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Letter from Korea…

J. W. Benjamin, Jr.
Railroad Magazine
July 1952
Pages 10 & 12

“Run into the roundhouse, Nellie, the brakeman can’t corner you there!” Like cowboys and
Indians or West Virginia mountaineers, railroading and railroaders – their songs and their
sayings – are a traditional part of American folklore. It is a tradition that railroaders are a
tough brand of citizen, that their life is something set apart, that to be a railroaders you’ve
got to be a pretty tough egg.

There is a section of Korea littered with locomotives, criss-crossed with railroad tracks,
bustling with activity; they call the area the “Pusan Back Shop,” or more simply, “The
Roundhouse.” Operating the shop are big men, sweaty men, dirty men; they call them the
“roundhouse boys.”

Combine the railroaders and old soldiers and you have a really special breed of citizen. And
combine these men with the roundhouse and you have what the Army calls the 765 th
Railway Shop Battalion.

The 765th was originally formed and sponsored in 1944 by the Erie Railroad. Since then all
the original roundhouse men and old Erie railroaders have left the unit. But it still considers
itself to be an Erie Railroad unit.

There are plenty of oldtimers around from other companies. Take for instance Captain
Walter J. Wood, Athens, Pa., machine shop superintendent. Captain Wood has been a
railroader for 37 years, working for such lines as the New York Central, Lehigh Valley, and
Missouri Pacific. Or take Master Sergeant Milton A. Morris, Newport News, Va., railway
blacksmith. Morris has been in the Army for twenty years starting as a mule skinner and
then shifting to railroading. SFC William Butler, Portland, Ore., hospital train maintenance
man, worked many years for the Union Pacific, as a fireman.

Even the commanding officers, Lt. Col. James K. Hanks, Houston, Texas, is an old railroader
with fourteen years experience.

Although less experienced, the newer and younger men are finding the railroad business to
their liking. Says Pvt. Dale Winninger, French Lick, Ind., “I was surprised to find all of the
buildings rectangular, but I’ve sort of grown to like that name ‘roundhouse man’.”

Like all other outfits in Korea, these railroaders have no union hours. Until April they
worked from 84 to 102 hours a week. And when you see them mothering 90-ton engines
around on cranes – that adds up to a lot of hours! Recently some of the men have been
able to cut down to a 60-70 hour week. The shops operate 24 hours a day. Beside one
building is a ball diamond hopefully constructed last spring. It is covered with weeds now.

It’s hot too! In the spring the temperature was hitting over 110 degrees in some of the
shops. They don’t bother to take the temperature in the summer.

What have they done? In a twelve-month period the railroaders made heavy repairs on
several hundred locomotives. That means taking the boiler off the engine, disassembling
the works, making everything tick and then putting it back together again. The boys have
made heavy repairs on thousands of freight cars, and hundreds of passenger cars.
(Security prohibits the giving of exact figures.) And, in addition, they’ve produced
everything from stoves to a one-ton air hammer – strictly as a side line.

A recently completed job had the roundhouse boys turning out one thousands general’s
stars. The stars are larger than the usual insignia; they are now on jeeps and sedans
belonging to generals throughout Korea.

The roundhouse area contains sixteen large buildings, everything from a sawmill to a boiler
shop. The sawmill constructs lumber for rebuilding cars. The paint shop brightens up all
trains and accessories, such as hospital beds. The tin shop recently turned out two ice
boxes for hospital trains. The foundry shop had a special problem in straightening flatcars
bent by tanks. This is done with a hand jack. The heavy locomotive repair shop works on
four engines at a time. The forge and foundry shops turn out brake shoes, valves, faucets –
everything needed to keep trains in operating trim. If quite a problem, for besides
American and Korean trains, French, Belgian, Japanese and Russian rolling stock is in

Since the outbreak of the war, trains in operation on the South Korean tracks have tripled,
and a large number of new and renovated locomotives have been brought in, including
many diesels.

Three warehouses hold the replacement parts. In them can be found everything from soup
to nuts. For instance, 19,000-pound diesel trucks – in one box.

One shop the railroaders are particularly proud of is the hospital maintenance shop.
Sergeant Butler and his men have been responsible for the maintenance of all hospital cars
in Korea. First Lt. Harry W. Robinson, Arthurdale, W. Va., boiler shop superintendent, is
enthusiastic over the work of this shop. “If it weren’t for Butler’s improvisations, his
inventions and field expedients, and the tireless work of his men, they’d be carrying the
wounded on ‘A’ frames by now.”

“First” for the 765th include the renovation of the “peace train,” the construction of the only
Class 1 American style sleeper train in Korea (The Eusak Express); the addition of railroad
wheels to trucks and buses for use as improvised hospital cars and switch engines;
renovation of the Pusan ice factory, and last but least – they built the rollers for the presses
that print the Korea edition, Pacific Stars and Stripes.

The men of the 765th have developed a new idea concerning the origin of their moniker,
“The Roundhouse Gang.”

“We keep the Korean War moving,” they say. “And the war just keeps going round and
round – and where she stops nobody knows.”