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Veterans of the 712th Transportation Railway Operating Battalion

Compiled by Robert G. Shannon
Korean War Veterans of the United States Army

"I came home upright, while a huge percentage of the troops in the 5th RCT in Korea came home in body bags."

- Robert G. Shannon
 


The following is a compilation of memoirs written by veterans of the 712th Transportation Railway Operating Battalion, put together by Robert G. Shannon, Korean War Mail Call Newsletter Editor, in 2006.   It is published on the KWE with the permission of Bob Shannon.  The writers are as follows:

(Note:  Click on a picture below for a larger view)


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THE 712TH IN WORLD WAR II
by Wayne G. Stunz, Marvin L. Peters & Gladney I. Gregory

The 712th Railway Operating Battalion, as it was designated during WWII, was activated 25 October, 1943 at Camp Harahan, with the transfer of about 330 enlisted men from basic training units. There we met our officers ~ Capt. William J. Weil, 1st Lt. Peter J. Pirrall, 2nd Lts. Marvin L. Peters, James B. Van Natta, Frank E. Davis and Irving A. Todd.

On 1 December, 1943 the 712th moved to Camp Claiborne, Louisiana. Just prior to the move Capt. Weil was transferred and Peter J. Pirrall was promoted to Captain and made C Company Commander. In conversations between the enlisted men he was always referred to as Peter J and Lt. Peters as Pete.

The food deteriorated and the men refused to eat the food. This infuriated the lieutenant in charge of the mess. He close order drilled the men, then marched them to the Mess Hall. No one took food at this point. Capt. Pirrall went to bat for his men by taking over, holding a meeting with the men and resolving the problem.

The First Sergeant position was open. Peter J again held a meeting, listened to his men and gave the position to their preference. He was a different kind of officer. We left Claiborne 14 March, 1944 for Boston from where we departed at 0600 17 March, 1944 (Easter Sunday) for England, followed by Utah Beach, France, Belgium, Luxemburg and to Germany on 8 April, 1945.

The end of the war in Europe only increased our work of moving the bases in Germany. With the end of the war in Japan the men started shipping home to be discharged on a point system. We ceased rail operations 14 October, 1945 and left Germany 21 October, 1945.

The 712th became a 70+ discharge point unit. Those men not having 70 points were transferred out. This included Peter J. As he left and turned the command over to Lt. Peters the tears showed.

Peter J and his wife attended our first reunion in 1950. He was never able to attend another reunion. He was recalled for the Korean War, his wife had a stroke, then his health failed. He kept in touch with our late secretary, Roscoe Greenway, who was notified by Peter J. Pirralls’ daughter of her father’s death on 17 March, 1976.


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THE 712TH IN KOREA
by Captain Carlton U. Baum

This was originally published in the January, 1953 issue of the Reading Railroad Magazine

For the second time, in less than 10 years, a Railway Operating Battalion, co-sponsored by the Reading Company, the 712th, has returned from foreign service after having been called to active duty by the Army.

Throughout the summer, men of the 712th have been returning from Korea to this country and their homes and by now practically all are back at work on the railroad. Actually, the 712th TROB remained in Korea as a numbered unit, since the men returned home as individuals or in small groups when replacements arrived to take their places.

Most of the men had almost a year and a half in the war-torn mountains and rice-paddies of Korea. In that time, they earned five battle stars, representing that number of campaigns in which they actively participated. All members are entitled also to wear the United Nations ribbons.

However, ribbons do not begin to tell the story of the soldier railroaders and how they were responsible for the operation of over 500 miles of railroad, ran thousands of trains with inadequate and dilapidated equipment over lightweight and poorly maintained track through crumbling tunnels and over bridges hastily repaired as the tides of battle moved back and forth several times. Neither do battle stars reveal the millions of tons of ammunition, equipment, food and other supplies carried and the numerous troop trains moved through the mountainous terrain to railheads often but a short distance behind the fighting lines. Nor can words adequately portray the lonesomeness of 18 months of uncomfortable (to say the least) living in a foreign land of strange customs where, on every hand, there was so much human misery and poverty, filth and disease, and the discouragement of a none-too-successful and little understood police-action war.

The story of the men of the 712th should be told, if for no other reason, simply because so little of it has been told publicly. Many transportation outfits, especially higher headquarters, mostly chair borne, were busy getting themselves interviewed and publicized for their accomplishments, and those of outfits (like the 712th) under them, in trade and national magazines. The 712th, however, was content, and at times even seemed to prefer, to remain in the background and let others take the credit and glory for the month-by-month increase in tonnage, personnel and trains moved which kept the U.N. troops supplied. The same situation applied to living conditions-where some units devoted much time and manpower to seeking luxuries, the 712th secured adequate necessities and then went to work. To their unselfish and self-sacrificing credit, keeping the trains moving was always the prime and uppermost consideration.

The beginning of the Korean story goes back to 1945 and 1946, when a number of railroaders, who had served in World War II, for various reasons, innocently enough, and unsuspecting of future events, signed up with the Army Reserves and went back to their railroad jobs. In 1948, upon the prompting of the Government, the Reading and the Jersey Central decided to join in sponsoring a Railway Operating Battalion, and sufficient volunteers showed enough interest to have the 712th reactivated.

A continuing recruiting campaign in the succeeding two years brought additional men from the two railroads and a few outsiders with rail knowledge and experience, like the writer. Monthly meetings were held in Philadelphia along with other rail units on a voluntary and unpaid basis.

The first contact with the military for the reactivated 712th came around Labor Day, 1949, when a small band of seven went to summer camp at Ft. Eustis, Virginia, for a two-week training program. In this group were five officers and two enlisted men, five of whom were Reading employees. In the next nine months until May, 1950, the group continued to grow in membership, so that when the summer training was moved up the last two weeks of the month over 30 reserves attended. Again, the majority of those attending were from the Reading. The trainees received the regular Army pay, in accordance with their rank, for the two-week period. In generous co-operation with the reserve program, the sponsoring companies made up the difference between his railroad and Army pay. This was only a few weeks before the Korean conflict began, but there wasn’t even a whisper of a crisis then.

South Korea was invaded June 25, 1950, and in a few days the United States began sending men and supplies to repel the invaders, but practically no one suspected that the rail units would be recalled to active duty. However, in a few weeks, early in August, the 712th was alerted. On September 3, they were sworn in at the Spring Garden Street Station and two days later took off for Ft Eustis. The 724th from the Pennsylvania went a little earlier and the 729th from the New Haven followed closely behind.

During the processing period after the alert, some men were eliminated, so that on September 3 the 712th had a roster of 75 men, 60 enlisted men and 15 officers. Thus Lt. Col (then major) Arthur C Palmer of Pottstown, who had been commanding officer since the 1948 reorganization, had less than 10 percent of the 785 men required for a full Army Operating Battalion at that time.

The period at Ft. Eustis was necessarily one of getting men to fill up the battalion, processing and giving them refresher military training, since most of them were involuntary reserves with previous service and “owing” time to the Army. Most of these were from Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia - and the few railroaders obtained were merely coincidence. Due to administrative, military, housekeeping and supply problems, the technical training of these men was necessarily rather sketchy - at times even grass cutting and leaf raking took precedence.

As the weeks passed, it was plain that one of the three battalions was hot for overseas service, and around Thanksgiving it was the 712th which was elected the lucky one. This meant a last-minute rush of final elimination and fillers, the receiving of carloads of an operating battalion’s equipment - from shovels to bulldozers, and the inevitable overseas shots in the arm. The original strength of the 712th by now had dwindled to around 60.

It was on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1950, that the 712th took off for the west coast on three trains, taking separate routes to Ft Lawton, Washington, the port of embarkation. More processing and outfitting there, and suddenly the “C”, or operating company, was alerted for air shipment, while the other three were to go by boat.

Japan was the secretly whispered destination, but it didn’t take much imagination to predict Korea as the final one. The U.N. forces had driven the North Koreans back to the Yalu River on the Manchurian border, but the Chinese had now entered the conflict and were making a terrific counterattack.

“C” Company arrived in Korea at Christmas time, just in time to ride a few trains into Seoul, the capital, before the Chinese chased the Allied forces across the Han River. During this chase, much of the Korean railroad equipment was abandoned or destroyed along the way.

Meanwhile, the Headquarters, A and B Companies, were making their way across the 6,000 miles of ocean in a 20-day trip. Not a comfortable one, as six storms were encountered, slowing down or driving the ship off its course. The rough weather, the none-to-comfortable quarters, and the increasingly bad war news made it anything but a pleasure cruise for the passengers, who by now knew they were going to Korea - if there was any place left to land. Christmas and New Year on the open water, with the thoughts of home, added nothing to the trip.

After passing a few rocky Japanese islands the day before, on January 5, 1951, the ship, General Patrick, crept into the harbor of Pusan, Korea before dawn. The main body of the 712th had their first glimpse of the bleak, barren, mountainous country that was to be their home for the next year and a half. The first day in Pusan, too, gave the first look at the never-ending stream of poverty-stricken refugees and the stench that is war-torn Korea.

The second day, the 712th got its first experience with the Korean railroads when members were piled into a train featuring three kinds of cars, without windows, without seats or without either. The 100 mile trip took over a half day, very fast for over there, then. The new home of the 712th was at Sindong, a dozen miles, but over a big mountain, from the large city of Taegu, where a bombed-out school and a field for tents was “it.” The front then was 75 miles further north, but coming closer every day, with an unknown number of guerrillas somewhere in between.

While setting up house, the 712th got the Korean rail picture. The roads were nationally owned and operated, but under the complete supervision of the Army by the 3rd Military Railway Service. A regular Army battalion, the 714th, already there, controlled from Pusan to Taegu and the 712th was assigned, and kept to the last, the territory from Taegu north to the battle lines. It consisted of a single track East Coast line and a double track main line through central South Korea with several intersecting feeder lines.

To expedite train movements, which allegedly ran more by the calendar than the clock, the 712th put its four companies to work.

Headquarters Company, with its hodgepodge of clerks, supply men, cooks, dispatchers and operators, spread the latter out in two to four-man groups at lonely stations along the way, with this writer commanding and division operator.

A Company, under the command of Capt. William H. Bahrenburg, set up and maintained a dispatcher’s communication line to augment the poor Korean lines and also began its working with the natives in maintenance of way and water supply problems. This company also was spread out over the entire system.

B Company, under Capt. Edgar E. Cavany, of the Jersey Central, was the maintenance of equipment company. It moved into the Korean shops at key points to prod the Koreans into faster and better ways of keeping inadequate and scarce motive power and cars in service.

C Company, under the veteran leadership of Capt. Peter J. Pirrall, provided train-rider crews to keep the Korean crews going, who were somewhat reluctant to move toward the battle zone. Later the company operated the yards at several division points.

With all the companies functioning in their regular and countless additional duties, the rail net soon was under systematic operation, which eventually extended to a 712th courier and supply train, a few regularly scheduled reefer and passenger trains, a PX train and finally, a 712th private car. As always, in a war zone, hours and duties meant little, around-the-clock operation prevailed often down to individuals, and the job had to be done, no matter by whom. For instance, the writer became a more or less qualified engineer, at least by Korean standards, by frequently running the courier train to get it along the line and keep traffic moving.

In April, 1951, the 712th moved its headquarters to Yongdongpo, across the river from Seoul, soon after it was recaptured. It was their good fortune to obtain a brick apartment house, filthy, but one of the few in Korea. In May, the Chinese pulled their spring counteroffensive and almost recaptured Seoul. Even though the artillery was booming overhead, and the sky lit up like a Fourth of July, the 712th held on to their headquarters and had the distinction of being about the only service troop outfit to remain.

Soon after, the 712th extended its lines to Munsan, the peace talk headquarters, Yonchon and the outskirts of Chorwon, places that are still in the news today, near the scene of hard-fought battles.

In July of 1951, the Army sent 30 diesel locomotives to Korea which, manned by 712th crew, gave the outfit complete operation within the unit. The diesels were EMD 800-hp. road switchers stripped down to 90 tons and they were of invaluable aid in increasing train movements. A two-man GI crew operated them, with a Korean pilot as a rider.

The Korean equipment, while not primitive, at best was smaller (30 ton cars) and badly worn and beaten up. The roadbed, laid out and well engineered by the Japanese, was in poor shape through the tortuous mountain terrain, with worn light rail, rotten ties, loose spikes and mostly non-existent tie plates. There are approximately 300 tunnels and 1,000 bridges in Korea. The language barrier itself was enough to make working and getting along with the Koreans a problem. As high as 50 interpreters were employed in the 30 stations of the 712th, as well as another 200 used in housekeeping activities as carpenters, mechanics, cooks, houseboys, etc. Fortunately, most Koreans tried to be cooperative and appreciated the pay, extra food and clothing they received for working for Americans. Their standard of living was miserably low, a married Korean engineer, for instance, received around 50,000 Won (less than $10) monthly, along with a little rice and perhaps a small hut. They worked on a 24 hours on, 24 off schedule, so they could work in the rice fields on their day off.

Fortunately, none of the original 712th men suffered any serious injuries or were involved in any serious accidents. In fact, the 712th, as a whole, had a remarkable safety record in their 18 months* of operation. Aside from damage to two diesels, all operational incidents were traceable to Korean rather than 712th responsibility. Each of the men who were overseas has stories to tell, humorous or otherwise, of their experiences. Some may sound fantastic, but it must be remembered that this is a fantastic police-action war in a fantastic country, Korea, where many strange things can and do happen.

Promotion-wise, the men of the 712th did very well as a whole. The commanding officer, Arthur C. Palmer, went from major to lieutenant colonel; Company commanders Barhrenburg and Baum rose to captains; 2nd lieutenants Benner, Haines and Smythe advanced from 2nds to 1sts; Matthew Peel, Alfred Krause and Charles Fronheiser became 2nd lieutenants; Robert Dalton, John Warden and Rahn Erdman became warrant officers; Matthew Werner, Earl Scheid, Harold Webb, Donald Barr and William Baeighkley became either first or master sergeants. Also late in 1951, Col. Palmer and Capt. Bahrenburg were transferred to the 3rd Military Railway Service, after which Major J.P. Naughton, executive officer, formerly with the Jersey Central, became commanding officer; Capt. Peter J. Pirrall became executive officer for the balance of the 712th’s stay. Capt. William P. Houwen was adjutant or administrative officer until recalled home by an emergency early in 1952; Capt. Earl O. Lyons, battalion supply officer and Lt. Charles L. Benner was battalion mess officer and later operated the PX train.

In the final analysis, however, whatever credit, praise, thanks or glory there is for the 712th belongs not to the unit alone or to any individual or group - but rather to each individual who served and sacrificed in his own way to make the job “well done.” Young or old, veteran or rookie, enlisted man or officer, each can hold his head high in self-satisfaction, and the Reading Company and Jersey Central, in their entirety, can be proud of each man who gave these two* years to the Army, and in the name of their battalion kept the trains moving in Korea.

* Captain Baum rotated back to the States in the fall of 1952 as the references to 18 months and 2 years of service fall well short of the time the 712th was in Korea.


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THE 712TH IN KOREA
by 1st Sergeant Matthew L. Werner, Jr.

The Korean version of the 712th TROB started as a reserve unit sponsored by Reading Company, a Philadelphia based railroad. Similar units were in place on the Pennsylvania Railroad, (724th), and others who sponsored the 729th and a few others.

Members of the 712th were advised in late July or early August 1950 they were being ‘called up.’ The actual induction into active duty was 3 September, 1950, with the unit leaving for Ft Eustis on 5 September, 1950.

At the time, the 712th was made up of 16 Officers and 60 Enlisted men. Most were from the Reading Railroad, a few from the Central Railroad of New Jersey, and a few with no railroad affiliation other than interest in railroads.

At Ft Eustis, while the cadre was training, fillers started to arrive to bring the battalion up to its T/O strength of 880. Many of these people had some railroad background and were quickly slotted into berths. Others were given ‘Block-Operators’ training or, for those who went to ‘C’ Company T&E (Train & Engine) service, workouts on the Ft Eustis railroad.

While the line of road at Ft Eustis was not large, it had several miles of running track, a wye, grade crossings and other features. At least, the T&E people could be taught coupling and/or uncoupling cars and boarding, riding and/or alighting from equipment. Mid November saw us starting to pack and shaking out the persons who would not be going to Korea. Automotive equipment was loaded on flat cars and a train departed for the coast with a number of ‘C’ Company riders. Early in December ‘C’ Company moved to the west coast to be airlifted to Japan and then Korea.

Headquarters and the remaining companies left Ft Eustis by train on 7 December. They arrived Ft Lawton on the 12th, left for Korea on the USS Gen. M. M. Patrick, (a dependents ship which was fortunate, as it had a large day room we turned into battalion headquarters) and continued to interview and slot late arrivals.

At this point we lost all contact with ‘C’ Company. Later we learned, when they arrived in Japan, some uninformed soul made a serious mistake when he attempted to assign these railroaders to an infantry depot. They had not reckoned with one Wm. P. Houwen, Jr. Capt., TC. (They never had a chance.)

‘C’ Company moved thru Japan to Korea and settled in the school grounds at Sindong, where, as was to become our custom to further the lack of education of the locals, by running them out of their schools and using the schools as military headquarters.

The balance of the battalion arrived Pusan 5 January, 1951 and Sindong 6 January, 1951. At this point we became aware of the 714th TROB, reported to be a ‘regular army’ unit. They were working along the Pusan-Taegu-Taejon Line, and to an extent around Wonju. It was never clear when the 714th pulled out, but they seemed to disappear as an entity, and migrated toward 3rd MRS (Third Military Railway Service), headquarters in Taegu and later Seoul. Shortly after our arrival at Sindong, Block Operators were placed at some stations along (what was known as) the East Coast Line. A sub-division point for control of the ECL, to provide a T&E base and oversee the operation was established at Yongchon. Block Operators were then placed at: Hwabon, Upo, Tapni, Uisong, Murryong, Andong, Punggi, Tanyang, Chaechon and Wonju.

While this was happening, our spare people were set to work unloading box cars that had been placed on a siding at Chichon. These were cars that had been loaded by troops, army and/or marine, following the collapse in North Korea when the Chinese entered the war (police action). I would suppose any ideas we nourished, about war not being hell, were dispersed as the cars were unloaded. We were to unload and break the contents down into the several Quartermaster classifications, and then the interested entities would come and gather up their belongings and either put them into the main stream or junk them. Cars would contain pancake flour, ice cream mix, arms, ammunition (of all sizes), truck parts, rations, clothing, company or battalion records, and on two occasions, a body, protected by cardboard, surrounded by ring of frozen canteens, some empty, some not, and some partly consumed ‘C’ rations. The sobering thought was that somebody tried to do what they could and this was their best shot.

This was an attention getter! A week or so later (this would have been late January 1951) we put block operators into Waegwan, Kumchon and Yongchong. C Company, in the meantime, had been riding trains. The trains were operated by a Korean crew: one engineman, two firemen, one brakeman and a conductor. Our people rode to keep things moving. It was hard to have a train make good time north towards the fighting, but returning south in a third of the time it took to go north was no problem! The ‘train riders’ argued their train’s way through block stations, helped stuff GI soap in journal boxes, helped pack wet grass in journal boxes, stopped the fireman from wasting time stopping for water every ten miles, and etc., etc.

On 30 March, 1951, the Battalion base moved to Yongdongpo and occupied the managers’ apartments of a large silk mill. There was a two story building used by Battalion Headquarters, Medics, Supply and the barber. The rest of the complex consisted of 72 apartments, of which 71 were habitable. There were several deep tubs and a beauty shop, all of which were converted to showers by A and B men putting enough boiler tubing together to reach the Han River - and a very large heavy-duty pump! We were in this base until the early May breakthrough, at which time we loaded into box cars and moved to Hoedog. A few days later we moved into a school house in Taejon.

The breakthrough north of Seoul had been announced by the amount of British traffic moving south. First time I ever saw a two-column convoy, on a two lane road, right over the Han River bridges, through YDPo and on down the Suwon Road. Two of our people, who had been working at Tokjung, called before we left YDPo, asking for advice. Best I could give them was to hook-up with anybody wearing blue braid. The 2nd division was at the brunt of the attack and elected not to run through the gauntlet the enemy had set up.

We returned to Yongdongpo 6 June, 1951 and a few nights later, during an important moment when I was about to meld (a run in spades, 100 aces and pinochle) there came a call from the Battalion switchboard. The operator was somewhat shaken when he tried to explain who was calling.

Turned out to be our two lost men. They had been living with an element of the 2nd division, and after the fighting moved north, they returned to their stations. (I said before it was Tokjung, but it might have been Yongduchon.)

They were advising us that their station, (RTO) was ready for traffic. Before they left they had buried their telephone and other equipment, had now recovered it, and were back in the station, ready to work! Before I left to come home we had initiated the paper work to have them awarded extra points for the period as well as the Combat Infantry Badge. They had been more than a month in direct combat.

Our station people and train riders were stretched thin, but in June of 1951, the 724th arrived. In July, when they were done building quarters, private cars and had painted the red keystone on every standing object, (which had just been painted by the 1st or 2nd Calvary), we were relieved of duties south of Taejon.

When the GM diesel locomotives arrived, the 724th wanted to keep them in the south, so they wouldn’t fall into enemy hands. We, of course, were left with the steamers. By summertime we also had some diesels. The 712th by this time had staffed more stations and terminals, established ‘mess’s’ at Taejon, Inchon and other places.

Early on we established a ‘Courier Car’, operated by James Pierce, which, when hooked to Korean locomotive PC5 11, was used to take mail, fresh food, freight and whatever to the men in the RTOs. We were able to service the RTOs on the main line on an every third day basis, and mail was also carried by train riders to RTOs, so our people would have the story from the home front.

About June 1951, Sgt Vanover, who had been acting as the Korean labor NCO, left for the States and his duties were assigned to me. The Korean help had to be paid every fourteen days and in going around to pay them, I could check on the health of our people (or at least their existence). I carried two one gallon jugs. One was elixir of Terpen-Hydrate, the other the pink version of Kaopectate. When my guy in the RTO had a chest cold, we would give him a good swig of the GI gin and leave him a canteen cup for the next two days, and by that time, our medics would have made a house call. If he had the GIs, he got a big swig of the other plus a full canteen cup, to hold him till the medics arrived.

While this was NOT a good system, it kept the forces available, and if the man was really sick, we put a relief man in his place and took him to the nearest unit that had a real doctor and /or hospital. We were lucky; the health level of the guys in the RTOs remained good throughout the time I was there. By this time the EUSAK Express had been introduced, and hospital trains were running from Uijonbu, and I seem to remember they also came from a station further up, almost at the 38th parallel.

There was a narrow gauge line running from Yoju, through Suwon, and, I think, into Inchon. I remember taking a ride on it. The train had four wheel cars; and I’m sure it ran past a lot of salt evaporation beds south of Inchon, where they could let the sea in, close a dike, and let the sun do its work. We never had any active participation in its operation.

Iri was at the north end of an area we stayed out by agreement with the guerrillas. When Dug-out-Doug had come in at Inchon, the North Korean forces were cut in two by his eastward drive. Many surrendered (and were put on an island south of Pusan where they later took Gen. Dowd prisoner) or merged with the guerrillas (so we were told).

We serviced Iri and went to Kunsan. As I said, we did not venture south of Iri. However, a 3rd RMS Officer elected to show his disregard and took a locomotive and passenger car into that area against everybody’s advice. He had with him two enlisted men. One was badly wounded, and the other received his Purple Heart posthumously. The officer received the Silver Star. I am not sure of the disposition of the car. I do remember that the call for blood came after dark, and no Korean would operate a relief engine from Taejon to Iri, and that Yardmaster Lloyd McCarthy (Taejon) grabbed two guys to shovel the real estate into the firebox and took off. At that time the area in question was such that the ROK Army used it for the final two weeks of their recruit training, saying it was a good way to get the feel of being shot at while being able to shoot back, not at a paper target, but the real thing!

Early on, each train operated with two guard cars, one ahead of the engine and one behind the train. The cars were gondolas with about two feet of sandbags around the inside and level with the top of the car. There were sandbags through the middle of the car which made two pockets with .30 or .50 caliber machine guns mounted. These cars were responsible for the death of a lot of trees and bushes along the right-of-way, but ... who was to say there were not enemy troops in the shadows? It was a miserable assignment. At one time there was thoughts of putting a flat car ahead of the guard car. The flat would have a layer of cross-ties, eight or ten pieces of rail, a keg of spikes and a few joint bars. I do not know if that system was ever put in place.

By the end of the summer of 1951 the mission was starting to become routine. A few more ‘messes’ had been established. ‘A’ Company had overseen the relaying of some of the yards that had been destroyed by enemy air. The points for locomotive water were all operational, and the fear was gone of getting to a location and not being able to take on water.

MOSs not withstanding, it is funny how things work out. “A’ Company had assigned to it a group of incorrigibles (all from West-by-God Virginia), many of whom were cat-hole miners. If ever anybody understood one-lung engines and water pumps, this was the group. And, while one can look back at some of the problems we had with them, what you really remember is how well they turned a bad situation around. Early on, when water supply was questionable, a lot of time was wasted leaving every water point with a full tank, hauling water instead of material. Our best driver and the one who chauffeured Col. Palmer had been a ‘tanker’. A ‘tanker’, I learned, was a man who ran through the dark of night with 200+ gallons of ‘shine in a big tank in the backseat and trunk, with a slide for quick release if the law got too close.

‘B’ Company fine tuned the operation in the shops. Early on they learned that a few dollars worth of gaskets to stop steam leaks could mean more cars per train. Further, they examined the destroyed locomotives along the road line or where they were caught in the shops, and inventoried them for usable parts to repair ‘rip-track’ jobs.

The Motor Pool in the early days was gradually making hanger queens out of our vehicles. The Motor Pool Sgt., eating in the mess hall one night with some of the ‘Operations’ people, learned there was a train of damaged vehicles moving south and would pass through Sindong. He quickly made a list of needed parts, shook his guys out, loaded them in a truck and intercepted the train just south of Taejon. When the train arrived at Sindong, with all the world to see, there sat his people, each with a pile of windshields, tires, batteries, starters and a host of other good things. From that day forward, all our vehicles were serviceable. Vehicles recovered from the ‘Bowling Alley’, east of Sindong, were rebuilt and added to our Motor Pool. (Editor’s note- This sounds like the same train that we ‘liberated’ a jeep from at the Chonan RTO, giving us wheels for our 6 mile trips north to a reservoir for drinking water!)

In April 1952 the original 712th members were relieved and sent home. Mess Sgt Charles Brothers, (a damn fine Mess Sgt.) was appointed First Shirt for Headquarters Company. Hdq. Co. was hard on Commanding Officers. Its first CO was Capt. Carlton Baum. He was sent home when his mother died. As a standby Lt. Leroy Benner was CO, in addition to Mess Officer, Motor Pool Officer, Movie Officer and whatever else. He was relieved by Lt. Edward Anderson, Chief of the Operations Section. Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Anderson was in a car that ran into a pole and was seriously injured, and he was released to aid her and the children. Capt. Wm P Houwen, Jr. was next, and during this period it was finally settled:

  1. Who was Company Commander, and
  2. Who was REALLY in charge.

Never had any trouble after that. However a tragedy took place in Reading, Pa., and Capt. Houwen was released and went home. The next, whose name has slipped my mind, was only the CO for a few days while the CID investigated two fires and one robbery in the PX car. Then he was gone. The next, and finest, was an Officer who, during WWII, was ‘Battlefield’ commissioned. After WWII he reverted to his permanent rank of M/Sgt., and was recommissioned for the Korean War. Curtis Williams, Capt., TC, was, I think, a Missourian. I was disappointed he had not come along sooner.


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THE 712TH IN KOREA
by Leo F. Friedrich

After the Korean War started I was recalled to active duty, reporting to Fort Mead, MD on October 18, 1950. After a few days of processing we were shipped to Ft Eustis, Va. There we met the cadre of C Company and began training, if you could call it that. My references will be to C Company as I do not remember coming in contact with the other companies either at Ft Eustis or in Korea. None of the inactive reservists in the company had railroad experience, which made us to wonder why we were in a railroad battalion.

Our training at Eustis was more like basic training, not how to operate a railroad. Remember, some of these men had been out of the service since 1945. I had been out only 9 months. Since we were the operating company our basic weapon was the .45 caliber automatic and most of us were not familiar with the weapon. Naturally, we had to qualify with it on the range and we did so.

Our time at Eustis was sort of harsh for a couple of reasons. The cadre seemed to be disorganized. The man who was to be our first sergeant had never been on active duty. Our CO seemed to be a little old for war or for a captain. It seemed to us that no one really knew what sort of training we should be doing other than with the .45 and some close-order drilling. Finally, there never seemed to be enough food in the mess hall. I recall that we went to a firing range on a rainy day in November. At the end of the day, trucks were supposed to pick us up to return to camp. However, there were not enough trucks dispatched for us. I was in the last group of about 50 men stranded at the range in pouring rain. After waiting nearly until dark, we learned that no trucks would be sent for us. The drivers had been dismissed for the day. We had to march back to camp, about 5 or 6 miles. When we arrived back at camp, wet, dirty and tired, the mess hall was closed. No one had remembered to tell the cooks that not all of us had returned yet. Thankfully, there was a PX where we could get a hamburger and fries. The only explanation we were given was ‘that those things happen.’

Another part of our training was taken at the Navy’s over-water anti-aircraft training center at Virginia Beach, Va. We learned to use the quad .50 caliber anti-aircraft gun which we were told we would use in Korea. I never saw this weapon again. The best thing about this training was that we ate in the Navy mess hall. The food was unbelievably good compared to Ft. Eustis chow.

Most of us were given a three day pass at Thanksgiving, 1950, in anticipation of being shipped out shortly.

My bride met me in Richmond and we enjoyed a 2nd honeymoon.

In early December we boarded a troop train for the long trip to Seattle and Korea. The train trip took about 5 days and wasn’t too bad. We slept in Pullman cars and took our meals in mess cars, G.I. style. We saw parts of the country for the first time, the Rocky Mountains were particularly impressive. We stayed in Ft Lawton near Seattle for a day; then were trucked to McChord Air Force Base to board planes for Japan. One of the highlights there, again, was the food. We could not believe the quantity and quality.

It required eleven planes to fly C Company to Japan; ten were civilian Air Canada planes, the other was an Air Force DC-6. Naturally, I was on the DC-6 which had stretchers along the walls for seats. Not exactly first class accommodations and the box lunches did little to enhance the trip. The plan was for us to fly to Elmendorf Field at Anchorage, Alaska; then refueling stops in the Aleutian Islands, then on to Japan. Remember, the prop planes used then could not fly across the ocean without refueling. Since this was December, the weather was very unpredictable. From Elmendorf we headed for Shemya, an Aleutian Island in mid-Pacific. When we were about 30 minutes from Shemya the pilot was told that the cross winds would not allow a landing there and to return to the mainland. We did not have enough fuel to return to Elmendorf so we had to land at Cold Bay, an Air Force emergency base at the tip of the Alaskan peninsula. For the next three days we were guests of the Air Force. Eventually we flew to Shemya, then to northern Japan and finally to Haneda Air Base near Tokyo.

We were housed at a repo depot in Yokohama for a couple of days where we rejoined the rest of the company and had to listen to their tales about how comfortable their planes were and how good the steaks were. We were allowed to do a little sight-seeing there, but the city was still torn up from WWII and unbelievably dirty. After another couple of days we would board a train for Sasebo where we boarded a ship for an overnight trip to Pusan, arriving Christmas Eve. We were housed in what had been a school, but was now a smoky, dirty, cold billet. Since the next day was Christmas we had to eat the Army’s obligatory meal of turkey, dressing and pumpkin pie There was no mess hall, so we stood outside in the snow while we ate. Merry Christmas! All I could think of was, ‘What am I doing here in this hell hole?’

From Pusan we were shipped to a small station north about ten miles to wait until the Army could get a better idea of how far the Chinese were expected to push us back towards the Pusan perimeter. We set up squad tents near the station for about a week, after which the company moved north to Taegu where we acted as switchmen in the rail yard. Taegu was a sizable rail yard. This was relatively good duty, even with 12 hour days, compared to some of the men who were assigned as train guards. By agreement with the Korean government we could not operate the steam locomotives, but only guard them.

As the fighting front stabilized we opened up RTOs to the north with squads at each site. One experience in late winter or early spring, 1951, really sticks in my mind. I was assigned to take a supply train across the Han River, through Seoul, then north to a supply depot. The only problem was that all the Han River bridges had been blown up. This trip was over a pontoon bridge laid down by the Army engineers. To say that I was scared and apprehensive about taking such a big piece of equipment over a pontoon bridge would be putting it mildly. If a bird colonel had not stood there and ordered me to do it, I do not think I would have.

About April I was stationed at the Suwon RTO. One day the first sergeant walked in. I glanced up and greeted him “Good morning, first sergeant.” Rather gruffly he responded “Look again, soldier.” As I did so, I said “Excuse me, Lieutenant, I didn’t know.” This man had gone from corporal in October, 1950 to 2nd Lieutenant in April 1951. We inactive reservists couldn’t even get a one-stripe promotion.

In May, 1951 I was sent with a squad to Ichon which was served by a narrow gauge railroad that ran from Suwon and was the railhead for the 25th Infantry Division. Our time at Ichon was uneventful except for a couple of incidents.

A Patton tank pulled into our compound to make repairs. One of the tankers crawled under the rear of the tank, struck a match for visibility and promptly started a fire from the leaking gasoline. The tankers could only pull back and let ‘er blow. For the next 3 days we didn’t get much sleep as the 105 mm cannon shells and the .50 cal. ammo blew up spasmodically. Another incident was one night when a guard at the nearby fuel dump challenged an intruder who turned out to be a master sergeant who was drunk and returning to his unit. The challenge was ignored and each opened fire. Both were wounded, not seriously. Finally, I had the pleasure of celebrating my first wedding anniversary at Ichon.

From Ichon I was moved to the RTO at Yongdongpo. From there we took trains north through Seoul to the end of steel at the 38th parallel. We were billeted in a building complex similar to low income housing in the US. The building had taken a beating as a result of the see-saw war with no windows or working plumbing, but it sure beat living in boxcars which we had been doing in other RTOs. About August we learned that Congress was petitioned to bring home the inactive reservists. That suited us fine! The first group was scheduled to leave in late September, after our replacements began to arrive. Within two weeks after our first replacements arrived we suffered our first casualty that I know of. We were still primarily train guards and we had warned the replacements to never ride atop a moving train because of the many low bridges that crossed the tracks. One of them ignored the warning and on a night run was knocked off the boxcar. He fell under the wheels and there was hardly enough body parts to send home.

In October I had enough points to head home. I went to Pusan, Sasebo, thence to Seattle via the USS Marine Lynx (16 days), a train ride to Camp Breckenridge, KY and was discharged in November having served 13 months during this war.

These are only my recollections of service in the 712th. If a history of the 712th’s service is written, I would hope my experiences could somehow be woven in.


Back to Memoir Contents

THE 712TH AT CHONAN
by Robert G. Shannon

The prior writers have pretty well covered the early months after the reactivation of the 712th and the recall of reservists to fill the ranks, so I’ll start with our arrival at Pusan, Korea on 5 January, 1951. They all neglected to mention the joys of riding in a train to Sindong which had no window glass through the tunnels while propelled by a coal burning steam locomotive.

Upon arriving in Sindong we were able to move into the tents previously set up by C Company personnel who had flown over. We wandered around the area and many of us took the opportunity of going souvenir hunting in the nearby hills which had just been cleared of North Koreans and Chinese. I remember leaning over one of the many bodies which were scattered about the hillside, when all of a sudden bullets started coming toward me. I thought, at the time, that it was other GIs horsing around from a nearby hill and shouted for them to stop. Years later I began to wonder if just maybe, the shots were from a few leftover Commies.

When things got moving, about six of us were out on some forsaken spot living in a boxcar ventilated with several thousand bullet holes. That was the coldest January in the previous half century in Korea, and we did not have full winter gear. We had to leave both inoperable doors of the boxcar partially open, one for the pot-bellied stovepipe and the other for our egress. There was frost on the inside of the car and I don’t think we accomplished anything except trying to avoid freezing to death. Of the six men, two of us were from the small city of Meadville in northwest Pennsylvania.

The next excursions were truck rides out to the small stations on the east coast single line, one person per station. Ride out in late afternoon and return in the morning. It was a bit nerve-wracking to be the only GI in a village all night long with just the natives for company. Communication was a problem and the locals liked to hang out in the stations because it had heat and carbide lamps. One time a Korean tried to jump on a train and was caught up in the wheels. His leg was split from thigh to ankle and one of the locals came to me and asked (in sign language of a sort) if I would bring my flashlight to the doctor’s office so he could see to work on the leg. My light was the brightest light in town! The doc could do very little for the poor fellow, so we stopped the next southbound, put him aboard and hoped he made it to a hospital. That was my first mincemeat case close up. Unfortunately there were to be many more.

The highlight of my time in Sindong was when we were finally issued winter boots with the felt insoles. What a difference that made to the tootsies.

When the front moved north, a squad was sent to Chonan, sometime in February, I think. That was the last I saw of headquarters and any of the officers. Somehow we ended up with a Lt Colonel as our squad leader. He was not from the 712th and was very tight lipped about his past. We could only assume that he had a very sorry record and was only allowed to command a very limited number of men. At that time our battalion commander was still a major. The colonel went to Pusan and came back with 3 coach cars, all with intact windows and operable doors. That was his accomplishment for the year. They had pot belly stoves and bunk bed frames which held our cots. One car was divided in half, one end was our office and the other end was the colonels’ quarters. We EMs had one car and one was used for an outfit from Georgia that was in the area. I have no idea what they were there for. To my knowledge they finished two projects. They made moonshine in used honey buckets (which were not used for honey), and after a month of that they plumbed in some much appreciated showers in one of the buildings in the rail yard. After months of helmet baths we were all anxious to try the shower which was about 8 feet square and sunken in the floor in the middle of the building with no privacy. We went one at a time to the shower and imagine my surprise when a Korean woman joined me. We found out later that it previously had been a communal shower for the railroad families.

When the Chinese started their spring counteroffensive just prior to May Day, most of the support outfits north of us headed south past us. Very comforting to see them go by. Around May Day the rumors were flying that the Commies were sending guerrillas south to harass the stations. We had heard of activity nearby but had never been bothered in Chonan. We always had about a hundred cars of ammo in the yard ready to move north. We were also a way station for the hospital trains. The rumors made us a bit nervous. On May Day Eve our fearless leader locked himself in his quarters with his weapons. The day shift decided to patrol the yards that night while the night shift did its normal work. After that night he was treated with nothing but contempt until he was finally transferred south. He had contributed next to nothing in daily operation except to make up signs which covered all the open wall space, and we were extremely glad to see him leave. As soon as he left the area I took down the signs. Of course, he had forgotten something and returned in a short time, Upon entering the car, he asked what happened to all his signs. I told him they all fell down.

After our leader’s departure we were left with no one above the rank of Pfc. at the Chonan RTO. I had been doing most of the contact work during the day via phone to other RTOs and headquarters. As the only one with some college education and no input from headquarters I was more or less elected squad leader. Afterwards, I liked to ‘say’ that a PFC, replaced a Lt. Colonel.

The Air Force Base at Kimpo, a few stations north of us followed their usual policy of ordering 3 months of supplies every month. The base was jammed and the stations south soon started to overflow with Air Force material. We got to the point where we were running out of room to switch the cars around, and it was creating big problems. I got on the horn and talked to several people at the base. After the usual runaround I ended up talking to a lieutenant and I was getting a bit tired of the nonsense. It got to the point where I was verbally raising cane with him when it suddenly dawned on me that if he were to find out that he was getting ‘chewed out’ by a PFC my rear end would be in a sling. I calmed down a bit and we got things somewhat settled.

We had no reliable transportation to obtain drinking water from a reservoir about 6 miles north of us. One day a salvage train going south stopped so we liberated a perfectly good jeep from its bindings. We took turns getting water from the reservoir as it gave us a chance to get away from the ‘office’ for a bit and also take a short swim. It didn’t take long to find out that about 25 mph was the only speed to drive on those dirt roads. Anything slower and you felt every bump. Anything much faster and you were in the ditch.

About mid-summer a train stopped and a Quonset hut kit was off loaded. I called headquarters to see when some people would come by to erect it. I was informed that we were on our own, but they very graciously informed me that they would send us an instruction sheet on how to assemble it. I got my first ever close up look of a Quonset hut after we erected it. Naturally, we had to make some changes such as windows we could open. Being a small group we had no mess facilities and mostly heated up C rations on the pot-belly stove. Occasionally we were ‘blessed’ with a change of diet by shipments of K rations.

Sometime that summer the Mayor (or Korean equivalent) stopped by the station and invited me to have dinner with his family that night at his house. Having a very blank social calendar I accepted. The evening’s entertainment was the family watching me trying to eat with chopsticks.

Speaking of entertainment, we never saw a USO show, PX or Red Cross representatives while I was there. One day a couple of locals did come by and put on a show for us. It consisted one fellow lying on the ground with a cement block atop his stomach and the second fellow smashing it with a sledge hammer. It was a very, very short show.

Upon seeing too many people getting chopped up by trains, I developed a healthy respect for the damage that a train wheel could do to the human body. I also saw how it could dehumanize a person. The Korean refugees, out of sheer desperation, were constantly trying to hop aboard moving trains for a ride south. Many of them were not successful. One day, while we were having our hamburger lunch, one of them got chopped up and we very calmly went out and picked up the body parts with one hand while holding (and eating) our hamburgers with the other hand. I’ll skip the more gruesome details.

I received my orders to rotate home on 29 October, 1951. We went to Sasebo, Japan for an overnight then back across the Pacific, a cross-country train trip to Indiantown Gap, PA and discharge on 8 December, 1951.

(Postscript)

My assignment to a railway battalion in 1950 had me baffled. During my first tour of duty (‘48-’49) I was in the 4th Regimental Combat Team with a 4745 MOS. It was advanced basic training over and over again. At the time, in 1950, when the infantry was getting slaughtered in Korea and they were sending cooks, clerks and the likes to fill in the front lines, the Army recalled me and assigned me to rail service. The only thing I knew about railroading was you got on a train at one station and left the train at another station. I was baffled but extremely thankful for the logic, as I came home upright, while a huge percentage of the troops in the 5th RCT in Korea came home in body bags.


On a cheerier note -
Seoul at Night 2005

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