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a relatively low profile in the public's consciousness, no nation depended more on, or demanded more of, its railroads than did die United States during World War II. Every bullet, bomb, tank, vehicle or service member sent to war by the "Arsenal of Democracy" traveled part of the way by rail. That such a logistical feat was accomplished remains one of the greatest American achievements of the war. One critical component was the Army's Military Railway Service (MRS), which was responsible for providing train crews, shop and track maintenance and signalingpersonnel, as well as its own motive power and rolling stock, to ensure the uninterrupted flow of men and materiel to combat units in the field. Like the rest of the military, at the beginning of die war in 1939 the MRS was woefully unprepared for die challenge it would soon face. Despite the well-known need 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, when the 711th Railway Operating Battalion was formed at Fort Belvoir, Va., and sent to Camp Claiborne, La. Perhaps reflecting the sad state of military rail capabilities at that time, the new unit's first assignment was to construct a 50mile railway line between Camp Claiborne and Camp Polk, La. It was reasoned that not only would such an assignment provide a badly needed rail link between the two expanding facilities, it would also serve as a training exercise for the future expansion of the Army's railway organizations. With so much ground to make up, it was fortunate diat while additional railway units were being organized die Army could turn to the reserves, which contained within its ranks 29 railway operating battalions and five shop battalions of experienced railroaders. In addition, once war came in December 1941, the armed forces could call on civilian railroads for additional trained personnel. The civilian railroads also provided resources to train Army recruits in the ways of the "iron horse." In March 1942, as the scope of U.S. involvement in the war rapidly expanded, the Army placed the coordination of all motive power, rolling stock, marshalling yards, trucks and ships under the control of die Army Transportation Corps. Prior to this move, all military transport had been die responsibility of the Quartermaster General's Department in the War Department. IMAGE PHOTOGRAPH Left: A Military Railroad Service (MRS) train races down tracks laid to facilitate the movement of supplies to Russia. Right: Three MRS crewmen chat with a Soviet soldier in the Tehran, Iran, railroad yards prior to departing for Russia. Further steps were taken to meet the needs of the Transportation Corps in june 1943, when the Army activated die Transportation Corps Replacement Training Center at Camp Claiborne. The mission of the center was to train personnel for
die railway operating battalions. Processing centers responsible for handling the influx of draftees to the Army were told to keep their eyes open for any man with previous railway experience. Once identified, diese men were sent first to Camp Plauche, La., for basic infantry training and then on to the training center at Camp Claiborne, where they would be transformed into Army railroaders. The classes at Claiborne generally consisted of 200 men and covered every aspect of railroad operations-preparing engineers, firemen, brakemen and telegraphers. From its humble start in 1941, the MRS had grown by the end of the war to more than 44,000 officers and men, nearly all of whom served overseas. The MRS-trained crews could be found building and operating rail lines in Europe, North Africa, Alaska, the Pacific, the China-Burma-India Theater (CBI) and the Persian Gulf Command. Less glamorous than its Air Transport Command cousin, the MRS often provided die crucial link in the Allies' supply lines. When German U-boats had all but closed the seas to Allied ships trying to bring supplies to Russia via die extremely hazardous Murmansk run, die MRS operated trains on the Iranian State Railway diat moved shiploads of Lend-Lease materiel from the Persian Gulf to Russia. Many Americans who kept that lifeline open in the 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 braved primitive conditions to bring Lt. Gen. Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell the supplies he needed to continue resisting die Japanese in China and Burma. Although rail lines were often miles behind die front lines, MRS crews frequently found themselves under fire. In one instance, when Field Marshal Erwin Rommel broke through American lines at Kasserine Pass in February 1943, an MRS battalion operating nearby was fed into the line as an infantry unit and suffered heavy casualties. It was this experience diat convinced Army Transportation Corps training staff that the recruits at Camp Claiborne should first undergo six weeks of basic infantry training. While the MRS was busy managing and operating rail lines around the world, the United States' civilian railroad system was far from idle. Despite its previous dominant presence in American industry, by 1941 the civilian rail system in the United States was dealing with many long-standing problems of its own. With revenues depleted during the long years of the Depression, complicated freight regulations and increasing competition from highway carriers and automobiles, the once-mighty American railroad industry found itself underfinanced and unprepared for supporting a global war. Railroad magnates were also haunted by the threat of again losing control of their 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 itself involved in the war in Europe. Despite efforts to prepare and support the American Expeditionary Force, there was a shortage of 140,000 freight cars where they were needed. At one point there were 10,000 loaded cars stuck on East Coast sidings awaiting ships to receive the cargo. To remedy the situation, a
frustrated President Woodrow Wilson had ordered a government takeover of die nation's rail network and appointed William Gibbs McAdoo, a political friend, as director of U.S. railroads. The ensuing fiasco explains, in part, why American soldiers 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. The result 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 all civilian rail matters. The cooperation engendered between government and industry worked to everyone's advantage, and after a slow start, the nation's railroads were in a position to move die wealth of materiel emerging from U.S. plants and factories. The war was not only a shot in die arm for the hard-pressed railroads but also a boon to American industry in general. By mid-1941, the United States produced more steel, oil, coal, aluminum and motor vehicles dian all of the warring countries combined. Moving this materiel to where it was most needed was the job of the ODT. It was a tremendous task. For example, it took 25 flat cars, four Pullmans, a kitchen car, a caboose and an engine just to move a single armored division with its vehicles and men, and the Army had raised some 20 armored divisions by war's end. Almost every World War II veteran has a story about riding a troop train. In many instances they recall the grindingly slow speed as the train made its way to its destination, frequently sitting at sidings while odter, more "important" trains were sent ahead. Troop trains often generated patriotic emotion in the communities diey passed through. Among the towns and cities that were stirred to generous action was North Platte, Neb. Beginning on Christmas Day 1941, every troop train that passed through the city was greeted by local volunteers who handed out food, gifts and cheerful greetings to those on board. At the height of its operations, the North Platte canteen was serving 3,000 to 5,000 men and women in uniform a day. The people of North Platte kept their canteen open every day until April 1946. While many trains moved troops, others moved freight. With gasoline rationing and a 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 by rail. An average of 1 million gallons of oil was moved per day in solid tank-car trains, as well as thousands of tons of war materiel, most of which went overseas. Added to this were the vast amounts of raw materials used to supply the various manufacturing facilities. Although WWII was a time of prosperity for the railroad industry, there was a downside. One rail executive described the entire rail system in the United States as exhausted at war's end. Locomotives and rolling stock had been run into the ground from overuse. Normal and deferred maintenance were often suspended for lack of sufficient manpower to conduct the repairs. Station facilities and tracks also needed a great deal of attention. Not only was the constant use taxing on the equipment, but burnout and stress were frequent problems among train crews
and shop and yard workers. In addition, because many of die trained personnel were serving in the MRS, railroads were forced to hire inexperienced workers who, employed in hazardous positions, were far more likely to be injured or killed on the job. In the end, however, American railroads and railroad workers answered the call and performed magnificently in what was to be the last great railroad war in American history.
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