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 borderall 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
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
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 perimeterin some stretches much too close
The trains pushed two gondola cars ahead of themthe 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
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-flya
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
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 Serviceamong 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 outand 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 refugeesa constant problem
wherever the railroaders wentwho 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
3. "We must improve our techniques of dealing
with local populationstry 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.
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