A SENSE OF SCALE - WWII RAILROADS
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.
KANSAS CITY, MEXICO AND ORIENT RAILWAY
If your business is in Kansas City, Missouri, and you would like to market your goods in Japan or Singapore, what’s the closest port on the Pacific Ocean you should use: Seattle? Portland? San Francisco? Los Angeles?
In 1900, Arthur E. Stilwell had the answer: Topolobampo, Mexico. According to Stilwell, the little town on the Sea of Cortez was closer to Kansas City than any western seaboard port by about 400 miles. If you could connect Kansas City to Topolobampo, not quite as far south as the tip of the California Baja Peninsula, you would have the shortest way to get your goods to the Pacific Ocean. From there, you could have shipping access to the vast markets in the Orient.
All that was needed was a railroad connecting the two towns. Stilwell, who was a railroad developer and entrepreneur, was looking for investors to establish a railroad route that went across Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Mexico. On May 1, 1900, he formed the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railroad to oversee its creation. When it was completed, the route would cover 1600 miles.
There were existing tracks in some portions of the route, like from Kansas City to Wichita, as well as parts from Wichita, across Oklahoma, to the Red River. Stilwell believed that if he could join those parts with new tracks laid between the Red River and Sweetwater, from Sweetwater to Fort Stockton and Alpine, and then connect to railroads going north of the Big Bend to the Texas border, he could get Mexico to build the tracks from the Topolobampo to the Texas/Mexico border.
In fact, he had already received a concession and subsidy in April, 1900, from President Porfirio Diaz of Mexico for the Ferrocarril Kansas City, Mexico y Oriente railroad to be built across Mexico. Again, there were existing segments of track that only needed to be connected.
The line between Sweetwater and San Angelo was completed in 1909, and then extended to Girvin in 1912. Added to the segments above the Red River, it gave the system 630 miles of the 1600 miles he needed. When sections were finished, local communities began using them and helped generate the revenue needed to continue. Unfortunately, the usage never produced enough revenue to cover the costs. Between 1914 and 1917, various parts of the KCM&O passed through a few owners, but the parent company did not show a profit until 1923, when an oil boom in the western counties of Texas brought a flood of train traffic. The profit was used to make the railroad attractive to another buyer and in 1928, the parent company was sold to the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway Company.
The Santa Fe quickly sold the ownership in the Mexican segments, leased other segments, and then blended their tracks with other railways, including the Texas and New Orleans Railroad in 1930.
In the end, there was a lot of track laid, lots of branches added to the route, and lots of goods and people shipped around the Southwest, but Arthur Stilwell’s efforts never made it to Topolobampo.
If you want to see a graphic of the route, type Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railway into your browser.
I was working on my novel when I discovered the KCM&O. My hero needed to get to the Palo Duro Canyon from the east, instead of coming west out of Amarillo, and I found that the KCM&O had a depot at the town of Arapahoe, about a hundred miles away in the Oklahoma Territory. That solved my problem.
Speaking of the novel, here’s an update.
In review, I submitted a new adult fiction novel manuscript to my publisher in mid-August. The editor finished reading it by the end of September and reported back with several severe comments about the story; basically, she didn’t like it and it was too long. I took out everything that wasn’t directly connected to the characters or the plot, which amounted to 30,000 words. I became disillusioned with everything left and retracted the submission in September. I tried again, took out another 5,000 words, was still not happy, so I put it in a drawer, expecting that I might return to it sometime in the future.
The future was about two days later. I couldn’t resist working on it, and ultimately rewrote it with a radical change—I changed it from a third-person-narrator to first-person-storyteller. It took me six weeks to make the rewrite, but I am encouraged at how much better it fit the story and the characters, and how much more fun it is to read. Beginning in November, I read the story out loud to myself, looking for flow, rhythm, and pace. That resulted in throwing out another 5,000 words, but the manuscript finally took on a polished form.
I resubmitted the manuscript to my publisher last week. It’s 40,000 words less than the first submission, while the story is simpler, more direct, and has a nice flow to it. I should hear before Christmas if it will be accepted.
A BEST-KEPT SECRET OF WWII
There was a military secret that gave the Allies a significant advantage in winning World War II.
To give it a sense of scale, let me talk a little about the chemistry of crude oil. My simplistic explanation comes mainly from an article at AmericanHeritage.com.
When “up from the ground comes a bubbling crude” (go ahead, hum the theme to The Beverly Hillbillies), it isn’t good for much. Crude oil is a mixture of thousands of differently sized hydrocarbons and has significant impurities. There are straight-chain hydrocarbon combinations, with carbon atoms attached in a row; branched combinations, with carbons splitting off at one or more junction points, like tree branches; and others are cyclic, repeating various combinations of carbon atoms.
Summarizing, crude oil contains a series of progressively heavier compounds, ranging from light gasses (like natural gas) to heavy viscous tarry asphalts (like the oil used in asphalt and roofing tar), all related to the number of carbon atoms in the compound. A common way of describing the compounds is how they react when heat is applied, called their boiling point. That is, at what temperature does a particular hydrocarbon go from a liquid to a vapor?
For example, gasoline vaporizes at from 86 to 428 degrees Fahrenheit, while kerosene needs from 356 to 752 degrees, lubricants above 662 degrees, while waxes and asphalts vaporize at even higher temperatures.
This is all good if you want to separate crude oil into more refined products. Simplistically, you heat up crude oil to the gasoline temperature range, the gasoline hydrocarbons “boil off”, you collect them, cool them back to a liquid, and you have gasoline. From the same batch, you increase the temperature for kerosene, boil it off, collect and cool it, then increase the temperature of the batch again for lubricants, and then heat it even more for asphalts.
However, you can only get out whatever is already there, so, around 1900, a barrel of crude oil was typically about 60% kerosene, which was naturally abundant, with the remainder split evenly between fuel oil, gasoline, and other products. Any natural gas was considered a nuisance and was burned off, while gasoline, which was viewed as being too volatile to be much good, was often dumped in a nearby river.
That was the early days, when kerosene was used as a fuel for lamps. However, Henry Ford introduced the Model T in 1908, and by 1910, there were 500,000 automobiles on the road burning gasoline. Between 1911 and 1912 alone, the sales of gasoline went up 80%. All the oil refiners were desperate for ways to get more gasoline from a barrel of crude.
Okay, hold that thought.
Another descriptor used for gasoline is its “octane” level. In a gasoline engine’s cylinder, a piston compresses a mixture of fuel vapors and air, which is then ignited by a spark from a spark plug. The resulting explosion pushes the piston back out again, sending power through a drive train that eventually turns the wheels. If there’s not enough octane in the gasoline, the compression alone is enough to ignite the vapor prematurely, before the piston has gotten to its greatest height in the piston, and there are then two explosions, one by compression and one by the spark plug.
This is a big problem for a gasoline engine and will eventually, as you might imagine, cause it to break itself. This double explosion is called “knocking”. I remember listening to a car engine that had a “knocking” sound. Adjusting the timing belt usually solved the problem.
It was decided to give any particular combination of gasoline an octane number that varied from 0 (which described straight-chain n-heptane, which produced knocking in virtually any engine) and 100, which described a combination that was the least knock-prone). So, when you fill up next time and notice that the gas pump offers you gasoline with different octane numbers (84, 87, 91, for example), you should use the one recommended for your vehicle because the engine has been designed and tuned for that particular fuel mix to maximize the height of the piston in the cylinder before the vapor is ignited.
For all of you who own diesel pickups or RVs, the octane rating for diesel is 20 to 40, which explodes under compression easy enough that you don’t even need a spark plug for ignition. Diesel is also much less likely to catch fire, which is why diesel is used on ships and trains.
Okay, back to history.
By the end of the 1920s, after a series of advances in the refinement of crude oil, typical gasoline yields were higher than 40 percent and with a base octane rating of 60. The major advance was the development of “cracking”, which broke up higher combinations of carbon atoms into simpler combinations. They then added stuff to it to bring the octane rating up into the 70 range. One of the additives they used was lead.
In 1922, a young Frenchman named Eugene Houdry was a mechanical engineer in France. While visiting the United States, he became fascinated with race car driving. Returning home, he bought his own Bugatti and drove it around in his free time. France, at that time, had no oil reserves; they got their crude from Iraq. Houdry saw a demonstration of a sample of local coal that had been passed through a catalyst to produce a high-octane gasoline. When he put it in his Bugatti, it ran like a bat out of hell. Houdry smelled not only a high-grade gasoline from the process, but also high-grade money: France had a lot of coal, so Houdry formed a company to industrialize the process that produced the gasoline.
To make a long story short, the gasoline-from-coal business floundered, but Houdry transformed his company from being a producer of gasoline to that of being a developer of the catalyst used in the process, as well as owner of the process itself. After considerable effort, he found itself a partner, Sun Oil Company, in America to help test out the process that used his catalyst.
It took Houdry several iterations over the next decade to find the perfect catalyst, but by 1937, received a patent number 2,078,945 for an aluminasulfate catalyst that had the color of well-chewed chewing gum and was extruded in the shape of macaroni. With more development, he and his partners built a processing unit for Sun Oil that took the leftover sludge at the bottom of a distillation tower and produced an 81-octane gasoline, and that was without any additives, at all. Using a catalyst in combination with “cracking” revolutionized the petroleum industry.
Why is all this important?
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, and then went to war with Britain, the most common fuel used in fighter planes and bombers was 87-octane gasoline. When America started the lend-lease program, and then joined the war, it was already using 100-octane aviation fuel in its aircraft. It had gotten there by repeatedly using the Houdry process. By the time America introduced the P-51 fighter, it was using 130-octane gasoline. Both the process and the fuel itself had been declared military secrets.
When the British used 100-octane aviation fuel in their Spitfires and Halifaxes, it made the planes 34 miles per hour faster at 10,000 feet. They were now faster than the Luftwaffe, surprising the Germans to no end. Additionally, the improvement in the quality of fuel produced by the Houdry process made the need to replace engines decrease from every 500 hours of operation to 1000 hours of operation, and reduced the cost of British aircraft by 300 Pounds Sterling. For a four-engine bomber, that was a significant cost reduction.
The Germans, the Japanese, and the Russians, never discovered that America and Eugene Houdry had re-invented gasoline to help win the war. Houdry was satisfied with his contribution to the war effort and in 1950, formed a company to reduce automobile emissions that he believed were causing an increase in lung cancer. He invented the first catalytic converter, but was too far ahead of his time to make a profit from it.
He died in 1962.
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.