Railway Progress, February, 1952
BUILD 'EM UP -- BLOW 'EM UP
BY SIDNEY A. LEVY
TO THE sweating crews of Transportation Corps soldiers and United States Army Engineers rebuilding the southern end of the bombed-out railroad bridge across the Taedong in North Korea, it didn't seem at all strange that another crew at the opposite end was tamping dynamite charges under the ties.
Back of the demolition men lay Pyongyang, capital of North Korea, and several miles beyond that, the combat line. Behind the construction crew lay several hundred miles of Korean National Railroad, which ended at their feet.
Now, in early November, 1950, the Allies were close to the Manchurian border. The Third Transportation Military Railroad Service, a three-battalion Transportation Corps outfit which by then constituted the sole customer of the KNR, had to rebuild that bridge to keep up with the advance.
The Third had made a good start when the Chinese Communists came into the war. Then the bad news came down from headquarters: the UN was heading south again, with hordes of Chinese at its heels, and the bridge had to go.
The men wasted a few heartfelt cusswords on the frozen Korean countryside, loaded what they could onto their cars, and left as their recent handiwork arched gracefully into the gray sky in a cloud of smoke and dust.
It was no new experience for the Eighth Army's railroaders. They bad retreated hastily down the peninsula from Seoul once that year, blowing up track and equipment as they went, and once they had worked their way northward over the same roadbed, rebuilding and relaying as they went.
So far the UN railroaders have gone through that down-and-up progression twice. It has been a nightmare existence, a bit like twice having to burn your house down and rebuild it-with the neighbors shooting at you.
The Japanese Army had made the Korean National Railroad the finest in the Far East. Roadbeds were well-graded and ballasted, and the 3,500 miles of standard gauge track, roughly half of it in the South, and 400 of narrow gauge were sound. The murderous terrain demanded a lot of bridge and tunnel work-but the structures were strong, and the Japanese had laid up spare parts for many of them at nearby stations.
When the North Koreans struck, the KNR in the Republic of Korea had some 300 steam locomotives on hand —most of them serviceable, although many were well past retirement age and some 6,000 cars of all types. This was the system Col. E. C. R. Lasher, the Eighth Army's chief of transportation, and his men fell back on for the major supply and evacuation job.
During the early weeks of the war, there was only one-way traffic on the South Korean half of the 600-mile double-tracked mainline from Pusan to the Manchurian border—all of it headed north. The deadheads coming south had to leapfrog from siding to siding as best they could.
In the confusion of a war for which they weren't prepared, the few Transportation Corps men on hand did their best; but plenty went wrong.
A few stations south of Taegu, there's a long steep grade with a wrecked village at the foot of it. Those ruins mark the final resting place of four trains that went skyward, along with a sizable chunk of South Korean terrain, when one of the four-loaded to the bulkheads with ammunition failed to make the top of the hill and rolled back into the three that were waiting for it to clear.
The railway battalions threw a shoofly around the crater, crossed the town off their maps and started hauling northward again.
Their job was really several jobs wrapped up in one: supply of men and material northward, evacuation southward as the UN's hold shrank down the peninsula, maintenance of a terribly mistreated roadbed, and construction where maintenance was out of the question.
Meanwhile, the hauls northward were growing shorter; before Fall the KNR had become a shortline railroad. Its mission now was helping defend the UN foothold at the tip of Korea. From Pusan the mainline wriggled up through the hills seventy miles to Taegu. Past there it disappeared into Communist territory. The outermost reaches of the rail net made up of this and a few branch lines paralleled the UN perimeter—in some stretches much too close for comfort.
The trains pushed two gondola cars ahead of them—the first sandbagged and ballasted for mines, the second sandbagged and loaded with riflemen and machine gunners. Another armed gondola trailed behind the caboose.
At ten miles per hour, those trains were ducks in a mammoth shooting gallery. The fact that the ducks could shoot back didn't make things much more comfortable. "Service was naturally interrupted" is the way Col. Lasher puts it.
During those perimeter days, the KNR was used to a greater tactical extent than any railroad since the Civil War.
At one particularly critical point, for example, the Third Military Railroad Service was able to transport the entire 25th Infantry Division 100 miles in twenty-four hours to bolster a weak point on the perimeter. The KNR really proved itself as an offensive weapon, however, when the UN attack began with the Inchon landing in September. For the next several weeks, as the Eighth Army rushed north to link up with the X Corps at Seoul, the railroaders were frantically rebuilding their trackage and supplying the advance with men and materiel at the same time.
Within a month, the railroaders were operating a single track into Seoul.
Seoul, once a city of nearly two million, had been the country's main rail hub and the center of Korea's richest farming area. From its extensive yards several branch lines looped off to the coasts. When the Third MRS got there, Seoul and its yards were a flaming ruin. Of the three rail bridges across the mile-wide Han, none was usable; each had at least three spans down. Across the river, track lay twisted in bomb craters. Fire had levelled many of the shops, roundhouses and other buildings.
The Third went to work first on the Han. Using pre-fab steel flown in from Japan, the Engineers threw up their shoo-fly—a crazy structure that snaked across on the pilings of the old bridges at an overall grade of 3 per cent. To the trainmen waiting on the south bank, though, it was beautiful. Supplies from Pusan began pouring across.
As the Eighth Army neared the parallel, the Transportation Corps men got an unexpected gift of time. The advance halted while the UN, back in New York, wrangled over whether to authorize a continued advance. That gave the railroaders a badly needed chance to catch up.
When the decision came, they had got their track beyond Seoul, but from there on the UN's advance moved so quickly that the combat troops soon outran their supply. That posed the immediate threat of stalling the advance —a necessity which mothered the invention by the Eighth Army's Transportation section of the "aerial port." Into two hastily repaired airstrips near Pyongyang the Troop Carrier Command flew supplies and men. The planes taxied off the runways into unloading areas where their cargo was tossed onto trucks which carried the supplies forward. Where they stopped, human pack trains took over.
The railroad fed this system on its round-the-clock service from the ports of Pusan and Inchon. Over a crucial period of about three weeks some 1,200 tons a day were moved forward.
It may be difficult now to recall clearly the exhilarating feeling of those early Fall days in 1950, when the UN was chasing the enemy back across the Yalu and the war was going to be over by Christmas. But the men of the Transportation Corps will never forget what happened after it became clear that the Communist Chinese had come all the way into the fighting and that the UN line was crumbling before them. Then began one of the strangest, wildest rail operations of any war.
Only a week or two before, the UN forces had been pumping supplies forward by the trainload. Now the huge stockpiles had to be rescued. The Third MRS tore into them. At Pyongyang, supplies were thrown back onto the same trains from which they had just been unloaded. As fast as empties could be brought in, they were loaded with stuff at hand and slammed back out.
The heat was on all down the line; up ahead, the UN retreat was turning into a rout, and thousands of tons of vital supplies were in immediate danger. Every available locomotive, including some that should have been retired years before, was pressed into service. The back shops at Pusan and the heavy shops in Japan rushed out everything they could patch up, some with wooden plugs jammed into the bullet holes in their boilers.
Across the river from Pyongyang was a freight yard; the UN had made an ammunition dump of the suburb beside it. Ammunition cases lined most of the streets in stacks as high as a man could reach. A British lorry took a wrong turn in the darkness and, as it groped along the stacks, its exhaust backfired. The truck burst into flame and an instant later blew the entire block to kingdom-come.
The blast tore up a good bit of priceless KNR track, and left six equally priceless locomotives stranded. Then Red mortar and artillery fire was falling on the yards, and the order came to blow the bridge across the Taedong.
The Last Train
The last train brought out the rear guard of the Third Military Railroad Service—among the last UN soldiers to go. At Seoul, meanwhile, new forward supply dumps were set up, and the trains shuttled between them and northern storage points behind the fast retreating UN line. By early December, it was obvious that Seoul would have to be cleared out—and it was up to the railroaders again.
To make things worse, several hundred loads of supplies stranded at Inchon had to be hauled in for shipment south, swelling the already flood-crest traffic at Seoul. Both mainline tracks to Pusan again were put onto one-way traffic. Experienced non-coms, most of them veteran railroaders and tough enough to say "no" to the brass down the line, were stationed at the serviceable sidings with orders to see that the loaded trains got through to designated unloading points and that the empty train somehow got back.
The deadheads slipped back in packs of three or four; locomotives ran out of water and had to be abandoned, after a dynamite blast through the cylinder. At Seoul, loaded cars soon were backed up by the hundreds. Red strafing attacks added to a confusion already made calamitous by the thousands of refugees—a constant problem wherever the railroaders went—who swarmed into the yards fighting for a handhold on an outbound car.
Well before Christmas, enemy artillery fire was laying into the icy rail yards. When mortar shells came in, too, it was time to scram. Col. Jesse McLellan, a veteran of forty-odd years on the Atlantic Coast Line and then chief rail transportation officer on Col. Lasher's staff, ordered his men to make up one last train. It included work cars, two demolition cars, and two more for the rear guard. As it moved south, the demolition train rolled up the KNR behind it.
Below Seoul, designated holdout lines thrown up at important supply bases wavered and broke, one by one. Each time the railroaders took a last grim look at the piles of equipment they had to leave behind, blew their dynamite charges and took off. The supply loss had become critical when General Ridgway ordered the Eighth Army to hold at all costs a final line before Suwon to give the Transportation Corps men time to clear that supply point, where much of the materiel evacuated from Seoul had been tossed off. As the muscle-searing evacuation job neared completion, though, Ridgway made a heartening discovery: the line was really holding!
It was there, in the late winter, that the UN's retreat finally halted, and the march back to the 38th Parallel began again. With it came the old routine of repair and reconstruction along a right of way already rebuilt once and destroyed twice over.
How well the job was done is indicated by the fact that a virtually complete rail net has been restored in South Korea. That net, following the old KNR roadbed, extends almost as far as it did in June, 1950. The Third MRS is running double-track service to Munsan, on the Imjin River only a few miles below the 38th.
Patched and Battered
Whether its Japanese builders would recognize the KNR today is questionable. The route is the same, but the railroad is considerably the worse for wear. Its patched and battered rolling stock has been augmented by units never seen before in the Far East. Beside the sixty-five streamlined, air-conditioned hospital cars brought over in August, 1950, there are thirty-five diesel-electric locomotives, in from the States last summer, and a number of fairly modern steam locomotives from Japan.
While the United States has been exporting railroad equipment and men to Korea, it has been importing invaluable railroad know-how, too. The focal point in this transaction is the Army's Transportation School at Fort Eustis, Virginia. Overseeing the school now as its assistant commandant is Colonel Lasher, a six-foot package of Korean railroading experience. A lanky, affable West Pointer, Class of '29, Lasher came back early last Fall to teach at Eustis the lessons learned the hard way in Korea.
The Diesel Weapon
This is how he summarizes a few of them:
1. The diesel locomotive is a superb weapon of warfare. "Its superiority for once and always was impressed on me," he says. "Every ton of coal we had to haul for those old teakettles was so much less space for military payload. . . . It took ten to twelve trainloads of coal a day for our rail operations in South Korea alone. For a diesel operation, it would have taken hardly more than that number of cars a day for fuel. . . . We experienced a tremendous loss of locomotives because of water shortages. I'm sold on the diesel from a military standpoint."
2. "In any foreign land we must depend on local industry for most of our rail transportation. We couldn't have done the job by ourselves in Korea. We left the KNR in the hands of its government managers, and paid a flat mileage rate for everything. Of course, we checked the rate every week or so; it just met expenses-no profit. . . . The Korean crews weren't of the best; certainly they don't yet measure up to our standards. But they were willing to take as great chances as our own men, which they did every day."
3. "We must improve our techniques of dealing with local populations—try to know them and their methods, not impose ourselves and our methods on them. You can't drive 'em, because they aren't going to be pushed. That's particularly true of the Koreans, who reacted excellently to suggestion and persuasion, but little to the slave-driver technique."
4. American equipment? "It's all right. Our equipment didn't need any major modifications for combat. Almost all military needs for equipment can be filled from the standard catalogue of the American car builder."
And as for the KNR itself—"There's no question that the railroad saved our necks," Lasher says