Return to the Lounge Car

World War II's Biggest Troop Movement

By Bill Wall

Text 1997 by the Author

Reprinted with permission from the Third Armored Division Association Newletter.
Images from old Pullman advertisments from the collection of Daniel Dawdy


World War II's Biggest Troop Movement

by Bill Wall

Following is the story of our move to the desert in June and July 1942.

I arrived at Camp Polk, Louisiana, in early April 1942 as Transportation Officer. I was requested by the division to coordinate moving equipment, particularly from Camp Polk to the Mojave Desert in California.

The first order of business was working with Arkins to determine exactly how much equipment was within the division. We had to identify the number of trucks; 2 ton trucks, jeeps, tanks, and every size. We needed to know the exact specifications of each vehicle, i.e., how many trucks had winches so we could determine exact length. This was critical information. A 2 ton truck without a winch was 21 feet but with a winch it was 22 feet. Tanks (Shermans and Grants) were all different weights. We kept very exact orders regarding the equipment needed to make this move.

When we determined the exact equipment to be moved 1,600 flat cars were ordered. Hopefully most of the train cars would be approximately 40-50 feet long.

The railroad had a lot of problems moving troops around the country.

I remember right after Pearl Harbor was attacked the west coast army football team, which was heading toward Moffit field, was playing the University of Washington in Seattle, when they were ordered to report for duty immediately. It took them about four days to get from Washington because of the problems with the railroad. This trip normally took 24 hours.

Gathering all these train cars, the 800 Pullmans, 1,600 flat cars, and 200 box cars wouldn't be too hard. Getting all that together with 200 baggage cars would be quite a chore for the railroad. The Sante Fe and the Southern Pacific railroads were the leaders, even though other railroads were involved, they were not as large. The Texas Pacific, Tennessee, and Southern Railroads were all involved, but not as much as the Santa Fe.

Many of these train cars were stored on spurs all over the country, some in the Louisiana area. When the train cars arrived, there was brush growing on the decks; they were in horrible shape. So the Santa Fe and the Southern Pacific brought in work crews and supplies and wood for the decks in order to get these cars in shape. They brought equipment with them to raise the decks of the cars off the trucks, grease them, replace springs. Sometimes decks had to be replaced. They did a lot of work in order that we could get this equipment and get our troops moved to the desert. This was a massive job for the railroads.

At that time the Government was about to take over all the railroads in the United States because of this mess. The railroads had not driven anything in six months so they were kind of jittery. They wanted to go a good job since this was the first major move.

The Southern Pacific assigned one of the top operational officers to work with us. He took a kitchen car for himself and some of the people who were working on the railroad and the spurs around Camp Polk. There must have been approximately two hundred men near DeRidder. They had kitchen and sleeping areas for the crews. They were really trying to do a good job. They knew we would be making daily reports to Washington noting their progress. The railroad were very, very careful to do everything we wanted. The Santa Fe even had cafeterias set up on their system. Some were near the railroad station in various towns. I was given a pass so that I could eat in any of them. I made out the reports, but don't know who signed them. I did give them good reports because they tried so hard to please us. But you can imagine bringing in all that equipment. As I told you in the beginning, it was the biggest move during World War II of any one unit.

At that time we had to go to Washington to get "main" numbers. These numbers gave you the route you were to follow and the originating carrier - Santa Fe, Texas Pacific or Kansas City Southern. There were probably a dozen routes. Time was very important because the trains were supposed to be at certain points at certain times on certain days, otherwise the whole railroad would have been messed up.

The last thing they wanted the government to do was take control of the railroad so this is one reason why we received such great help from the railroad's civilians. They had more people down there in executive positions than workers. They were always running around making sure that everything was going right.

We ordered 800 "Pullman" cars. A "Pullman" could carry 39 soldiers. Two soldiers could be put on a lower bunk and one on the top bunk. There were some instances when these cars did not have an upper bunk (perhaps it had been broken or removed).

Many cars were compartmentalized, such as the "Park" cars. A "Park" car was a very fancy car with about seven state rooms. These cars were saved for the higher ranking officers or other important people. However, if we wanted to `get rid' of an officer who was bothering us we would send him on one of the first trains. I remember very well getting rid of the colonel from the 23rd Engineers. He was very demanding and wanted certain equipment for certain places. So we got rid of him in a hurry.

We also had to order blocks to put under the tank tracks and the truck wheels. We ordered approximately 16,000 blocks which had to be made up and brought in. They were made from swamp wood, perhaps Cypress, which was very heavy. Each block weighed about 30 pounds because it was still green. They were approximately 8" wide x 12" high x 24" long. The block ends were cut at different angles; 90 degrees on one end for wheeled vehicles and 60 degrees on the other end for track vehicles. Tanks, however, used one end of each block. In other words, the 60 degree angle block was used for the front track and the 90 degree angle block was used for the rear track.

We also ordered thousands and thousands of feet of a heavy gauge wire, perhaps 18 gauge, which is about 1/8" thick.

After the ordering was under way, I conducted classes for the noncoms of all the outfits showing them how to wire down the vehicles. We did not tie the wire by going through the loop of one wire and back, because that was just single strength. We needed to use double wire that didn't have any `give'. Then the wire was cut and turned. The wire ends would be turned around each other with the use of a screwdriver or some other tool. This tie-down could not be loose, it had to be as tight as you could get it. If it came loose at all the vehicle would move, stretch the wire, and cause more problems. I gave these classes for a couple of weeks during the later part of April and then the noncoms taught the men.

There were 200 baggage cars that were used as kitchen cars. Two kitchen cars were put on each train. Sometimes we put three kitchen cars on a train because some companies did not have as much equipment as others. These baggage cars were fitted with our mess equipment, field ranges, and everything else needed to take care of the number of men on that train. Very few trains had four kitchen cars. Some trains were sent out with more "Pullman" cars than others and had very little equipment. There were 200 box cars used for impedimenta, radios, orderly room supplies, guests, etc. Altogether there were nearly 3,000 train cars that went out in a total of 64 trains.

This was the biggest movement of any Army group during World War II. We had a full compliment. They practically had a TBA of authorized equipment and everything else. We had to use every bit of that equipment.

Pulling together a train made of 1,600 cars was unheard of. We depended upon the two biggest railroads for the major part of the hauling, the Sante Fe and Southern Pacific. Other, smaller lines took us out of Polk to meet the Sante Fe or the Southern Pacific. Getting 1,600 usable flat cars was a job. Train cars were on every spur from Alexandria, Louisiana, down to Lake Charles, Louisiana -- any place they could be stored.

All of these flat cars had to be inspected prior to being put into a train. Many of the deck boards were bad, sometimes springs were in bad shape and there were a few other little things wrong. Some of the cars did not have a great big beam or two beams down the sid. They were supported by a large cable or two large cables that were stretched between the front and the rear of the cars. These cables were pulled so tightly that they more or less held the car together.

We also had to be sure that all the brake rods could be dropped. The brakes were a wheel that stood up and was turned in case the car became detached and had to be stopped. The iron wheel was turned by hand and automatically applied the brakes. At least one of those had to be in working order, but both of them had to be dropped. Otherwise they would stick up like an iron pole making it impossible to go car to car with your vehicle.

We also had to order timbers for crossovers. These crossovers were made with two 12" x 4" pieces of lumber and had to be placed between the two cars. Underneath each crossover a piece of 2" x 6" or bigger was placed so that when the vehicles rolled over the crossover they would not kick back. The two pieces were capped underneath and would hit against the end of each car and keep them in place. Each car was required to have at least one pair. In other words, two boards 12" wide and 4" thick were built with one or both ends cut away. This allowed the vehicles to roll up on top of the crossovers more smoothly. A track didn't have any trouble, but the smaller vehicles could not climb up the 4" bump. Imagine the amount of lumber needed for this!

Naturally we also needed nails. The blocks that had been cut with the 60 degree and 90 degree angles had to be held in place. So we used either 24 or 28 penny nails that were driven in on the opposite end of the block that was not being used. As I remember, we were required to put four nails into the block and then drive the nail into the deck of the car itself, and then two nails on each side, toe-nailed in. Imagine 16,000 blocks, enough wood for at least 1,600 flat cars, meaning that each flat car had four pieces of 4" x 12" x 6', for the crossover. Those in turn, after loading the cars, had to be put across the deck of the box car and nailed down so they would be in place when we arrived at our destination. At the end of summer, we left the blocks in stockpiles. They had dried out and looked and felt balsa wood, you could lift them with one hand. They were not fit to be used again. I never knew what happened to this wood, perhaps someone used it for firewood.

There were a total of 64 trains, each made up of Pullman cars, box cars, and baggage cars. The Pullman cars were placed at the rear of the train. The flat cars and box cars were forward. The baggage cars, or the kitchen cars, were somewhere between the Pullman cars and the flat cars so the men did not have to go too far forward or walk on the decks of the flat cars where the vehicles were, even though they were guards on the vehicles. The guards were supposed to inspect the vehicles at every opportunity to insure everything was tied down correctly. There were no problems that I remember on any train coming west. We did not lose any equipment and I don't remember anything coming loose.

Colonel Robinson, Division Quartermaster, and a fellow named Captain McCarthy, who later was one of my platoon leaders, were sent ahead. They went ahead with a squad of men to the desert town of Rice, California, to unload tents and other equipment that came in there first. The 54th Field Artillery, their Service Company and a company from the 23rd Engineers were sent ahead to lay out the streets and put up the tents, etc. This was done because we did not have much time when we came into town, especially when moving eight trains a day, for four days.

When McCarthy arrived at the desert he was a lieutenant with the 32nd at the time. He was sent down to Supply Battalion to train men. He had been a tanker at Fort Knox and came to train members of the Third Armored how to use their basic weapons such as a carbine, the tommy gun or the pistol. That's how I came to know him. Lt. McCarthy was put in my company as a platoon leader. Later he assumed command of Supply Headquarters Company. He was a good officer.

At a recent reunion he told a great story: When he arrived at the desert they were unloading the paraphernalia they had to take out of the cars to get to Camp Ironside, or Iron Mountain. He just had on a plain pair of fatigues. Since nobody was around he didn't even have on his bars. The men who were with him were great workers and they were getting along pretty good. He said General Walker, who commanded the brigade before they made two top-hat commands, came down to see how they were coming with the tents, etc., and wanted to know who was in charge. Mac said. "It's me." Walker said, "Where's your insignia?" "General, I just didn't think I needed it." He said, "You need it anytime you have your clothes on." The General nearly court-martialed Mac for that. The General was a little short guy, he was something else.

We took a break for a few days after that to make certain that the equipment was brought back, or there were enough spurs in the area to accommodate all this. We had to give the railroads a chance to bring in more equipment so we could complete the move.

Remember, the whole division was moving. The only ones left behind at Camp Polk were the cadre for the 7th Armored Division and those that had jaundice and were in the hospital. There were some who drove out in their personal cars. So we moved approximately 14,000 men. On each train there were one or two companies comprised of 300 or 400 men. However, the 36th was probably three or four companies, but they did have not as many vehicles with them.

Great care was taken when making up the trains because there were limits to the amount of equipment the trains could carry. A thirty or forty ton tank on a flat car would be too much for the train to move. The engines did not have that much power and there were many mountains to cross. Those trains with the heavy loads went further south, bypassing as many mountains as they could. Lighter trains went further north on another route. Every detail had to be carefully planned.

Engine power was a bit of a problem in some cases. There were no diesel electric engines like today. We had the old "Molly" engine, which was a great big engine. It wasn't fast, but it could pull a lot of weight. Sometimes two engines were used because there were a few hills down into New Mexico and into California. Engine power was a major consideration. Quite often they would pull the train out of Camp Polk with switch engines to get the train out of the yard on time, and then pick up the power engines along the way.

Another consideration was matching trains with the right number of companies and their equipment. We had to know exactly what equipment each company had so the proper cars could be used. Some equipment was only 36 feet long; it would not be possible to put two 2 ton trucks on those cars. Most of those smaller flat cars did not have a weight factor high enough to carry a couple of tanks which were 18 feet long. The heavy tanks would have caved in on the smaller flat cars. Vehicles could not hang over the end of the cars. If one of them was hanging a little bit over, the other end had to be free to pull up the brakes in an emergency.

So every day I knew exactly which equipment was going on which train. I would tell the railroad that I needed so many 36s, so many 40s, so many 42s, and so many 50s (the length of each flat car). I think there was one type of flat car that was 52'6" long, but they were placed randomly. I would sit and watch each train as it came in noting it's measurements, which were written on the side. I would write all this down and tell the train master what cars he had and the order in which to place them. If the cars were out of order all the equipment would not fit. We were required to use whatever train cars were available.

The trains also had to be loaded according to classification. One of the things we were taught, for instance, was that a sedan carried a first class rate with a 10,000 pound minimum. A tank rate was 80,000 pounds with a 5th class rate. So if you mixed a tank with a sedan the highest rate at the highest minimum was used. The rate was $6 per hundred for a 80,000 pound rig, weight factor, whereas the passenger car (of which there were quite a few) only weighed 3 or 4 thousand pounds. All of these things had to be taken into consideration. If I told the yard master to leave a flat car with only one tank on it, even though there may have been a sedan or something smaller, he had to follow my instructions because of the classification.

There were times when I could not control the loading of some of the flat cars. Like the time I ran into trouble with Colonel Tandy. He wanted his sedan placed on the first car so he could be the first one to disembark. He also had some sort of a tank he wanted next to the sedan. I told him I couldn't do that. So I `got rid' of him. He was trying to give me orders. Fortunately, my immediate boss was Colonel Roysden, and he backed me right to the end. Anything I wanted or needed, Colonel Roysden was right there. When some colonel gave me a lot of trouble I would give Colonel Roysden a call and he would handle the problem. He could `chew' better than any man I knew. I think General Watson was backing him also. At that time Colonel Roysden was G4, and so I had no problems. I came to know him quite well.

It was Colonel Roysden who talked me into staying with the Third Armored. I was supposed to return to the Transportation Division. Colonel Roysden asked, "What's a young man like you doing in the Transportation Corps?" I said, "I don't know." He said, "Well, we need you." That's why I stayed with the Third and I am sure happy I did.

Everything went off without a hitch. When I finally did get to the desert I was sent to Rice to help out the office station master. He didn't know whether he was coming or going. There were men being sent out, being transferred to other outfits, home on leave, or going to school somewhere. As a result of all this activity, he could not handle all the tickets to be given out.

There were also other supplies arriving. I remember getting a couple of cars filled with small Coleman stoves. It was an individual stove, like a gas can, you pumped it up and burned gas in it. I don't know why we needed them, nobody wanted them. We never did unload them. I don't know whatever happened to that shipment. When I left they were still there.

There were other things that came in also. Every time a load of sardines came in the men wanted to bury them. I think the desert will grow sardines some day, so many were left out there.

My home was down at Rice, I had no duty outside of that. I was General Watson's aide for awhile. His aide had jaundice and had to go the hospital at Desert Center and the General chose me to replace him. I went to Los Angeles with the General quite a number of times and to his home in Pasadena. Then I would have his car and driver for the one or two days we would be there. I had a good life for awhile.

When we left the desert to go back to Camp Pickett in Virginia the only thing we had to do was to get several Pullman cars and a few boxcars for the equipment we were taking with us. A few of the higher ranking officers that went back had sedans, but outside of that, I do not think any equipment whatsoever went with us.

As I said we were issued a lot of tools in the desert. I think they were issued by weight rather than by individual tools. Those that were taken back with us were turned in at Pickett. I remember they had a difficult time getting rid of them because no one in Pickett wanted them. Most of the desert respirators issued to us were thrown away. I suspect there may have been a few people paying for those because they were short in every unit. But they were not of any use at Pickett whatsoever.

When I got the movement to Camp Pickett organized and everyone had left I took leave and went to my home in San Jose and left my car there. I then took a train back to Pickett where I again joined the Third Armored.

As transportation officer my first duty was to have boxes built for the radio and other impedimenta that would go to Africa. The 23rd Engineers were building these boxes. Approximately 15 or 16 carloads of lumber were brought into Camp Pickett. We had taken over a lumber mill. Suddenly everything stopped. The lumber was not even unloaded, it was left sitting in the cars. Orders came that we were not going to Africa because our equipment had been lost at sea.

Our orders to move to Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, came around Christmas time. Even before that some of the high ranking officers made a trip up to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, to see how things were going. I had to get them passage on a train out of Blackstone, Virginia. The train was booked and I had to pull a little rank and get some priority out of Washington to get everyone on that train. They all wanted berths, etc., no one wanted coaches. I believe it was a few days trip from Camp Pickett to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. They took a look at Camp Kilmer and came back. That was about the time we were told we were not going to Africa.

Then I got a call from Washington to make sure that the advance detail built ramps for the equipment to use during unloading. These ramps consisted of several railroad ties built to a certain height. I remember a smaller tank unit that had come into the desert training center and had no ramps available. What did Patton tell them to do? If you are in battle, turn and go over the side of the car. Well they did. Uncle Sam had to buy a whole lot or railroad cars because doing that caused a car to be "pinned". A flat car is set with two trucks, one in front and one in back. A truck has a "pin" coming up through the middle of it. That pin, which is about 4 inches in diameter and turns, is all that holds the truck onto the car. So the truck drivers went off the side, bent a lot of these pins and broke the sides of some of the cars. This all had to be repaired. I understand it was quite a bill.

I was notified by Washington to make sure that we had ramps for unloading. That meant at least eight ramps because I didn't know if the trains would all arrive the same day.

They couldn't build a ramp on the main track, so we had to have at least eight spurs. There were not enough spurs there so the railroad had to send in several crews to build spurs so the train could get off the main track.

We went through Rice on the way to Phoenix this year (1996) and there isn't much at Rice anymore. There wasn't much to start with, but the railroad station isn't there. There are still a lot of spurs out there. It was unbelievable. I didn't see those two cars loaded with the Coleman heaters though. I guess someone finally took them.

You must remember that it was Patton who went out into the desert, studied the desert, and thought it was a great place to bring nearly a million men, which is how many they claim they trained there. The desert camp opened up on May 13, 1942, which was less than six months after Pearl Harbor. We were the first ones from the division out there. There were a few tank battalions and infantry outfits that came in ahead of us, but they were at desert center, which was located near Highway 40. We were the first ones at Iron Mountain. Consequently, when the camp opened on May 13, we already had people there. Part of the 54th, the 23rd Engineers, etc., plus McCarthy and his group were also there until the war started.

When I rode out on the last train Colonel Roysden was with me and several others that I cannot recall. It was one of the best cars we had so I made sure I saved it for the last train on which I was going to ride. I was supposed to go to the desert with Colonel Roysden and get everything unloaded and leave. While we were on the train he talked about what a young man like me was doing on the transportation detail. This is when I decided to join the Third Armored. Shortly after arriving in Rice, I called Washington, gave them a report and asked for a transfer. They could not turn me down, so I notified Colonel Roysden that I had the transfer, and a short time later I was a first lieutenant. I guess he appreciated everything I had done.

When I came to the Third Armored Division I had been a second lieutenant for two months. Since that time, thinking about it, I probably sent loads of equipment to every place in the world you can imagine, probably 10,000 tanks. Most of them personnel type, M-1 type. Places such as Singapore, Switzerland, Spain, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.

I believe I was assigned the duty of loading equipment because I had been in transportation prior to the war. After going to college, I worked for a few years in that field.

While we were out in the desert just prior to the invasion of one of the Islands in the Pacific, (which was one of the major offenses down there), the Pacific command needed some light tanks, M-11s, with a 105 pack howitzer mounted on it rather than a 37 or something else. We had about 40 of them and were ordered to get them repaired, install types of radios in them, and send them down to San Diego. Third Armored Insignias had to be painted over and everything had to be in top shape. I ordered train cars for that and the trucks were loaded at Rice along with a passenger car that carried a crew that had not finished the repairs. They worked en route to San Diego and Guadalcanal, the truck's destination. When they pulled into San Diego, they were taken right out to the pier and loaded directly from the flat cars to the ships being made up for the invasion of Tokyo Bay.

Occasionally we received new tanks from other divisions. Some of the newer models had to be unloaded and taken out to `Iron Mountain' where they overhauled them. It was interesting as far as I was concerned.

In Division Headquarters as transportation officer, I was responsible for the gas ration tickets to be given to various people living off post with cars. I had to insure they received the gas ration cards they needed. I did that until colonel Roysden called and said I was to be assigned to a company. He gave me a couple of choices -- the 32nd, a service company, or a supply battalion. I thought the best thing to do was go with a truck company. I commanded Supply Battalion Company A until near the end of the war when I received another promotion.

The experience of moving out was one of the greatest experiences ever. It took a lot of work and a lot of thought, but we had some great commanding officers in the G section of the Third Armored: Colonel Bulger, Colonel Barr, Colonel Roysden, and General Watson.

Bill was in the process of writing this story when he was hospitalized. If any of you would like to elaborate on a portion(s) of the story, please do so and forward to LeRoy Hanneman, editor of the Third Armored Association Newsletter.

LeRoy C. Hanneman

Third Armored Division Association

P.O. Box 61743

Phoenix, AZ 85082-1743