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Korean War: choo-choos in chosen.

This column has often dealt with the difficulties and perils of road travel in Korea, including supply and casualty evacuation. (In many cases the term "Road" is loosely used.) The discomforts of sea travel aboard U.S. military transports and Landing Ships (Tanks) have also been featured.

So far I have neglected one vital component of the transportation system -- the Korean railroads. These sometimes tenuous links between Pusan and other ports, and the forward areas, played a vital role in the Korean War.

The heavy "coming and going" fighting during the first year of the war took a toll on an already inadequate railroad system on both sides of the 38th Parallel.

At the start of the war virtually all of the locomotives in Korea were steam-powered, most of them of Russian design and reminiscent of the turn of the century. Many of these were destroyed by mines, artillery, sabotage, air strikes and in the case of North Korea, by naval gunfire. The Royal Canadian Navy in particular established a reputation in the "Trainbusters Club." HMCS Crusader established a record in destroying enemy supply trains on the coastal railways, earning the code word "Casey Jones" in recognition.

The South Korean railways, too, lost many locomotives -- indeed bullet and shell-riddled trains lying off the embankments were so common that after a time they attracted little attention from the troops moving up into the line.

It was there that most of us made our first aquaintance with the South Korean railroads. After disembarking at Pusan, we were trucked to the train station. This shattered cavernous structure was a scene of disorder. While U.S. Red Cross ladies distributed coffee and doughnuts, harried Rail Transport Officers attempted to assemble the heavily-laden soldier on the right platforms and ultimately on the right trains. The confusion was compounded by many "unattached" multilingual individual servicemen and hosts of Korean refugees, who had arrived from the north and now had nowhere to go and no means of support, save whatever food or other items they could beg from the troops.

Eventually the train arrived -- usually in the early days it was pulled by one or two ancient-looking locomotives, leaking steam from several places. The engine crew were Koreans -- despite calumnious rumours that sometimes they would refuse to drive north and had to be replaced by UN drivers, I have yet to hear of this actually happening. Meanwhile the troops would be assigned to "passenger cars."

Mike White, a former Gunner, describes the scene:

The train, when it arrived, reminded me of one of the old wood-burners of the Wild West which Jesse James used to hold up. We were seated in pairs, facing each other, on carriage seats that were wooden slats, with our bags (of which we had two) piled high down the gangways and everyone clambering over them when leaving the compartment.

The "dining car" consisted of an M-37 field cooker, on which two large vats of water were boiling. One contained heated C-ration cans, the other we used to make our instant coffee. Meals were handed out haphazardly, and a great deal of swapping took place (few of us liked the ground meat and spaghetti).

Most of us spent the trip reading, playing cards or trying with little or no success to sleep. Until the novelty wore off, we got a kick out of receiving a "present arms" from the R.O.K. sentries who were posted on every roll bridge -- a necessary precaution as guerrillas were still active. Many of our younger troops who had not seen the effects of war before were sobered by the sight of wrecked locomotives and rolling stock in sidings or off the track, as well as the stations that we passed through. The Pusan-Seoul trip could take between 15 and 24 hours -- 50 years later I did the reverse trip in under four hours, in much more comfortable conditions.

Needless to say, moving people was only one function of the railroads. Ammunition, equipment, supplies and rations all had to be shipped to the railheads for onward distribution to units by truck. The Commonwealth railhead at Tokchong was a small city in itself: Not only were the supply depots there, but the great morale-booster, the NAAFI, had a warehouse where thousands of cases of "Asahi" beer were stored along with other potables and the many canteen goodies sold by that institution. Local Koreans, conscripted for labour, mingled with hopeful soldiers trying (usually unsuccessfully), to obtain bootleg hooch from the NAAFI staff.

It was obvious that the limited resources of South Korea's railway system could not meet the needs of the forward troops, and the U.S. Army Transportation Corps was quick to provide reinforcement and control. A Military Rail Service platoon moved in early in the war -- this was later augmented to two Rail Service Battalions, the 712th and 714th.

These hardworking troops carried out a multitude of duties, from driving the locomotives to freight handling. (One officer of the U.S. Korean War Veterans Association served as both a locomotive engineer and troop passenger train commander.) In addition, members of the rail battalions, as well as military police detachments and occasionally "volunteered" line troops, had the important and often dangerous task of guarding critical and valuable cargo. On several occasions, the exacting work of the railroaders in rapidly forward-loading essential ammunition supplies proved crucial during the heavy defensive battles of the last two years of the war.

Besides the expertise and personnel, the U.S. not only brought in a Railway Shop Battalion, which restored and repaired damaged locomotives and rolling stock, but shipped over a number of 1600-HP General Motors diesel locomotives to augment the Korean equipment. Some problems were encountered as there were a number of different railroad guages on the Korean peninsula. Understandably too, the rail beds were in poor condition following the battles which had raged in their areas it was necessary for these to be fixed.

However, by the time of the cease fire, the railways were running fairly well. The same cannot be said of North Korea, whose trains were under constant attack by naval vessels and allied aircraft. Their antiquated locomotives were forced to rely on poor-quality coal.

In addition to the diesel and steam locomotives used in the south, a number of "adaptations" were introduced. I remember seeing a passenger bus fitted with rail wheels and used as a sort of ambulance -- it would no doubt have been far more comfortable than the usual Dodge 3/4 ton ambulance backloading casualties via the bumpy and pot-holed Main Supply Route. Trucks and jeeps were similarly adapted -- the latter proved invaluable for anti-guerrilla security patrols.

South Korea recognized the value of their railroad workers. When the Korean War Service Medal was instituted by President Rhee in 1951, in addition to military and para-military police personnel one of the qualifying categories was "railroad employee or sailor who transported army." Whatever we may think of our "cattle car" trips to the front line, I'm sure that most of us would agree that they deserved it.
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Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Jul 1, 2001
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