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A train wreck waiting to happen.

My uncle, army Technical Sergeant Joe Williams, was sent west to Ie Shima, near Okinawa, only six weeks before the Japanese surrender, after spending the entire war in a special motorized unit that tested and maintained equipment for the army. He was put on a troop train at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, in June '45. His route took him through New Orleans to Los Angeles, and up the Pacific coast to Seattle, to board the transport to Ie Shima.

Somewhere out in Texas, he was given guard duty in the late afternoon and posted on a flatcar where his unit's equipment, trucks, trailers, etc., were loaded, ahead of the passenger cars. They rode on old open-section Pullman cars. He said the train had dragged along at 25-30 miles per hour most of the way out of New Orleans, but as dusk fell they speeded up sharply.

The flatcar held two big heavy trucks, and began to really bounce and rock as the engineer opened up the throttle, hitting maybe 50 or 55 miles per hour. My uncle looked up toward the first few cars and saw sparks flying out from under a car, and knew it was a "hotbox." The brass bearing on the end of the axle had become worn or had not been packed and oiled recently to hold down the friction, which had now set the cotton packing on fire. He knew that if the crew didn't stop and repack or oil the bearing, it would overheat and the axle would crack or break, causing a major wreck.

Uncle Joe kept watching and waiting, expecting the railroad men to stop and fix the problem, but they didn't. It got darker and the sparks led to flames rolling out under that car. The train seemed to be going faster, because his car was bouncing and yawing even more! He began to panic as the flames rolled out of that hotbox; he knew what would happen at any moment. So, he climbed up into the cab of the truck, thinking he would have some protection in the pileup he expected to happen, rather than be thrown off the flatcar and have the trucks and his car land on top of him!

It seemed like hours had passed. Then Uncle Joe felt the brakes go on, and the train stopped. He could see men coming back from the engine with lanterns. They pulled the blazing packing out of the journal box, jacked up the axle, put in a new brass bearing, and returned to the engine and rolled on again. He had had a brush with death, even before he left the States!

George Rieves

Jackson, Tennessee

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Title Annotation:WAR STORIES: A WWII Scrapbook
Author:Rieves, George
Publication:America in WWII
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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