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Trains to Victory: America's Railroads in World War II

Trains to Victory: America’s Railroads in World War II Book Review

By Cookie Sewell

Date of Review July 2011 Title Trains to Victory: America’s Railroads in World War II
Author John Kelly and Don Heimburger Publisher Heimberger House Publishing Company
Published 2011 ISBN 978-0-911581-60-7
Format 380 pages, hardbound MSRP (CDN) $59.95


When I was an NCO serving at Fort Hood, Texas, as Fort Hood was in the middle of the state and any deployments we would have to make would be from a major seaport, one of the annual requirements we all had to learn was how to carry out rail loading. Taught by trainmen from the Santa Fe Railroad, this usually entailed going up to the aptly named Railhead Drive and learning how to load both trucks and tracks onto 60 and 85 foot long Trailer Train flatcars. (There were heavier Department of Defense DODX class cars for the 62-ton M1 tanks so we did not have to worry about that.)

We were shown how to drive the equipment on and off the flatcars (guides are a critical part of this and you MUST follow their directions) and then how to tie them down. The crews showed us how to use cables, cable locks, chains, turnbuckles, and wood chocks to prevent shifts and slides. Once they were satisfied we understood the concept, they signed off on a sheet and we were released back to our units.

That started me thinking about the fact of how they had to ship so much more – vehicles, material and personnel – during WWII. But there was little information about it until the release of this handsome volume two years ago. After chasing around for one (the first two print runs are now sold out, but a third run is now promised soon) I found a copy last week at the Great Scale Train Show in Baltimore, Maryland.

This is as noted a handsomely done project, printed in Hong Kong on high density paper with archive level photography for most of its illustrations. The result is that it is easy to use a magnifying glass to read the markings or signboards in nearly every photograph. (It also weighs about ten pounds!)

When the US entered WWII it was one of the most heavily mechanized nations in the world with railroads serving nearly every minor city and town and servicing every single factory capable of producing military material. As such, it did not take long to reorganize the railroads to provide the transport needed to get that material to ports of embarkation for shipping overseas. Much of this had been learned during the formation and use of the US Railway Administration (USRA) in WWI but this time it did not take over locomotive production and standardize classes. “War emergency” cars were produced such as the box-car-shaped troop sleepers and troop kitchen cars needed by the thousands to move entire divisions. New infrastructure items were created such as the famous North Platte Canteen in Nebraska, converted from a depot building. This was an early “fast food” restaurant where troops could get off trains for 15-20 minutes, get a sandwich and coffee, and stretch their legs. By the end of the war nearly one of every two American personnel in uniform had passed through its doors.

But the prime task was shipping the war material created in the US to American and Allied forces overseas. The book presents quite a bit of coverage of what was shipped by train and how. The authors indicate they used railroad archives (Southern Pacific and Santa Fe are prominently mentioned here) as well as Signal Corps and Time/Life magazine archives. As most of them used the legendary 4 x5 Speedgrafix cameras, the photos are large and crystal clear.

Throughout the book one can follow the shipment of many items. For example, the Santa Fe shepherded M2A4 light tank W-30681 from one side of the US to the other, and its adventures on a flat car and debarking at Indio, California can be tracked. Also prevalent are how shipping evolved for the M3 and M4 series of tanks, including how the basic issue items (BII) were stowed and what was considered normal for the vehicle or the unit it was assigned to.

There are some oddities sure to pique the interest of American and Commonwealth armor fans. For example a train loaded with 13 M3 Grant tanks in gloss olive drab paint and shipping stencils is shown on its way to an East Coast port. Later a train of Crusader tanks, missing their 2 pdr guns and noted as having been built in Canada, are shown passing through. The same covers trucks, jeeps, artillery, and halftracks.

Troops are shown in all states of dress, including rail loading and operating crews in fatigues of the period (both blue and herringbone patterns).

How the trains were loaded and unloaded is also shown in detail. Added to this are the “foreign” trains made in the US such as Baldwin 2-8-0 steamers for the UK and Europe, Lima 2-8-2 engines for France, and flatcars and tank cars to replace ones destroyed in Europe. These were among the few American trains which were convertible from American “knuckle” (buckeye) couplers to buffers and European screw-link couplers, so they could also handle conventional freight trains in their new countries as well. Multigauge trains for both the USSR and narrow-gauge use are also shown.

Overall, if you have ever been curious about shipping military equipments or how it was done this is a great reference and if you do “small scale” an incentive to create some new items. Now if only somebody made a standard US 40 foot flatcar in 1/35...