Ex-CBI Roundup
July 1987 Issue

A Short History of the 721st Railway Operating Battalion

By Edward J. Venter

The 721st Railway Operating Battalion was activated at Camp Haranan, New Orleans, Louisiana, on April 14, 1943. The unit was composed of men from replacement companies, reception centers, a cadre from another battalion and reservists of the New York Central system, whiph sponsored the battalion. While at (Pamp Haranan for six weeks, the men underwent a rigorous physical training program, learned to march, hurdle obstacle courses, roll full field packs, fire a gun and become indoctrinated in army discipline, rules and regulations.

The battalion next moved to Camp pushing located on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas, and bordering the South Pacific Railroad tracks. A program of physical training, manual of arms, extended and close order drill soon molded the raw recruit into a soldier proud of his physical fitness and coordination. Here the men actually went to work shoulder to shoulder with the workers of the Southern Pacific, developing their skills as trainmen, engineers, carmen, telegraphers, trackmen and mechanics. Three months of this technical training helped the soldier-railroader become accustomed to his dual role and prepare for the real job ahead. There was also time for further military training, such as hiking, mimic warfare, passing through gassed areas, attending map reading and first aid lectures.

On the first of November 1943, the battalion, moved on to Camp Atterbury, Indiana, for final processing before departure overseas. Clothes and equipment were checked, innoculations administered for prevention of typhus and cholera, and records checked. To keep the men in good condition, a program of exercises, close-order drill, and hikes made up a good share of the daily routine.

During the last week in November 1943, the battalion entrained for "destination unknown." The trip was very enjoyable and picturesque through Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and finally into Anza, California. Travel was by Pullmen with delicious meals served to the men while in their seats.

The stay in sunny California was of a week's duration. Carbines and pistols were checked, gas masks were inspected, and clothing re-issued where necessary. All personnel received instruction in climbing cargo nets hanging from the side of a mock vessel. Everyone prayed that this practice would not be put to use while at sea.

During the early morning hours of December 9, 1943, the battalion moved onto a waiting train for a short ride to the San Pedro harbor where the Mariposa was berthed waiting for the troops to embark for the overseas trip. The sea journey was made without escort or protection in a zig-zag manner as a precaution against any enemy submarine, with gun crews at their stations during the entire trip.

On the seventeenth day at sea, the Mariposa steamed into the harbor of Hobart, located on the beautiful island of Tasmania, off the southeast coast of Australia. While here the ship refueled and replenished the water supply. As the Mariposa started the last lap of her journey, the sealed orders were opened and literature was distributed to every man aboard describing India, its language and customs. The sea journey was completed on the 31st day after leaving the United States as the city of Bombay loomed on the horizon.

The Indians presented a strange picture to the eyes of the soldier-railroader. The usual apparel was merely yards of cloth wound around their bodies, which in most cases lacked cleanliness. The stench of filth was everywhere as sanitary practices were unknown in this country of ignorance and poverty.

On disembarking from the ship, the men were loaded onto third class railroad coaches comparable to a stateside box-car with windows and wooden benches, already filled with roaches, flies and other insects. The train journey lasted five consecutive days, with rations furnished by the British consisting of uncooked bacon, biscuits (dry and hard), orange marmalade, tea, with some bully beef and herring. After a few hours stop at Calcutta to fuel the engine, the long train journey was terminated on arrival at Parbatipur located in the Province of Bengal.

Parbatipur was the junction point for the metre and broad gauge track. Here the war supplies and materials were unloaded from the broad gauge cars onto the metre gauge cars for the trip to Ledo, then flown over the Hump or convoyed over the Ledo Road to China, The men lived in barracks constructed by inter-weaving bamboo strips and the roof made of grass tied to a bamboo mat. The camp was located along the Bengal and Assam Railroad.

The soldier-railroaders were immediately put to work using their civilian experience and army training in worthwhile application by assuming control of convoying war materials and personnel. Men went to work as train dispatchers, station masters, car repairmen, engineers, trainmen, trackmen and bridge-men. The task of administration, feeding, clothing and transporting the G.I.s required the services of many soldiers. Immediate repairs to the equipment and roadbed resulted in a sharp increase in the tonnage of material transported. New tracks were constructed to accommodate the increase in traffic. American methods of transportation further increased the loads transhipped and rushed over the rails to Ledo.

On March 27, 1944, a fire broke out on one of the basha roofs. Fanned by a strong windstorm, the flames spread quickly and destroyed 25 out of the 27 bashas housing the battalion. Clothes, food supplies, arms, personal belongings and Battalion records were burned. However, tents, clothing and food were rushed from Calcutta and the crisis was alleviated immediately. During the spring of 1944, the Allies were pushing the Japs down from Northern Burma. However, the enemy did succeed in crossing the Burma border and imperil the Bengal and Assam Railroad life-line, but a successful offensive by the Allies spelled disaster for the Japs.

Despite extreme heat which caused heat rash and dysentery, the men worked long hours to ensure that the heavy tonnage continued on its way into China. The monsoon season caused heavy damage to the equipment and road-beds, but this did not stop the steady stream of supplies. A well-needed rest of two weeks at Darjeeling was given to the men about this time. This army rest camp, 8,000 feet high in the Himalayan Mountains had plenty of good food and recreation. About this time a recreation hall, post exchange and theater were constructed at the main camp. This tended to keep the high morale of the troops. Also a number of USO shows came through and entertained the men.

On May 8, 1945, the good news that Germany had accepted the surrender terms brought cheer to the soldier-railroader, but at the same time the realization that the war-fare in our theater would be increased. The men, equipment and track facilities were well prepared to meet all requirements.

Increased offensives carried our naval and air forces to the shores of Japan, resulting in an unconditional surrender. Immediately, plans were formulated to return the operation of the Bengal and Assam Railroad to the natives. This became a reality on September 30, 1945. The General Patrick left Calcutta, India, on October 19, 1945. The boat, General Stewart, followed a week later. Each of these ships brought some of the members of the 721st Railway Operating Battalion happily homeward, with the realization that they had carried out their assignment in India for 22 months in a commendable manner.

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