments returned to rail transport.In 1943, 72 percent of all intercity freight transported in the country went byrail. An average of 1 million gallons of oil was moved per day in solid tank-cartrains, as well as thousands of tons of war materiel, most of which wentoverseas. Added to this were the vast amounts of raw materials used to supply thevarious manufacturing facilities.Although WWII was a time of prosperity for the railroad industry, there was adownside. One rail executive described the entire rail system in the UnitedStates as exhausted at war's end. Locomotives and rolling stock had been run intothe ground from overuse. Normal and deferred maintenance were often suspended forlack of sufficient manpower to conduct the repairs. Station facilities and tracksalso needed a great deal of attention. Not only was the constant use taxing onthe equipment, but burnout and stress were frequent problems among train crews

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