In a theater of war long forgotten and barely even known at the time, James Harry Hantzis and his fellow soldiers labored at a thankless task under oppressive conditions. Nonetheless, as Rails of War demonstrates, without the men of the 721st Railway Operating Battalion, the Allied forces would have been defeated in the China-Burma-India conflict in World War II. Steven James Hantzis’s father served alongside other GI railroaders in overcoming danger, disease, fire, and monsoons to move the weight of war in the China-Burma-India theater. Torn from their predictable working-class lives, the men of the 721st journeyed fifteen thousand miles to Bengal, India, to do the impossible: build, maintain, and manage seven hundred miles of track through the most inhospitable environment imaginable. From the harrowing adventures of the Flying Tigers and Merrill’s Marauders to detailed descriptions of grueling jungle operations and the Siege of Myitkyina, this is the remarkable story of the extraordinary men of the 721st, who moved an entire army to win the war. For more information about Rails of War, visit railsofwar.com.
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About the Author
Steven James Hantzis is the son of James Harry Hantzis, former staff sergeant of the World War II 721st Railway Operating Battalion. A retired Grand Lodge representative for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, Steven Hantzis worked twelve years as a brakeman-conductor for Conrail. Both his father and his great-grandfather were railroaders. For more information about the author, visit stevenjhantzis.com.
Read an Excerpt
Rails of War
Supplying the Americans and their Allies in China-Burma-India
By Steven James Hantzis
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2017 Steven James Hantzis
All rights reserved.
The bow of the ship plowed through the blue-green Pacific with a mesmerizing determination. The men of the 721st Railway Operating Battalion were one day at sea, roughly 500 miles southwest of Los Angeles, and what worried them most were their guts.
The food was horrible. The sea was nauseating. Their quarters were cramped and the distractions few. Some men were violently ill, and more were queasy. To all, life had lost its charm. Only a lucky few seemed immune to the bow's plunge, the stern's lift, and then the wallowing roll. The cycle endlessly repeated without mercy, without a horizon to anchor the mind or an end in sight to soothe the soul.
To further confound the senses the ship zigzagged across the chop, changing direction unpredictably every few miles, as the captain maneuvered to throw off Japanese submarines. The thinking was that it takes an enemy submarine eight minutes to target and fire a spread of torpedoes, so the Mariposa changed course abruptly every six minutes. Everywhere the men looked their fellow soldiers were covering their mouths and rushing down halls or to the railings. "Railbirds," they were called.
Their first meal on ship was a bad omen. Each man received a card with a large black letter printed on it: A, B, C, or D. When the ship's loudspeakers, hung in every corridor and deck, boomed, "All men holding B cards proceed to the midship stairway," off went the Bs.
After an hour's wait in line, what they found disgusted them. Some men, after sweating out the chow line, got a whiff of the food and bolted for the nearest place to get sick again. Breakfast was grease-soaked soybean sausages and salted mackerel. The only things edible were the bread and potatoes.
The fare seemed like a cruel joke compared with the fare at Camp Atterbury in Indiana, where they had mustered before taking a train to California. To add gratuitous insult to their culinary injuries, there were only to be two meals a day. Upon reflection the men couldn't decide if this was a good thing or a bad thing.
The situation went from disgusting to debilitating on the second day, when even the bread, now infested with mealy bugs, was inedible. Seeing no action after complaining up the chain of command, the men resorted to a tactic from civilian life: they went on strike. The culture of direct action, a common feature of their railroad employment, was alive and well even after a year of army discipline and top-down conditioning.
The men refused to eat, not the greatest hardship, or take part in the fire and lifeboat drills and physical training, a rather bigger problem for their superiors. With mutiny in the air an armed marine guard was posted for meals.
The strike didn't last long. The officers and noncoms on board had the same concerns. No one was court-martialed or disciplined, and the food got better. But it would never reach the high standards set stateside, and as the men settled into a shipboard routine they grumbled all the way.
* * *
At 18,017 gross tons, the SS Mariposa was a large ship for her day. Designed by Gibbs and Cox, Inc. and built by the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation in Quincy, Massachusetts, she was launched for the Matson Navigation Company in Los Angeles in July 1931. She was laid out to accommodate 475 first-class and 229 cabin class passengers along with 359 crew members. On this trip she carried five times as many passengers. The Mariposa was the floating home — and potential Japanese target — for nearly 5,000 souls, including the 651 enlisted men, 21 officers, and 1 warrant officer of the 721st Railway Operating Battalion, a unit sponsored by the New York Central Railroad.
The men of the 721st weren't the only railroaders on board. They shared quarters with the 725th Railway Operating Battalion, which consisted of men who had been working the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad; the 726th, an outfit sponsored by the Wabash Railroad; the 745th, from the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad; the 748th, associated with the Texas & Pacific Railroad; and the 758th, a railway shop battalion from Ohio. Also on board were the 705th Infantry Replacement Battalion, forty civilian engineers, ten nurses, a headquarters staff, a hospital staff, and even some civilian passengers, in addition to the Merchant Marine crew and the Navy Armed Guard.
In preparation for their mission, the men of the 721st had trained for five months at Camp Cushing in the blistering sun of south Texas, studying the nomenclature of weapons and drilling with gas masks before going on to technical training. Most of the men in the battalion had railroad experience, but some didn't. The men with no mechanical experience were given crash courses on operating lathes, shapers, drill presses, and grinders under the tutelage of the Southern Pacific supervisors. Men with no experience operating locomotives and switching cars were bombarded with the golden rule of the industry: There are no small accidents on the railroad! Work safe! Take your time and do things right!
The shop crafts repaired air brakes, worked in drop pits, set valves, washed out boilers, ran water tests, lubricated everything in sight, and packed journal boxes. The car repair platoon worked on wheel trucks and couplers and replaced brass bushings on axle journals. The wreck crew worked with the steam crane and rerailed wayward equipment. The operating crafts switched cars, kicked cuts into sidings, learned to work a manifest, and practiced driving doubleheaders — two engines and tenders coupled together.
After their training was complete, they shipped out, first to Camp Atterbury and then to the final staging area at Camp Anza in the southern California desert. When they arrived at the dock in Long Beach, heads swiveled as the awestruck young men from the Midwest and other inland states catalogued their strange new surroundings: the squawking, insistent gulls, buoys gonging in the harbor, and the smell of salt water. It was the first time most of the men had seen oceangoing vessels and the massive equipment needed for their maintenance close enough to touch. These were men who, for the most part, were familiar with large industrial settings and oversized equipment, but this was something new. "My God," more than one of them thought, "these things are enormous!"
Now they were sailing into harm's way. The Mariposa was lightly armed. She carried a five-inch 38-caliber gun on the stern and a three-inch 50caliber gun on the bow. Along her steering station were two three-inch 50-caliber guns, and she sported two Swiss-designed 20mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns on the foredeck and two more on the afterdeck. All the weapons were in raised gun tubs except for the four 20mm guns on the flying bridge. The fighting capabilities of the Mariposa were purely defensive. Should she find herself in contact with an enemy surface ship or submarine her standing orders were to turn away, put the attacker on the stern, and flee.
The Mariposa was sailing solo because the United States and Britain had taken a page from their World War I playbooks, where they learned it was less risky to transport soldiers on big, fast luxury liners than on slow troop carriers escorted by battleships. In August 1942 the two countries began using the French SS Pasteur, the Canadian Empress of Scotland, and the Cunard Queens, both Mary and Elizabeth, to move men across the seas.
* * *
Each day grew hotter as the Mariposa tacked southward. The men diverted themselves with board games: Chinese checkers, backgammon, Cavalcade, Horse Races (no betting), and Monopoly, as well as cribbage boards, cards (both regular and pinochle), card games (Pit and Rook), jigsaw puzzles, chess, checkers, and dominoes. A competent band was organized to serenade the passengers. Upon crossing the equator an ad hoc theatrical troupe put on a production of The Court of Old King Neptune, complete with a queen whose elbow-length blond hair displayed the versatile uses of a mop and whose faint falsetto voice registered with a pronounced New Jersey accent.
The journey south was also a journey west. Every day the men turned back their watches as time zones passed invisibly. The weather turned chilly, and the men wore their field jackets on deck. Then, just west of the Society Islands of French Polynesia, December 23 disappeared entirely. Calendars and diaries jumped forward from December 22 to December 24.
* * *
When Christmas Day dawned, Jim Hantzis didn't feel well, and it had nothing to do with the ship ride or the bad food. They had been fourteen days at sea, and it seemed like a lifetime since he had seen his wife, Marilou. Six months before, Hantzis had wangled a five-day pass from Camp Cushing and taken a train to Indianapolis for their wedding in the Zion Evangelical United Church of Christ. At the altar, with Reverend F. R. Daries conducting the ceremony, Jim wore his dress uniform and Marilou wore a light blue suit with a single strand of pearls, earrings to match, and a red rose corsage. Their hands found each other, and they hung on for dear life. They had been dating for over two years and their familiarity was now their security.
The night before, Jim and Marilou had partied with their friends at the Westlake Dance Club. Now, at their modest wedding reception, these same friends mingled with family members, the young couple danced to Tony Martin singing "Tonight We Love," and Marilou drank blackberry wine. In the morning, after the couple spent the night at the Hantzis house, Jim's mother greeted the late-rising Marilou with "Good morning, bride!" Then Jim headed back to Camp Cushing. Except for a brief rendezvous in November, when he was stationed at Camp Atterbury, he and Marilou did not see each other again before he sailed off.
In the privacy of his stateroom Jim took off his wedding ring and in the dim light tried to make out its simple inscription, MLH & JHH 6/13/43. Thoughts of his wedding day helped lift his mood, but there wasn't a lot the Mariposa could offer for Christmas cheer. The men got some turkey with their second meal and savored their portions as they shuffled along in the aluminum room. And of course the company clowns fashioned Santa hats from socks and decorated the corridors with cardboard cutouts of Rudolph posed in a variety of traditional and not-so-traditional acts.
Two days later the ship docked at Hobart, Tasmania, beneath the snow-capped peak of Mount Wellington, and the men got a brief shore leave. But less than thirty-six hours later the stout mooring lines holding the Mariposa in port were cast to the dock, where they landed with a thud. The same dull release was felt in the hearts of her departing visitors. As her powerful turbines settled into their familiar drone, the ship's forward assembly area filled with officers and noncoms. They were finally going to hear from the brass about where they were going.
All the rail battalions received their orders in turn, and the 721st, being the lowest numbered battalion, heard first. Their destination was a place they had never heard of: the city of Parbatipur in the State of Bengal, India. They would disembark in fourteen days at Bombay, on the other side of the subcontinent.
The sergeants, who received a further, technical briefing involving area maps, terrain analysis, logistical details, and cultural specifics, then went to the enlisted men with what they had been told. The briefing of a squad in Company B went like this: Sergeant Hantzis: (Reading from his clipboard.) In fourteen days, with the cooperation of the Imperial Japanese Navy, we will debark at the port of Bombay, India, and proceed by rail with our equipment to Parbatipur in the State of Bengal. There we will establish a camp and conduct railroad operations, without the aid of modern block control or classification yard systems, over approximately 120 miles of single-line main. The other battalions will operate to the east with a final terminus at Ledo.
Ledo is the end of the line, and it straddles the India-Burma border. It is currently under the protection of the British, American, and Chinese armies.
From Ledo the supplies that we transport will be flown by aircraft over the Himalayan Mountains to British and American special operation forces in Burma and China as well as regular army units of the Kuomintang. Eventually, when the Ledo road is complete, these supplies will be trucked from Ledo to China.
The railroads we will operate are of three different gauges: broad gauge, narrow gauge, and metre gauge. The terrain is hilly to mountainous, with swamps and numerous bridged waterways. One water passage will be by ferry.
The native workforce is composed of Indian Hindus of various castes and Mohammedan laborers. The Hindus and Mohammedans dislike each other, and the Hindus won't speak to someone not in their caste.
There are no municipal amenities such as running water or sewage treatment. Disease will be a constant threat, and personal vigilance will be necessary to avoid inflection from typhus, malaria, and dysentery. There are numerous poisonous insects and reptiles and reports of Japanese sympathizers among the Indian independence movement. This movement is particularly strong in the State of Bengal.
Wisenheimer # 1: Sarge, is this were the tigers live?
(Chuckles in the squad.)
Sergeant: Yes, and don't pet 'em.
(Laughter all around.)
Wisenheimer # 2: What's a Mohammedan?
Sergeant: Someone who believes in a religion different than yours. It's their country and their religion. Treat them with respect.
Wisenheimer # 3: Will we get to see the Taj Mahal?
Sergeant: You'll be lucky to see a pool hall.
(Some laughs, some moans, and a plaintive whine of "Ah, Sarge, come on.")
Sergeant: You will familiarize yourselves with this document from the War Department. (He holds up a brown four-by-five-inch booklet from the War and Navy Departments, A Pocket Guide to India.) This booklet will allow you to fit in and respect the native culture. I emphasize: Respect the native culture.
In addition to this document you are expected to listen to the Hindustani language lessons that will be broadcast on the ship's PA and make a conscientious effort to learn phrases and words that will facilitate your communication with the native population.
Wisenheimer # 4: Some of dees guys from Brooklyn need to learn English before they can tackle Hindu-whatever.
(Chuckles all around.)
(From the back of the squad comes a defensive, high-pitched voice: "Yaaa! Well some of yooze hicks couldn't recognize a sophisticated linguist if he up and popped you in the schnozola.")
(Chorus of laughter from the rest of the men.)
Sergeant: Fight the enemy, not each other. And one more thing: we couldn't take on as much fresh water as we planned to in Hobart. Therefore we're placing guards on the water taps and expect that no fresh water will be wasted from here to India.
Finally, the ship's captain has asked that all you guys who are pounding your British coins into souvenir rings remember that a sound like that carries through the water like a telegraph, and unless you want to make the Japs' job of sinking us easier, knock it off!
Sergeant: That is all. Don't forget to sign up for water guard duty. Now get to work.
When the joking subsided reality sank in. The American soldier railroaders were going to build, rebuild, and operate the rail infrastructure that would supply Allied forces fighting to oust the Imperial Japanese Army from the China-Burma-India theater. It was, said Gen. Brehon Burke Somervell, commander of the Army Service Forces, "the greatest engineering undertaking of the War."CHAPTER 2
On January 13, 1944, after thirty days at sea, the men of the 721st Railway Operating Battalion finished their stopover in Bombay. They had enjoyed two days of leave in the city of two million people, guided mostly by their wits and copies of A Pocket Guide to India. They saw the Taj Mahal Hotel, rode in rickshaws, sampled the pani-puri chat (fried noodles and vegetables), avoided the red-light district, and visited the Hanging Gardens overlooking the sea.
Now the British were in charge of transportation. If the Yanks had any notion of traveling in Oriental splendor to their ultimate destination, the Bengali city of Parbatipur, it was quickly put to rest. As the men of the 721st saw their train waiting at the pier in Bombay, they couldn't believe it was meant for passenger service. It was broad gauge — five foot, six inches rail to rail — and unattended. Most of the men thought it was a livestock number. The wooden cars were dilapidated and dingy. As the men were assigned compartments some hopefully muttered that the decrepit coaches must be temporary accommodations, but no such luck befell these optimists; these cars were their billets for the next five days.
Excerpted from Rails of War by Steven James Hantzis. Copyright © 2017 Steven James Hantzis. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Contents List of Illustrations Preface Acknowledgments 1. SS Mariposa 2. Leaving Bombay 3. Indian Rails 4. To Parbatipur 5. Air Raid 6. The Ledo Road 7. Relay 8. First Encounters 9. Inside the 721st 10. Merrill’s Marauders 11. Company B 12. Fire 13. Mutaguchi’s Gift 14. The Battle of Kohima 15. After the Storm 16. Inbound 17. Material Inferiority 18. Monsoon 19. The Siege of Myitkyina 20. A Ghost in the Yards 21. Kaunia Junction 22. Brothers 23. Japanese Retrench 24. Medic! Medic! 25. Stepping Up 26. Another Christmas 27. Milepost 103 28. The Road Less Traveled 29. Toy Train to Shangri-La 30. Crossing Irrawaddy 31. The Home Fires 32. Blue Flag 33. Coupled Up 34. The New President 35. Endgame 36. Above Rangoon Jail 37. Germany Surrenders 38. Discharge 39. The Conductor 40. Around the World 41. Departure 42. Christmas 1945 Notes Bibliography Index
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Fascinating book, even for those that are not used to reading military books. Steven Hantzis gives a comprehensive insight about the conditions men of the 721st Railway Operating Battalion had to face, in an understandable and quite personal perspective. As you read it, you can distinguish that the author has done a respectful and thorough research, while expressing it with his own point of view, and that makes reading Rails of War so pleasant. At times, I didn’t want to leave it out of my hands. To conclude, I would certainly recommend this book, to everyone interested in finding out the importance of men of the 721st Railway Operating Battalion during World War II.
Incredible account of the men on the ground during World War II that I found quite inspiring and eye opening, they truly were the greatest generation!! Mr. Hantzis clearly shows what these men were put through and how they coped during this time through a range of emotion and conditions via personal anecdotes with an overview of the global conflict for context. From dangerous to horrific, comical to mundane, the bugs, animals and heat of the surrounding jungle to the saboteurs, this book kept me mesmerized!! Highly recommended for any history/war buffs!!