They needed a railroad between two towns. Most experts agreed that it could not be built, but it was needed and, therefore, it would be built, beginning in August of 1941.
Slightly less than 50 miles in length, the expected Claiborne & Polk Railroad traversed an unforgiving landscape. It was low-lying country with soil made of uneven distributions of sand, muck, and gumbo, with interspersed layers of quicksand. At many points, the natural ground was so soft that in order to sustain the fill, it was necessary to support it on layers of logs instead of building on the ground surface. At other points, large logs laid end to end along the toes of the embankment were used to confine deep embankment footings of coarse sand brought in for that purpose. At still other points, timber cribbing was the only practical recourse to get across the low-lying soft spots. Rattlesnakes bothered the workers all along the route as they laid 250 to 300 rails a day.
The only rails available were second-hand 75- and 80-pound-per-foot rails. The ties placed underneath were of a wide variety of woods, generally 6 by 8 inches by 8 or 9 feet. About 60 percent were treated with creosote and about 75 percent were equipped with second-hand tie plates. In the interest of speed, the ties were laid as received, without regard to segregation of treated and untreated varieties. Ballast throughout the line was of pit-run gravel, including about 40 percent sand, with the ultimate goal of placing 6 to 8 inches of the material beneath the ties.
To make things worse, the work was started without spikes, bolts, tie plates, spring washers, or turnouts. More important, the workers had no earth-moving equipment; they had to rent two tractor bulldozers from a local contractor. Eventually, they were loaned some grading equipment, more bulldozers, and a number of trucks. A longer-than-normal rainy season, which at one point saw a downpour of over 9 inches in 30 hours, added to their difficulties.
Day after day, the workers pushed ahead, working from both ends of the line toward the middle. At one time, more than 25 different sections were being worked on simultaneously. The men worked without power tools such a pneumatic spike-drivers and pneumatic wrenches, all in high humidity and in temperatures in excess of 110 degrees.
Perhaps the most remarkable achievement was the construction of 25 bridges. It wasn’t only the number of bridges, but the quality of work that was accomplished. High standards of both workmanship and materials had to be employed in spite of the fact that the majority of the workers had little or no experience in bridge construction or heavy timber work. The longest bridge on the line was built over the Calcosieu River and was 2,126 feet long, with a maximum height of 15 feet.
It did not help morale that, as the workers were completing one section of the railway, someone used explosives to blow up different sections of the railway, including a few bridges. The damage was repaired, bridges rebuilt, and the work continued.
Looking forward to finishing the track, the workers would then be trained to manage the railway using donated equipment – keeping track of locomotives coming and going, loading and unloading freight cars, obeying the tight protocols of train traffic, operating switching stations, depots, passengers, schedules, and emergencies. Additionally, they would learn to handle parts, rebuild locomotives, operate switching equipment, and become familiar with box cars, flat cars, gondola cars, tank cars, cabooses, refrigerated cars, and other equipment.
Finally, on July 11, 1942, a golden spike was driven into the final tie, marking the completion of the first Army-built, strictly military railroad in the history of the nation. It was built between Camp Claiborne and Camp Polk, Louisiana, by the members of the 711th Engineer Railway Operating Battalion, the first of its kind, formed and activated only one year before.
The Claiborne & Polk Railroad was the first of several railroad training facilities designed to imitate the conditions of railroads left behind by advancing combat troops fighting in foreign countries. By the end of WWII, there would be fifty Railway Operating Battalions and ten Railway Shop Battalions, all serving under the organizational banner of the Military Railway Services (MRS), which was part of the Army Transportation Corps. Each Battalion was sponsored by a civilian railroad company, which provided training and professional railroading personnel.
For example, the 713th Operating Battalion was under the guidance of the Santa Fe Railroad and trained in Clovis. Their first assignment was building the Alaskan railroad through Whitehorse Pass.
In December of 1942, shortly after they had finished the C&P, the 711th Battalion was sent to help rebuild, improve, and operate the State Railroad of Iran. They were joined by the 730th Railway Operating Battalion, and the 754th and 762nd Railway Shop Battalions. The State Railway would eventually handle more than four million long tons of freight, 16,000 Iranian military personnel, 14,000 Polish war refugees, 40,000 British troops, and 15,000 Russian ex-prisoners of war. The last American soldier railroaders left Iran in July, 1945.
Before the invasion of North Africa, American and British planners estimated that the Allied army would require thirty-four trains a day to move 5,000 tons a month from the ports at Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers. The 701st, the 715th, 719th, and 759th battalions handled it.
Three days after the invasion of Sicily on July 10, 1943, the 727th Railway Operating Battalion was working on the Sicilian railway, repairing and running the operations. The battalion would operate 1,371 miles of railway using 300 locomotives and 3,500 freight cars to carry an average of 3,400 tons of materials a day to supply the Seventh Army.
Three days after the Allies invaded Italy in 1943, the 703rd Railway Grand Division (which included several Operating Battalions and other units) landed in Naples to find the main railyard a total disaster, with burned ties, twisted cars, lengths of rail uprooted and twisted, and facilities bombed to the foundations. A week later, six trains were moving an average of 450 tons each. The MRS redeployed the units from North Africa to Italy, and was soon operating 2,478 miles of railway with an average of 250 military trains a day, not counting the civilian passenger and freight service. The railway also managed 3,154 troop trains and 812 hospital trains.
On July 2, 1944, 25 days after D-Day, the 729th Railway Operating Battalion arrived in Normandy and took over operations at the Cherbourg terminals. Assisted by French engine crews and volunteers, the American railroaders repaired roundhouses, shop buildings, engines, and rolling stock. Within three months, as the MRS advanced with the combat troops across Western Europe, trains were up and running all the way to Paris. The railroads transported an estimated 20,000 tons of material a day to support the European campaign.
When the war ended in 1945, the MRS in Europe had loaded and moved more than eighteen million tons of military freight, using 1,937 locomotives, 34,588 freight cars, and 25,150 miles of track.
Because of the MRS, U. S. troops operated railways in Alaska, the Yukon, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, Italy, France, Luxembourg, Austria, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Liechtenstein, Iran, India, Burma, and Luzon. Their total strength on June 30, 1945, was 44,084 officers and men. The Army Transportation Corps had shipped overseas some 4,000 locomotives and 60,000 freight cars from the United States to support them.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.