The 725th Railway Operating Battalion
by Dave Kaufman
© 1995 by author
The U.S. Army Transportation Corps has the task of moving personnel, equipment, and supplies. Members of the Corps perform this task by a variety of means. Rail service is one of those means, and during World War II, it was a little-publicized yet successful aspect of the war.
Some of the success was due to the foresight and planning of the War Department. Railroad units were transferred to the Transportation Corps from the Quartermaster Corps, where they operated during World War I. The strength of America's railroad system lay in its management, corporate direction, personnel, and equipment. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, America shipped everything by rail. Railroads are the most efficient means of transport, as they are the only form of transportation that maintains its own rights-of-way and communications, and conducts all of its own construction and repair. With the early success of German military forces, it is difficult to understand how the monumental mission of the railways in WW II could have been accomplished. Given the increase in civilian rail use (driven by restrictions on gasoline, rubber for tires, etc.) and the substantial reduction in maritime shipping of natural resources due to the U-Boat threat, the response of the railroads was nothing short of remarkable. (1) American manufacturers went into overdrive, producing literally thousands of locomotives and freight cars. Overseas U.S. forces would expected to run captured railroads, supply U.S. combat forces, and improve Allied rail capabilities.
More than 350,000 railroad personnel served in all branches of the armed forces in WW II, leaving many of their civilian jobs to be filled by women. (2) Railway Operating Battalions (ROBs), first organized in 1941, were the smallest (800 men) active units of the U.S. Army Military Railway Service (MRS) in WWII. The Army recognized that operating a railroad required skills that could not be taught in basic training. To insure the units were staffed by men with the proper skills, a processing center for draftees and enlistees from the railroads was established at Camp Harrahan, Louisiana, and served as the source of ROB personnel. In many instances, individual railroads had employees who were drafted (or enlisted) together and who served together. Indeed, some Railway Operating Battalions comprised exclusively men from the same railroad. By warís end, ROBs were to be found in all theaters.
With a TO & E of four companies, each ROB was considered a self-sustaining "division" and operated on the same principles as a civilian railroad. Company A, comprising two track platoons and one bridge platoon, handled construction. Two of the three platoons of Company B were responsible for keeping the equipment in operating condition, utilizing their own roundhouse to do so; the third platoon shopped the rolling stock. Company C, which supplied the train crews, was the largest company. H & S Company supplied dispatchers, telegraphers, and other support personnel. Four to five separate ROBs and usually one or two Railway Shop Battalions (RSB) were directed by an administrative unit, a Railway Grand Division (RGD), which comprised approximately 100 personnel. (3)
The 725th ROB was activated at New Orleans on 17 February 1943 with Lt. Col. George Branch commanding. The officers and enlisted cadre, drawn from the 715th ROB, were all former employees of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad (RR). Eventually, the battalion would comprise former members of 18 different railroads.
T-5 John Daoutis worked for the Southern-Pacific RR as a crew dispatcher out of Bakersfield, California, before the war. He recalled, "I was drafted in 1943 and joined the 725th in July or August. I was surprised to end up in a ROB. I found out about ROBs at recruiting center, so I volunteered, hoping to avoid the infantry. I went from Monterey to Camp Harrahan and then to Camp Claibourne, Louisiana. I was selected to go to 725th ROB while at Camp Harrahan. I was surprised to meet John Bayse, who I worked with on the Southern-Pacific. Bayse was the only one I knew. Many men in 725th ROB were considerably older than most soldiers. There were several in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and I think even a few in their 60s. These older men were promised direct commissions, because they were taken off of railroads." (4)
Pvt John (Jack) Basye recalled that "before the war, I was a fireman for the Southern-Pacific in Bakersfield, California. I enlisted in November 1942, wanting to go in the Army Air Corps and be a waist gunner in either a B-17 or a B-24 because of my `hunter instinct'. I honed my shooting skills while hunting over several years. I let a lieutenant talk me into a ROB because he told me `I can almost guarantee you a T-4 rating within a month - and we need engineers.' I obtained my T-4 as promised within 6 weeks. The T-4 rating was for engineers; conductors were buck sergeants. I joined the 725th ROB when it was activated at Camp Harrahan in 1943." (5)
At Camp Claiborne, the 725th and other ROBs operated on what was known officially as the Claiborne and Polk RR, so named because it ran 50 miles to Fort Polk. For a number of reasons, the railroaders derisively referred to it as the `Crime and Punishment` RR. Originally built by the 711th ROB and Army engineers as a training railroad, it was a railroader's nightmare. The railroad bed itself consisted of every substance imaginable: Louisiana gumbo (dirt), logs, and swamp muck. The engines were 40 years old, and the freight cars, if they were of U.S. manufacture, had been new two generations previous. European freight cars, featuring only four wheels, had an aversion to curves. Because of the uncertain construction of the railroad beds, derailments were the rule rather than the exception. The poor roadbed, coupled with civilian livestock - and nature's livestock: alligators - affected railroad operations in more ways than one. At one time, the speed limit was 2 mph (eventually bumped up to 5 mph). Often, the wrecker car, which followed closely, derailed. More than once, the rails simply disappeared under the swamp: to the casual observer, it appeared as if there were no railroad. More than one engineer reported seeing the rails swaying and vibrating for some time after the train had passed.
In late November 1943, the 725th ROB left Los Angeles (San Pedro) California POE en route to the CBI Theater. On board were the 725th ROB and four other ROBs, one RSB, and the 705th RGD. All arrived safely in theater on January 11, 1944. Daoutis recalled, "we sailed on a single troopship with other ROBs, and not in a convoy. There were approximately 4500 men on board. The ship zig-zagged every few minutes. We spent a total of 32 days at sea, making only one stop, in Hobart, Tasmania. We had one big guy in the outfit who weighed about 300 pounds before we left. He got so seasick that he remained in sickbay the entire trip, and lost more than 50 pounds. When we arrived in Calcutta, we didn't recognize him - he was white as a sheet, and he couldn't eat because of seasickness." (6)
Three companies of the 725th - H & S, B, and C - conducted their operations in Lalmanirhat, Bengal, Province, India. Company B was the shop company and did all of the repairs. There were no problems getting parts. Company C was the operating company, providing engineers, conductors, and operations personnel. H & S Company ran the dispatch office and provided MPs, etc. Company A remained in Zone of the Interior.
Daoutis: "When we first arrived in India, we lived in tents for 6 months. Then, concrete slabs were poured and bamboo barracks, called bashas, were built by Indian contractors. Building sides were woven bamboo, and the tops were thatched bamboo. The bashas had electricity, but no fans or water. The bashas looked like typical army barracks, which slept about 18, with cots and footlockers lined up in rows. Since the buildings were constructed of bamboo, the structures were susceptible to fire. There was no fire-fighting equipment available in camp. For bathing and sanitation, showers and latrines were constructed in separate buildings.
During the monsoons, the cement would turn green, as did our leather gear. We couldn't get this green growth off, and had to throw our leather gear away. The army hired Indians to cook and do laundry for us. The officers of the B & A Railroad lived in fine brick houses just outside camp boundaries. The camp was surrounded by a fence, with an open gate guarded by a GI.
All types of jungle diseases were prevalent, especially malaria and elephantiasis. One B Co 725th member (one of biggest, healthiest-looking GIs) died of Blackwater fever in only 2 days. We had to bury him immediately because of heat bloating and contagion. To combat malaria, the men took atabrine pills in chow line. This policy was enforced by officers and was the first stop in line. The atabrine turned your skin yellow. When sleeping, the men had to drop mosquito netting and tuck it underneath their mattresses, ensuring there were no open spaces. A lot of guys still caught malaria.
The men were also warned about poisonous snakes. We were taught we could survive a cobra bite, but two other snakes were incredibly deadly. Unfortunately, we were not told what these two snakes looked like. There were a lot of cobras in towns used by the street musicians, who always kept a mongoose at hand, too. The Mongooses killed cobras by biting them on the back of their heads. There was a cobra warning once time - the officers cleared out the camp looking for it. We were warned that if we should ever wake up with a cobra in our cot next to us, they were probably just looking for your body warmth, so don't move and just quietly call for help. Even though jungle was close to camp, there were no problems with tigers. A few were shot by GIs assigned to the unit." (7)
The battalion operated on the tracks of the Bengal & Assam RR, formerly used for transporting tea by perhaps three trains daily. The battalion transported weapons carriers, 4x4s, ambulances, and 250-lb bombs (sans detonators). They also hauled Ghurka troops to front lines, and then carried them back for R & R. Basye recalls "hauling 3-4 loads of Merrill's Marauders. The Marauders were always shooting from flatcars into jungle, and I had to carefully request them not to on one occasion. They were always good about trading `bamboo juice' (a liquor made from rice) for ammunition, though. These guys always had boxes and bandoliers full of ammo." (9)
T-5 AudreyGillem: "The B & A was a one-meter line, meaning that the tracks were one meter wide. We had special War Department locomotives manufactured in Bessemer, Iowa, to run on that line." (10)
T-4 Phelan Tyler, before the war an engineer for the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac RR (now CSX), was an engineer for the 725th ROB. He recalled, "we had 75 U.S. locomotives and 25 British. At 176 miles, ours was the longest railroad division in CBI. The railroad division below the 725th was only 40 miles long. The 725th worked on the Neal Token system. Trains usually ran 35 MPH, and would slow to 15 MPH in stations, which were 5-10 miles apart. Tokens were handed to engineers as they drove through stations. During rest stops, we could pay coolies a couple of rupees to pull a rope and turn a fan in lobby for relief against the sweltering heat." (11)
The U.S. locomotives in India were coal-fired. There was no problem of coal theft by Indians, as often coal was swapped for fresh eggs by the Americans, who preferred fresh eggs to the Army's powdered eggs. The coal came in large lumps, usually about 18" around.
There were two Indian firemen on each engine, called the #1 fireman and # 2 fireman. The #2 fireman shoveled coal from the tender into the gangway and broke it up; the #1 fireman shoveled the coal chunks into the firebox. Often, firemen from different religions carried their religious differences onto the trains. Often, the Indians wouldn't eat together. Each train had four crew members - an engineer, two fireman, and either a GI conductor or Indian conductor.
Bayse: "Twenty fours hours was my usual time on the rail line due to crowded conditions on the tracks. The other ROBs were transporting materials and personnel, too. I had to wait on side tracks, sometimes for as long as 4-5 hours. I usually pulled 100 freight cars - called "wagons" in India - at one time. Each wagon was about half as long as U.S. freight cars and had only four wheels. We engineers were lucky if as many as 10 wagons had brakes - and they were on one side. The wagons had only crude vacuum brakes, activated by steam, not air brakes. Engineers had to allow for that shortcoming when preparing to stop - low speeds were not a problem because of rail traffic. Engineers usually used only one locomotive, but occasionally paired them on the head end - both pulling. The materials and equipment were already on freight cars, so the engineers just picked up and dropped off the freight cars. The battalion did not load/unload any cars. One time, I hauled Japanese POWs, who were fearfully being guarded by Gurkhas." (12)
Basye described the track route as "a single track, well maintained. The scenery was heavy jungle for first 30 miles from the camp to Golakganj, then it opened up as entered Assam province. It was mostly rolling terrain, and I could see as far as 2-3 miles. Usually, there was a minimum of a 50 foot clearance through forested areas, and sometimes I saw a tree full of monkeys. There were no tunnels. Rail traffic was one train allowed between stations in either direction. The engineers obtained a token at each station, which was the engineer's authority to be on that section of track between stations. It was foolproof. You could not see any other trains ahead of you at any time out of the yard.
The track length of the B & A was 175 miles, from Lalmanirhat through Bengal and Assam provinces to the layover camp at the Brahmaputra River. The Brahmaputra River ('Father of all Brahma') flowed out of the Himalayas and was as much as 170 feet deep during spring runoff. I remember seeing porpoises swimming up the river from the Bay of Bengal, approximately 100 miles away."
Although there were no combat losses in the 725th ROB, the battalion lost men to accidents. Basye recalled that "one [man] fell off a bridge into the Brahmaputra River at flood stage, and witnesses couldn't even try to rescue him. An inexperienced engineer inexplicably checked his water gauge after filling up, and while he was standing on top of the tender while the train was in motion, he struck and was killed by a forgotten low bridge. A GI was crushed to death between two boxcars in yard. Another GI killed himself in his tent." (13)
Thanks to Allied air superiority, the Japanese attempted neither to bomb nor to cut the divisionís rails, even though the division was about 20 miles from what could be termed the front lines. Forgey remembered, "the Japanese cut one of the tracks up north. We were on alert for about four hours, but nothing came of it for us." (14)
There were a number of train wrecks in battalion operations, most due to the lack of bridges spanning low places and to the ease with which the four-wheel Indian freight cars, which lacked pivoting wheel trucks, derailed. The B & A lines usually followed the topographic features. If there was a gully, the rail lines dipped down into them. The result was that the spring draw-bars (connecting couplers) often were stretched by slack action similar to a Slinky toy. The head end gained speed going downhill, then slowed going uphill, and then derailed because the rear of the train was gaining speed. The Irish bridges had boards on which the speed limits - 10, 20, or 30 - were painted. The engineers found this amusing because the trains usually couldn't reach those speeds, except, of course, going downhill.
Near Galakjang Junction, there was a curve with an uphill grade on which there was a signal arm. Engineers had to pay close attention to the signal. A train had to have enough speed to make the grade, but not so much that it could not stop if the signal was red, which usually indicated a derailment ahead. Failing to stop in time for a red signal usually meant a collision or derailing into the river.
There were other causes of derailments. Basye: "Train signals were all manually operated, not electronic like in the U.S. One day, I was going through a side track and was given a clear signal. I knew that I wouldn't have to stop. An Indian pointsman (switchman) was supposed to align the switch out to the mainline. Instead, he deliberately threw the switch right in front of me, and we both knew that I had no time to stop. This act of sabotage directed me to a spur which dead-ended at the river. I knew we were going to crash, and told my GI fireman to jump, which we safely did. I shot at the fleeing saboteur with my .45, but missed. The engine ran off the end of the track and stopped about one foot from the water. Freight cars stacked up everywhere and it took work crews three days to clear and rebuild spur. I faced a board of inquiry afterwards, but there were no charges held against me. Other acts of sabotage usually consisted of wood being placed across the track, but the pilot (cowcatcher) picked it up." (15)
British Field Marshal Sir William Slim was highly complementary of the performance of the ROBs in the CBI. Prior to the war, the rail lines' daily capacity was only 600 tons. By the time the British 14th Army had been formed, the capacity had increased to 2,800 tons, but even that increase proved inadequate to supply the British and the Chinese at Ledo. With the arrival of the U.S. ROBs, the daily tonnage increased to 7,300 tons. Slim cited the more powerful U.S. locomotives, as well as the drive and energy of the fully trained railroadmen. The rolling stock and personnel were assets the British simply could not offer. The increase in shipping helped alleviate the dangerous task of moving supplies over The Hump to China, and eventually surpassed the air tonnage totals. (16)
The end of the war in the CBI saw the ROBs rapidly demobilized. The ROBs that remained in theater to the end maintained increasingly larger portions of track until relieved by personnel of the Bengal and Assam RR. The 725th ROB was demobilized beginning October 1, 1945, and its men returned home aboard the U.S.S. General Hugh L. Scott, departing from Calcutta. The unit was formally inactivated at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, on October 29, 1945.
While in the ZI, the battalion wore the old Services of Supply SSI, and was authorized the CBI SSI while in theater. They did wear an unauthorized SSI that is rare to find. It is usually a shield shaped white patch, with a gray border, gray poled semaphore (signal arm) with green, yellow, and red lights with a red and yellow arm. There is a purple ring with three equidistant green points and a yellow inner background. A pair of dice forms the number "7", a red number "2", and a blue Roman numeral V forms the "5", and all depict the unit designation. A blue banner with white lettering spelling out "Railway" is embroidered directly on the banner. All details, except for the banner, are outlined in gray. A round patch with a similar design also exists.
A DI was also worn. It features the same design, but the markings of the dice, purple ring and signal arm are brown, and the color of the shield is silver.
The insignia design was the creation of Richard A. Gammill (now deceased), a sergeant from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who was known in the unit for his sketching ability. The patches were made in Lalmanirhat by an Indian who charged one or two rupees (worth approximately 32 cents U.S. then).
Bykofsky, Joseph and Larson, Harold. The U.S. Army in World War II - The Technical Services; Operations Overseas. Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, Washington, D.C. 1957
Florence, Chauncey F. 1st Lieutenant, Transportation Corps, Correspondence to 725th ROB Yardmaster, dated 7 June 45.
Fowler, Bertram B. "The Worst Railroad on Earth", Saturday Evening Post. January 15, 1944
Slim, Sir William, Field Marshal. Defeat Into Victory. Cassell & Co. Ltd, London, 1956
Ziel, Ronald. Steel Rails to Victory. Hawthorn Books, Inc., New York, 1970
1. Ziel, Ronald. Steel Rails to Victory. Hawthorn Books, Inc., New York, 1970, p. 76.
2. Ibid., p. 80.
3. Ibid., p. 77.
4-15. Interview with author.
16. Slim, Sir William, Field Marshal Defeat Into Victory Cassell & Co. Ltd, London, 1956, pp. 170-171.