Spring 1999 Issue
History of the 721st Railway Operating Battalion
Headquarters for the 721st was Parbatipur, several hundred miles due north of Calcutta, India. It is 150 miles south of the Himalayan mountains and not too far away are the exotic nations of Bhutan and Sikkam. It was hot - at least 100 degrees the year round. Jim Marotta, remembers. Monsoons flooded the Brahmaputra River Plain. The Brahmaputra is a principle contributory to the Ganges River to the south. The people lived by growing rice and hemp. But, mostly it was hot and humid and the working conditions were terrible. And, it was to Parbatipur that the 721st arrived in late January of 1944 after a trip from the U.S. West Coast that consumed almost 40 days. The men, practically all of whom were railroaders as civilians, took over complete control of the Bengal and Assam Railroad. All the material of war passed through Parbatipur headed for the railhead at Ledo: ammunition, food, highway equipment, jeeps, trucks, airplane parts, and most important, the men who fought the war -airmen who were to fly the Hump to Chennault in Chungking and members of Merrill's Marauders who were destined to make history while fighting war in the North Burma jungles. Nassau's Don Blair said that the railroad, which began at Calcutta, had three different track gauges. At Parbatipur, the gauge of the tracks changed from broad (five feet, 6 inches) to meter gauge (3 feet, 31/2 inches) and all supplies had to be transferred from cars of one gauge to another. Up the road apiece, beyond the sphere of the 721st, there was no bridge over the Brahmaputra River and cars were freighted across the river in scows. It should be remembered that in those days railroad engines were fueled by coal which meant that engineers and their firemen, in addition to working in humid 100 plus degree temperatures, were in confined areas where the temperatures shot up still higher. Other members of the battalion, because they took over complete control of the Bengal and Assam Railroad, served as signalmen, trackmen, dispatchers, stationmasters, car repairmen, trackmen and bridgemen. Meanwhile, according to Jim Marotta, who was commissioned an officer while working on the Bengal and Assam, the projected date for the invasion of China through Burma was 1948. The explosions of atomic bombs over Japan brought a quick end to the war in the Far East in 1945, but, while the 721st was transporting materials of war to the railhead at Ledo in 1944, work was progressing on "double-tracking" the Bengal and Assam Railroad -making two tracks out of a line that had only one track. In retrospect, we can only refer to the 30-day trip from California to Australia, then to Bombay and then across the Indian continent in five days in "third class railroad coaches comparable to stateside boxcars with windows." The train journey lasted five consecutive days with rations furnished by the British consisting of uncooked bacon, biscuits (dry and hard), orange marmalade, tea, with some bully beef and herring. After a few hours' stop at Calcutta to fuel the engine, the long train journey was terminated at Parbatipur in the province of Bengal. Going back to the origin, the 721st Railway Operating Battalion was activated at Camp Harahan, New Orleans, Louisiana, on April 14, 1943. The unit was composed of men from replacement companies, reception centers, a cadre from another battalion and Reservists of the New York Central System, which sponsored the battalion. While at Camp Harahan for six weeks, the men underwent a vigorous physical training program, learning to march, hurdle obstacle courses, roll full field packs, fire a gun and become indoctrinated in Army discipline, rules and regulations. The battalion next moved to Camp Gushing, located on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas, and bordering the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks. A program of physical training, manual of arms, extended and close order drill soon molded the raw recruit into a soldier proud of his physical fitness and co-ordination. Here the men actually went to work shoulder to shoulder with the workers of the Southern Pacific, developing their skills as trainmen, engineers, carmen, telegraphers, trackmen and mechanics. Three months of this technical training and prepare him for the real job ahead. There was also time for further military training, such as hiking, mimic warfare, passing through passed areas, attending map reading and first aid lectures. On the first of November 1943, the battalion moved on to Camp Atterbury, Indiana, for final processing before departure overseas. Clothes and equipment were checked, inoculations administered for prevention of typhus and cholera, and records checked. To keep the men in good condition, a program of exercises, close-order drills, and hikes made up a good share of the daily routine. During the last week in November 1943 the battalion entrained "destination unknown." The trip was very enjoyable and picturesque through Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and finally into Camp Anza, California. Travel was by Pullman with delicious meals served to the men while in their seats. The stay in sunny California was of a week's duration. Carbines and pistols were checked, gas masks were inspected, and clothing re-issued where necessary. All personnel received instruction in climbing cargo nets hanging from the side of a mock vessel. Everyone prayed that this practice would not be put to use while at sea. During the early morning hours of December 9, 1943, the battalion moved onto a waiting train for a short ride to the San Pedro harbor where the Mariposa was berthed waiting for the troops to embark for the overseas trip. The sea journey was made without escort or protection in a zig-zag manner as a precaution against any enemy submarine, with gun crews at their stations during the entire trip. On the 17th day at sea, the Mariposa steamed into the harbor of Hobart, located on the beautiful island of Tasmania, off the southeast coast of Australia. While here, the ship refueled and replenished the water supply. As the Mariposa started the last lap of her journey, the sealed orders were opened and literature was distributed to every man aboard describing India, its language and customs. The sea journey was completed on the 31st day after leaving the United States as the City of Bombay loomed on the horizon. The Indians presented a strange picture to the eyes of the soldier-railroader. The usual apparel was merely yards of cloth wound around their bodies, which in most cases lacked cleanliness. The stench of filth was everywhere as sanitary practices were unknown in this country of ignorance and poverty. On disembarking from the ship, the men were loaded onto third class railroad coaches comparable to a stateside box-car with windows and wooden benches, already filled with roaches, flies and other insects. The train journey lasted five consecutive days, with rations furnished by the British, consisting of uncooked bacon, biscuits (dry and hard), orange marmalade, tea, with some bully beef and herring. After a few hours' stop at Calcutta to fuel the engine, the long train journey was terminated on arrival at Parbatipur located in the Province of Bengal. The soldier-railroaders were immediately put to work using their civilian experience and army training in worthwhile application by assuming control of convoying war materials and personnel. Men went to work as train dispatchers, station masters, car repairmen, engineers, trainmen, trackmen, and bridgemen. The task of administration, feeding, clothing, and transporting the G.I.s required the services of many soldiers. Immediate repairs to the equipment and roadbed resulted in a sharp increase in the tonnage of material transported. New tracks were constructed to accommodate the increase in traffic. American methods of transportation further increased the loads transhipped and rushed over the rails to Ledo. On March 27, 1944, a fire broke out on one of the basha roofs. Fanned by a strong windstorm, the flames spread quickly and destroyed 25 out of the 27 bashas housing the battalion. Clothes, food supplies, arms, personal belongings and battalion records were burned. However, tents, clothing and food were rushed from Calcutta and the crisis was alleviated immediately. During the spring of 1944, the Allies were pushing the Japs down from Northern Burma. However, the enemy did succeed in crossing the Burma border and imperil the Bengal and Assam Railroad lifeline, but a successful offensive by the Allies spelled disaster for the Japs. Despite extreme heat, which caused heat rash and dysentery, the men worked long hours to ensure that the heavy tonnage continued on its way into China. The monsoon season caused heavy damage to the equipment and road-beds, but this did not stop the steady stream of supplies. A well-needed rest of two weeks at Darjeeling was given to the men about this time. This army rest camp. 8000-feet high into the Himalayan Mountains, had plenty of good food and recreation. About this time a recreation hall, post exchange and theater were constructed at the main camp. This tended to keep up the high morale of the troops. Also a number of USO shows came through and entertained the men. On May 8, 1945, the good news that Germany had accepted the surrender terms brought cheer to the soldier-railroader, but at the same time the realization that the war-fare in our theater would be increased. The men, equipment and track facilities were well prepared to meet all requirements. Increased offensives carried our naval and air forces to the shores of Japan, resulting in an unconditional surrender. Immediately plans were formulated to return the operation of the Bengal and Assam Railroads to the natives. This became a reality on September 30, 1945. The General Patrick left Calcutta, India, on October 19, 1945. The ship, General Stewart, fallowed a week later. Each of these ships brought some of the members of the 721st Railway Operating Battalion happily home-ward, with the realization that they had carried out their assignment in India for 22 months in a commendable manner. Also to be remembered are the field commissions presented in Parbatipur, India. T/Sgt. George Fleming received his gold bars as Second Lieutenant in a presentation made by First Lieutenant James Austin, Signal Officer of the 721st. T/Sgt. Albert Rozell received his gold bars as Second Lieutenant from Executive Officer, Major Theodore S. Kerns. "C" Company Commander Captain Robert J. Gordon assisted in the presentation.