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History of the 744th


BY GEORGE B. ABDILL reprinted from the Military Railway Service Journal- Jan 1959

The 744th Railway Operating Battalion, sponsored by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, was activated II December 1943 and sent to Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Tex., for basic training. The unit was commanded by Lt. Col. Walter J. Hotchkiss, a Milwaukee Road Division Superintendent. His staff contained a number of able civilian railroaders, sparked by Major James D. Shea. In March, 1944, the battalion was moved to Fort Snelling. Minn., where the technical training of the soldier-railroaders began. The men were given practical experience on the lines of the Milwaukee Road and trained in the skills necessary to operate a railroad division.

Upon completion of technical training, the 744th was sent to Camp Shanks for processing and left New York early in August on the M.V. "JOHN ERICCSON," formerly the liner "KUNGSHOLM" After two weeks at sea in a large convoy, the unit landed at Liverpool, England, on 24 August 1944. The troops were entrained at dockside and hauled to Southampton, where they were held for several days. Boarding the old S.S. "NEURALIA," the outfit was landed on Omaha Beach, on the Normandy coast of France on 28 August 1944. Following a night truck movement, "C" Company was established at Folligny and went to work immediately, running trains east to LeMans. Headquarters were established at Vire, and later moved to Argentan. Shop and track forces found a great deal of work awaiting them, and the operating crews were often out on the road with their trains for 70 and 80 hours straight on duty. The ravages of war had left the S.N.C.F. lines in a battered condition. Coal was handled manually, and water at several points was supplied to locomotives by pumping plants set up along the banks of streams and creeks. The train and engine crews operated over the adjoining districts of other battalions, running to such places as Cherbourg, St. Lo, Caen, Mezidon, Mayenne, Rennes, Del, etc. The battalion worked day and night to break up the congestion of traffic in the Normandy Peninsula, earning the nickname, "Queuebusters."

In October, 1944, the unit set a record when they handled 71,724 train miles, moving freight, hospital, troop, and prisoner-of-war trains. These movements were made under extremely difficult conditions, with trains hauled by the hand-fired G. I., 2-8-0 type engines, running blacked-out, over poor track and steep grades. Early in December, 1944, the battalion was moved north to Belgium, with headquarters established at Charleroi. Here the various units were dispersed to outlying terminals, and Phase II operations began, running in connection with the Belgian railroaders. Crews operated north to Brussels, to Mons, and east to Namur, Ronet, and Liege. A number of "C" Company crews were detached to Antwerp to relieve the congestion at that port area. These crews were subjected to bombardment by the German rockets and V-1's. While in Belgium, several crews were strafed by German aircraft but none injured.

The battalion was saddened in January, 1945, by the death of 1st Lt Foster J. Phillips of "C" Co., killed in a head-on train collision near the French border terminal of Aulnoye. Several members of the 744th were surrounded by the Germans during the break-through in the Ardennes, but all escaped without injury. While operating out of Charleroi, 744th crews handled the famous "Toot Sweet" express, high-priority supply train between St. Martins and Liege. In addition to the regular G. 1. engines, the crews operated a large number of British "Austerity" type 2-8-0 coal-burners in France and Belgium. Crews also were taken to the channel port of Calais to move new locomotives ferried from England to the shops in Belgium. The 744th operations were singularly free from serious train accidents, but one accident occurred in I Belgium that is worth recording.

On February 16, 1945, Engineer BenTate and Fireman Clarence Chandler were switching a POL dump at Gillet with an Army 0-6-0 switch engine. Against Tate's desire an officer in charge of the dump ordered him to pull out over the summit of a Grade that led from this depot down a steep hill to the main line. The steam jam brake on the engine would not hold the heavy train, and the speed began to increase as the train rolled down-grade. Tate and Chandler stuck with their engine until it faced another locomotive standing in the yards at Chatlineau-Chatelet, jumping just before the crash. The cargo of gasoline on Tate's train caught fire, destroying 14 cars, the 0-6-0 yard engine, and causing 75 per cent damage to a new diesel locomotive standing near the scene of the crash. Exploding cans of gasoline were rocketing through the air, but Engineer Edward Porter managed to uncouple the undamaged remainder of the runaway gas train and pulled about 23 cars of gas to safety. Thus preventing more loss and damage. Porter was awarded the Soldier's Medal for his action in braving the burning barrage of Jerry cans.

Late in May, 1945, a detachment of "C" Company operating crews was sent to Bonn, Germany, to aid the 740th R.O.B. in a rush of train movements that followed the end of the war. This detachment was in charge of Ltís. Hankins and Guisinger. Shortly after the detachment began running out of Bonn, Brakeman Eugene Kolasinski had the misfortune to fall while boarding a moving engine, resulting in the loss of his right foot. About this same time, the outfit was saddened by the death of Fireman Leon R. "Lee" Barter, killed when struck by a train while walking through the yards in Brussels. On June 22nd, tragedy again struck the 744th detachment near Bonn. A freight engine derailed near Rheinbach, killing Fireman Frank Hosterman and injuring Engineer Hugh Loughan. While on detached service with the 740th R.O.B., a 744th crew inaugurated the "Burpee Bullet," reputedly the first M. R. S. passenger train to operate on a schedule in Germany. The initial run was made on 3 June 1945, with U. S. A. engine number 2120 and 12 coaches. The crew consisted of Conductor Donald F. Wile, Engineer George B. Abdill, Fireman James D. Castle, and Flagman Richard E. Smith.

After the war ended, the battalion moved large quantities of military supplies, and handled many trains of redeploying troops, as well as trains of displaced persons and Prisoners Of War. As traffic lightened, the troops found a bit of spare time and began to publish a battalion newspaper, which was called the "Cheminot" which was French for "The Railroader." The battalion also organized a baseball team -that racked up an impressive series of wins against other M. R. S. units. On 12 September 1945, the 744th held a full dress parade at Montiginies, following which Lt. M. P. O'Loughlin, the Chief Dispatcher of the 744th, was awarded the Bronze Star. Later in September, the men of the 744th began to return home under the point system, and a number were transferred to other railroad units in Germany for further duty. Capt. Wm. I Winfree, "C" Com- pany Commander and a veteran of the North African campaign, was rotated home and his place was taken by Lt. Wm. T. Hankins. Major J. D. Shea also left the 744th and was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and given command of another railway operating battalion. The 744th served with distinction in France, Belgium, and Ger- many. The unit was awarded three battle stars for the campaigns in Northern France, the Ardennes, and the Rhineland. The men of all the companies of the battalion worked long and hard, with an esprit de corps that was outstanding. Track gangs and shop forces toiled to repair track and equipment, while the cooks, telegraphers, and other Headquarters Company personnel devoted themselves to their various duties. Train and engine crews, faced with difficult operating conditions, did a highly commendable job of moving the trains. Since returning to the States, the men of the 744th have formed a Re-union Association, and once each year assemble to renew old acquaintances and live over the adventurous days in the E.T.O.

The Reunion Association was formed in 1947 and began as a "C" Company reunion, but ,was later enlarged to include the entire battalion. The initial group was the result of the work of one man, P.F.C. Herbert Bonow. He conceived the idea of having a reunion, contacted the men by mail, and undertook all the arrangements for the first affair, which was held in Minneapolis, Minn. The reunion proved so popular that it was made an annual affair, being held in various cities throughout the Midwest and East. Father Time has already thinned the ranks, but the old 744th will always hold cherished memories for the men who served under her colors in World War II.

George B. Abdill lives at Roseburg, Ore., and is a locomotive engineer with the Southern Pacific. He served as a T/4 with the 744th Railway Operating Battalion during World War II. Abdill is the author of a new book, "This Was Railroading," pub- lished by the Superior Publishing Company of Seattle, Wash, it is a pictorial history of early railroading in the Pacific Northwest, with about 500 photographs reproduced in it