RUNNING ON TIME IN A TIMELESS LAND



Ex-CBI Roundup
November 1950 Issue

By Boyd Sinclair

Running On Time In a Timeless Land

An elephant can be a locomotive and a tiger sometimes stopped a train.

Americans swarmed up and down railways over India, Burma and China, American military railway officers and enlisted men assisting the Army traveler; they put jeeps into service for locomotive power and in Northeast India tackled the big job of taking over and running most of the Bengal and Assam Railway.

The B&A runs up through Bengal from Calcutta into Upper Assam where Assam borders on Burma. Across it runs the Brahmaputra River, which roughly parallels it most of the way. The railroad consists of a broad-gauge road north from Calcutta 200 miles to Sirajganj Ghat and Santahar and another 40 miles to Parbatipur. Meter-gauge lines run east from Santahar and Parbatipur to Northern Assam; from East Bengal eastward from a Brahmaputra River ferry connection with the Santahar branch and northward from Chittagong to a junction with the main line at Lumding; barge lines on the Brahmaputra; combinations of rail and barge using various trans-shipment points along the river. The line runs to the north-east tip of India, in the area of Chabua, Tinsukia, Dibrugarh and Ledo, towns destined for fame in World War II, but before the war simply little bazaars among the tea plantations in the jungle. These meter-gauge lines were the ones which the Army took over - trackage from Parbatipur to Ledo, Dibrugarh and Siakhoa; Santahar to Kaunia; Golakgans to Dhumri; and Bonapara to Tistamukh, a total of 752 miles. The Army also operated the B&A shops at Saidpur.


Crew Members of "The General Pick" take time out for sandwiches
while waiting for northbound train at Sahmaw, Burma.


GI's and Indians turning No. 68 by hand on the turntable. Ball bearings made the job easier.

In India the road was generally thought of as running from Upper Assam westward and southward because its main traffic was in that direction - the hauling of tea to market. The war threw this railroad into reverse with the movement of the goods of war to China and Burma from Calcutta's port. The meter-gauge line was of Parbatipur was in the main single track, fitted chiefly with rolling stock of the four-wheel type and powered by an assortment of locomotives made in Germany, England, Belgium, France and Czechoslovakia. The Indian method of operatoin was friendly and informal - though often protracted. There were schedules, of course, but they were observed in the manner of a timeless land. Although a train might arrive at a station hours late, if the schedule called for a 15-minute stop, the full stop was observed, even though loading and unloading might take only two minutes. Operations froze wile crises were referred to higher authority. american personnel going up the road in the early days, before the Army took over, used to gain priority and sudden departure by treating stationmasters to cartons of cigarettes. The classic story of Indian railroad operations quotes a message sent by a stationmaster to his superior.

"Tiger on platform. What shall I do?" was his query. Later, when U.S. soldiers heard of a tiger in the neighborhood they booby-trapped it by tying a hand grenade to the carcass of a goat.


No. 859 passing through a jungle stretch near Pandu, India, enroute to Ledo.
White cars are refrigerators, carrying frozen beef.


Engine No. 419 of the Bengal & Assam railroad in Upper Assam.

But King Cobra and Shan the Tiger were not always so easily defeated, as Staff Sgt. Edgar Laytha of Roundup found out in a ride up the entire length of the rails. He told of a GI stationmaster who could not hold a tiger. Instead a train was held up. It happened at midnight. Because of the tiger, the train could not go onto a siding to let another train pass. The controller from battalion headquarters telephoned to the jungle station, asked what the delay was. Sgt. G. A. Blake, from New Hampshire, lamented from the other end about a tiger that was eating a cow right on the rails. The midnight repast of Shan lasted 32 minutes, as the sergeant decided a pistol was not enough fire power with which to offer battle. Traffic had to be suspended and the war had to wait better than half an hour until the tiger had filled his belly.


GI repairs shrapnel-riddled boiler on a locomotive
along the Burma line.

Transferring refrigerated meat from railroad car to GI truck.

Railroad yards of the 758th Ry. Bn. at Dibrugarh, India.
Indian railoaders were employed along with GI's to hep maintain rolling stock.

Efforts were made to step up the efficiency and capability of the railroad, but in May 1943 supplies over the road totaled only 15,000 long tons, and in June not enough was moved to fill the cargo planes flying The Hump to China. The Army wanted at least a 50 percent increase in tonnage. The Viceroy's Council in November 1943 approved U.S. operation of the road's meter-gauge track. In the same month Col. Paul Yount of the Army-operated Iraq railrod headed a survey for U.S. operation. On December 23 Maj. Gen. W.E.R. Covell of SOS gave orders establishing the Military Railway Service. Headquarters were ordered at Gauhati, Assam. Units assigned to operate the 752 miles or railroad were Headquarters, Military Railway Service; 705th Headquarters, Railway Grand Division; the 721st, 725th, 726th, 745th and 748th Railway Operating Battalions, and the 758th Railway Shop Battalion. This grand division, consisting of about 4,600 men, arrived January 21, 1944, at the Gauhati headquarters, midway between Parbatipur and Tinsukia, from which U.S. operations were to be directed. The tin-roofed buildings of a weaving school furnished quarters and offices. One cupola-topped, mansard-roofed building looked like a transplanted Wisconsin dairy barn. Tents were erected, bashas built. On February 26 orders were given by Covell that the Military Railway Service would assume operations one minute after midnight on March 1. By that time agreement had been made for the Americans to operate 804 miles of main and branch lines. This additional trackage consisted of the D&S Railway, and included the B&A track from Katihar eastward, including a branch line to Dubri, Mariani to Neamati, and Furkating to Jorhat. Just after midnight on March 1, a U.S. soldier took over the controls of an engine. It was the Army's railroad. Brig. Gen. Thomas B. Wilson, aggressive, heavy-set former chairman of the board of TWA, supervised the setting up of the Military Railway Service. Wilson put Col. J.A. Appleton, former Pennsylvania Railway executive, in charge of the new service. Officers had come from various American rail systems - Southern Pacific, Florida East Coast, Santa Fe, New York Central, New Haven. GI's were railroad men in civilian life, together with Army-trained men of no previous experience. Tonnage of military supplies jumped with American operation. Only the sweat-sopped effort of American officers and men account for the record. CBI got a commendation from General George C. Marshall for its railroading.


Bengal & Assam RR shops near Parbatipur, operated by the 758th Ry. Shop Bn. during the war.
Most of the American railroad equipment shipped to CBI were put in operating condition at these shops.


Men of the 124th Calvary Regt. loading on the train at Pandu, India, enroute from Ramgarh to Dinjan
where they boarded 10th Air Force C-47 planes for Myitkyina.

When the U.S. railroaders took over, they found the Indians unfamiliar with railroad operation in the western world and equipment in a bad state of repair. Rolling stock was coupled at times with wire! Indians secured vehicles on flat cars at times with twine of a strength that would make American binder twine appear strong as a log chain! Communicastions, dispatching and phone circuits wee poor. Most of the line was single-tracked with short sidings. There were bottlenecks, the Amingaon-Pandu ferry near Gauhati being an example. Cars headed one way could not be spotted until those coming across the ferry had gone on their way. There were not enough ferries and tugs to move them. Indian labor was replaced by soldiers, then reemployed immediately to serve alongside the men and learn American operating techniques from them. The Army ordered 10,000 War Department cars, double capacity of the Indian four-wheel "wagons", which eventually tripled rolling stock capacity. The B&A had 73 locomotives, 401 being meter-gauge, 154 of them U.S. lend-lease engines. By March 1945 there were 442 meter-gauge locomotives, of which 262 were War Department types. Ancient equipment had to be discarded and locomotives borrowed earlier had to be retuned to other Indian roads.


"Jeep Train" from Myitkyina arrives at the Mogaung river and is being unloaded by members of the 775th Engineer Petroleum Distribution Co. The men are shown wheeling one of their trailers down a muddy hill to the river bank where it will be ferried to Mogaung.


On a jungle section of the Bengal & Assam railroad, an elephant is used to shunt three box cars onto a siding. The beast is owned by a tea plantation and does the "switching" for its owners' cars, eliminating the necessity for the railroad to operate a locomotive at the siding.

The Signal Corps strung a heavy doubled wire across Bengal and Assam, which enabled the railroaders to expedite the dispatch and control of trains. A railroader faced with a problem in Gauhati, needing facts from Tinsukia or Ledo, or wishing to talk as far as Calcutta, simply picked up a phone and was connected as readily as if calling the corner store back home. This was something new on the line.


Officers of the 721st Ry. Bn. with an Indian "driver" (engineer),
looking over the old B&A locomotive renamed "Gypsy Rose Lee"
at the Saidpur shops.


Chinese infantrymen being transported on a "passenger" train from Kunming to Chanyi. Most Chinese troops were transported in this manner, occupying almost every square inch of available space on a train.

The lack of sidings placed a limit on the speed of two-way traffic. Short sidings limited the length of trains. In the first year of operation, 30 sidings east of the Brahmaputra River crossing - the Amnigaon-Pandu ferry - were lengthened, and 37 more were in process, so that instead of taking an average of 50 cars, they could handle more than 100. West of the river the work was completed- 26 lengthened to 4,000 feet each to accomodate 158 cars on the four-wheel car basis. Siding improvement work allowed reduction of block sections from 10 to four miles, speeding train movement. Meanwhile, 165 miles of double tracking had been installed. Two ferry terminals were added to the one original. Seven barges were increased to 12, one tug to three. Tugs were kept on the move instead of being allowed to stand by a ferry barge during loading or unloading. When the Army arrived, not more than 200 cars were moved each way a day across the wide river. In January 1945 the average was approximately 800 a day each way. Before the GI's took over, the average net tons hauled per train was 250. In January 1945 it was more than 500 tons. Train lengths were increased from 40 cars to an average of 80 and in some cases more than 100. Speeds were increased from 25 miles per hour to an average of 45. The number of passenger trains was more than doubled and the trains were running on time.


At Pandu, India, lack of a railroad bridge makes necessary the ferrying of railroad cars to the opposite bank where the cars are unloaded from narrow to standard gauge equipment.


War Department engine leaving the railroad yards at Tinsukia with loaded freight cars for an advanced U.S. base.


These Indians are filling the tender of an engine by carrying small baskets of coal on their heads up a ramp. Only a disgusted crew member of the 748th Ry. Op. Bn. can tell you the length of time required for these "gold bricks" to load the tender. Photo taken at Tinsukia.

In March 1945 the railway shops were manned by 450 GI's and approximately 1,200 Indians. The scene looked like any U.S. machine shop with interweavings of India throughout. Two Indians in dhotis might ease red hot bent rail couplings into the jaws of a drop hammer while their boss, a Sikh n bright blue turban, would hand-signal the GI at the controls on the other side when to start hammering. Indian wood workers would sit in typical cross-legged fashion on benches, holding down the wood with their toes while cutting precision patterns for castings. When the Americans got the railroad, B&A could only repair and overhaul seven locomotives - their record. In the Americans' record month, 34 locomotives were put through. American railroaders brought refrigerator cars to India. They were unknown on India's rails before then.

Roundup correspondent Edgar Laytha aptly described the big marshalling yards at Parbatipur. "The yards are smoky and grey," he wrote. "They smell of oil and sweat, yet, believe it or not, many of the GI engineers prefer to work in khaki. Through the smoke and haze the locomotives chug, shining and glittering. The boys can wear khaki in them safely enough, they are so clean and polished. These boys at Parbatipur don't know the meaning of stop, look and listen. When their camp at Parbat burned to the bottom and their belongings went up in the flames, the men went out into the yards in shorts and sandals. Result: not a single delay."


This miniature engine pulls a train of small cars into the
Himalaya mountains on the five-hour journey to the
Army rest camp at Darjeeling, India.

 
At Mawlu, mile 606, wrecked railroad cars line the right of way.
Wreckage was caused by U.S. Air Corps bombs.

Laytha, who traveled up the rails from Calcutta to Ledo, said that despite American magic the trains still rode slowly at times. Low priority trains had to wait on sidings until the fast trains rolled by. Laytha rode the engine of a low-priority train from the Brahmaputra to a jungle yard - and the 100-mile stretch took 16 hours. The 65-car long train was in charge of two GI's, assisted by two Indian firemen. The engineer, Cpl. G.P. Moffett, 21, from North Carolina, took orders from Pvt. Orville C. Vick, 23, of Connecticut, the conductor. Vick was responsible for the safety of all the cars; had to see that all the markers were up, give the signal for departures, write delay reports, and seal the train.


C.E. Booker, a member of the 748th Bn., poses beside familiar
station sign, announcing the station name in four languages.

The locomotive on this typical trip chugged through a world lush and green. Unexplainably thin cattle grazed on rich pastures. Water buffaloes swam in sleepy, stagnant ponds, looking gaunt and starved. The GI stationmasters at the lonely places, where the train had to wait for the fast ones, served hot coffee and spoke of their solitary lives. Some traded beer to the natives for one egg-laying hen per bottle. They told Laytha stories of tigers and wild, jungle-roaming, basha-piercing, native-chasing elephants.

On a sunny siding Laytha ran into The Pilgrim, Chaplain Ervin H. Hartman's rolling church, office, and home. The Pilgrim was switched on and off trains at places where it was most desired. at intermediate stations services were held in the car for as few as three men. A wite cross on blue background was painted on both sides of the former salon car and itwas equipped with an alter, and Army field organ and a kitchen where Cpl. Thomas G. House, the chaplain's assistant, cooked his and the chaplain's meals. House, who studied for the ministry while he was a yard switchman in Missouri, had an Army job that suited him.


Mules of the 124th Calvary Regt. being loaded on car for
transport to the front lines in Burma.

A little later Laytha met Virginia and Maxine, the two-car Red Cross trainmobile and lived in by Virginia Keadle, Willamsburg, West Virginia, and Maxine Robertson, Portland, Oregon, Red Cross girls. The girls were in themiddle of their second trip. The first took 30 days and 30,000 doughnuts.

The train rolled into the GI terminal of Tinsukia, less than 50 miles from Ledo. Here Laytha found the most fascinating beast of the journey's collection: the free lance elephant that lives independently and usually undisturbed in the jungle, subject only to occasional calls for duty. The railroaders used them as living switch engines, for they were capable of pushing five to eight cars onto a siding. Most people do not believe it until they have seen the performance. Laytha described how an Indian boy who worked for the railroaders called his elephant by giving the Moslem version of the Tarzan yell and shouted the elephant's name, "Bilbo!"


Members of the 748th cleaning-out an engine that has just completed its run at Tinsukia.

Laytha waited a few minutes, then the foliage parted, and in all his towering immensity, Bilbo, one of the strongest of the living switch engines, walked into the yard. A sergeant told him to clear the yard of a dozen empty cars, supported his words with motions. Bilbo did it, then stretched his trunk and walked back into the thicket.

Came Ledo and the end of Laytha's rail travels, but with Ledo the activites of the GI Railroaders did not end. They worked in Burma and China. One of their units operated the railway between Myitkyina and Mogaung. That Myitkyina-to-Mogaung railroad was a long, rough one, even though the stretch was only 31 miles. The GI's, Chinese, war correspondents, anybody who wanted to ride, negotiated those 31 miles in true Casey Jones fashion via the jeep-powered Lightning Express. The narrow-gague line, captured bit by bit from the Japs, ran from Mogaung almost to the Myitkina airfield. On the front end of the train was a jeep with GI-built wheels which would hold the rails. On the rear end, facing backward, was another jeep. In between were three flat cars. On the flat cars might be men, mice, or military supplies. On the up trip to Myitkyina, the front-end jeep did the digging. On the down trip to Mogaung, the front-end locomotive became the caboose. A GI gave a Roundup reporter a good reason. "There ain't no place to turm the train around," he said.


Medium tank being loaded on flatcar, bound for Burma.
The tank was unloaded from the ship at the Calcutta docks.

The first run of this train, sometimes called the Baling Wire Cannonball was made by Capt. James H. Kaminer of Lexington, South Carolina, Engineer officer, accompanied by two American GI's, a British brigadier and a major. Pvt. Wilbur E. Childers, who was the jeep driver in the late summer of 1944, had this to say about his Army odd job: "Sort of a thrill. Used to drive a cab. These jeeps do everything but fly." Cpl. John R. Thomason, who had the title of trainmaster, served with a former neighbor and civilian buddy, Cpl. Angele LeGreca, neither of whom expected to wind upon a GI railroad in Burma. Later, when bomb craters were filled in, bridges repaired and the track and roadbed put in better condition, heavier equipment and diesel locomotives were put on the line.

Jeeps may seem to be an odd enough powerhouse on rails, but the oddest locomotive the Army used in China, Burma or India was an engine that was an engine only by courtesy. It belonged to the Quartermaster warehouse of the Base General Depot in Calcutta. It was made in Germany, belonged to a jute mill in Calcutta, and was loanded to the depot's Quartermaster group, wich used the first floor of the mill for storage space. There was no firebox on the four-wheeled job. The steam was pumped into the boiler from the powerhouse of the jute mill. The engine ran on this steam until the gauge showed the pressure was getting so low it might not get back for a refill. If the steam did run out before the engine could make it back to the boiler, the inevitable and long-suffering Indian coolies would have to push it back to the source of supply. The little engine boasted an Indian switchman named Pepsodent by the GI's because of his happy grin. Pepsodent would think nothing of riding the engine, then jumping off and running ahead to throw the switch before it was reached by the locomotive. The engine had a top speed of 10 miles an hour. Nobody was ever run over because Pepsodent was bellcord happy. The engine was known as Old 971. It also was known by other names when it happened to run out of steam quite a distance from home base, especially by the Indian coolies who had to push it back to the boiler for a refill. -- THE END.


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