Troop Trains

By Major Van Harl, USAF Ret.

My first remembered contact with trains was at Knott's Berry Farm when my father, the Navy Master Chief, was stationed in California. They had a real working steam engine and cars.

When I was nine we were stationed in Scotland. We would take a ferry across the river Clyde and then board a train for the forty mile ride to Glasgow.

But I grew up in the days of jet airplane travel and never road a train in the U.S. That is, until I was hired by Amtrak to be one of the first white Pullman porters. We were called sleeping car attendants, but a Pullman porter was what I really was.

I got my passengers on board, made up their rooms; saw to their needs (to include shining a lot of shoes) and then de-training them at their destination. I worked out of the Chicago crew base and got to ride on about seventy five percent of the rail passenger lines in the country from 1974 to 1976.

I still say I went to college on the Amtrak scholarship. It was my two years of working the rails that paid for my education.

After leaving Amtrak I had never been back on a train until the 10th of December 2005. The small Oklahoma train line of Farmrail, which hauls freight in southwest Oklahoma, ran a special Christmas passenger train and lots of old memories were awakened.

The Colonel (my wife) was with me and we got to talking about troop trains and how the military used them in time of war. The US military used trains for the first time (on a limited basis) during the Mexican-American war of 1846. The Civil War (1861-1865) saw a heavy dependence on rail transportation by both the North and South. That was the first true mechanized war.

The ability to move large numbers of men and war fighting material (logistics) over hundreds of miles in just a few days was what kept the South in the fight for so long. Fast projections of men and supplies into the forward edge of the battle area by train were also what allowed the Union to push the fight deep into the Confederacy and end the war.

When the US entered WW I, the first thing they did was send Army Light Rail Operations units to build connecting rail lines in France using French trains and track. This allowed for the rapid movement of US troops into battle.

The Doughboys got to experience the famous 40 & 8 French boxcars. Each of the twenty nine foot by nine foot cars had a brass plate on it that advised the Americans that they were in a box car that could haul 40 men and 8 horses. These cars were first build in 1872 and American service men road in these cars in both world wars.

I called a veteran friend who traveled across France into Germany riding in a 40 & 8. As his train moved east, riding in a boxcar with no bathroom, they would pass westbound trains with regular passenger cars full of German POWs. Of course, the German rail cars had bathrooms. The Allies had to maintain certain standards for handling German prisoner, but these rules did not always apply to their own troops.

Over 40 million men and women served in W.W.II and almost every one of them rode a Troop Train during that war. In the latter part of the war on any given day over one million servicemen were riding a Troop Train. The US was averaging 2500 Troop Trains a month.

We continued to use trains to transport soldiers during the Korean War. Large numbers of military units in the eastern half of the US rode trains to the West Coast to ship out to Japan, and then Korea. The last major troop train to be used was in 1965 when 15,000 men and their equipment from the 1st Infantry Division rode the rails from Ft. Riley, Kansas, to Oakland, California on their way to Vietnam.

During W.W.II railway bridges and tunnels were guarded to prevent sabotage from disrupting the critical flow of troops and supplies. When the 1st Infantry Division deployed to Vietnam many of the same bridges were guarded against American war protesters trying to stop the Army from sending solders to another foreign battle ground. Times had changed since the Pearl Harbor generation rode the rails to war.

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Copyright 2005 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.