Bryant Alden Long.

Mail by rail : the story of the Postal Transportation Service online

. (page 20 of 38)
Online LibraryBryant Alden LongMail by rail : the story of the Postal Transportation Service → online text (page 20 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

addresses, made letter distribution a real headache, and the
well-deserved granting of free postage to military personnel
caused the volume of soldier and naval mail to soar to un-
precedented heights. R.P.O.s everywhere ran out of standard
pouch and sack equipment, as this was channeled overseas. No.
2 sacks, awkwardly tagged in green with the words "FIRST
CLASS MAIL," were declared to be letter pouches for the
duration— much to the confusion of pouch clerks and railroad
porters. To augment thinning stocks of the standard large
No. 1 sack, coarse burlap bags were commandered, many of
them still bearing the names of some kind of sugar or feed


printed on them. (Easily worn through, they were supplied
with loose collar fasteners that always got lost, until some-
one thought to have them fastened on.) With such make-
shift equipment and with mail stacked ceiling high, condi-
tions were much as Transfer Clerk Ruben Ericson of Port-
land, Oregon, described them: "The boys don't sing at their
work any more; the coffeepot rusts in the pie box. The day
when a clerk just did an honest day's work has gone with
the wind ... he does the work of a horse . . . Tired and sore
. . . you never get down to the [last] sack."

In 1944 the Postal Service handled over 1,482,000,000
pieces of mail for army personnel— most of it through R.M.S.
hands. Retired clerks were reinstated not only in the
terminal R.P.O.s but even at Selective Service headquarters
itself, where their sorting skill proved most valuable. Par-
ticipation in buying war bonds and stamps was 100 per cent
in three R.M.S. divisions, 99 per cent in the other twelve;
clerks gave gallons of blood for plasma, and one branch gave
$700 to purchase a Red Cross ambulance. They organized
R.M.S. Buddy Clubs in New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis,
Indianapolis, and elsewhere, which sent steady streams of
letters and gifts to fellow clerks in camp or overseas. Newsy
bulletins published especially for them were sent over too—
the Broadcaster, from Washington clerks; the Kansas City
Service News or Buddy News; St. Louis's Buddy Club News;
and t\vo Trip Reports (from New York and Indianapolis).

Even in the prosaic "calling" of rotary lock numbers the
usual "V— Vinegar" quickly became "V for Victory"! Vital
registered military shipments were carried over key routes,
guarded by an armed soldier or marine for whom sympa-
thetic clerks made up beds of sacks in the end of the car.
Clerks even read of one of their number, a prisoner of war
in Germany, sending back to his buddies through neutral
channels for R.M.S. schemes and schedules to studyl Not
until V-) Day did the pressure let up; the five-day week was
restored in October 1945, and drafted clerks were reinstated
in the R.M.S. as fast as they were released. Deprived of their
R.M.A. membership under New Hampshire insurance regu-


lations, special rules had to be made to permit their rejoin-
ing without a second initiation fee (some unfortunate veter-
ans had already paid it). Wartime subs were quickly re-
leased, the last ones leaving on March 31, 1946.

But what of the overseas picture this time? Instead of
calling in the R.M.S., the entire job of distributing incoming
and outgoing military mails was handled by the Army Postal
Service and the navy mail clerks. There is no denying the
fact that they did a splendid, heroic job of it, under the most
trying difficulties and dangers. And yet the record seems
clear that had the Railway Mail Service been permitted to
take over the whole setup as before, a still better and an
amazingly efficient job could have been done ^vhich would
have eliminated most of the constant complaints of six-month
delays, misunderstandings, lost mails, and what not with
which postal officials were swamped (from both civilian and
army patrons) the whole time.

And much credit for the splendid accomplishments that
did transpire must go to the many R.M.S. officials and clerks
who were placed in the Army Postal Service after their en-
listment or induction, many becoming instructors. The vast
majority of all outbound army mail was again addressed to
Army Post Offices, but the standard form of address was now:

(Name of soldier and unit)
A.P.O. No. —
c/o Postmaster, New York, N. Y.^

These mails were sorted by a huge Embarkation Army Post
Office, later the Postal Concentration Center at Long Island
City, New York, and by other smaller army units.

Furthermore, no military R.P.O.s were operated on the
European continent by United States forces in this war,
either. Air mail constituted the bulk of the traffic; intensive
bombing had left almost no usable track or railway cars; and
the army postal men knew little about transit-sorted mail
and its advantages. Mails from New York to France were
routed from the port of entry (after mails for nearby units

*Or San Francisco, or other embarkation point.


were taken out) in solid railroad cars for Paris, where a Base
Post Office broke it up and scattered Postal Regulating Sec-
tions did the final sorting. A few special trains were oper-
ated (one called the Toule de Suite Express) to haul closed-
pouch mails only. The A.P.S. did sort mail in at least one
stationery French-type R.P.O. car (spoorzuagon) in Holland.

However, some important military R.P.O.s zvere operated
—in Germany and Holland, by the British, and outside of
Europe, by United States forces. The first R.P.O. of the
British Army of the Rhine began operating September 30,
194G, from Herford to Hamburg; operations were later ex-
tended to Dusseldorf and the Hook of Holland, ihis last
service continuing to June 4, 1949. Four crews of four
soldiers each manned standard German R.P.O. cars, using

Best-known U. S. Army R.P.O. was in Iran (Persia), from
Bandar Shapur on the Gulf to Teheran, the capital, on the
Iranian State Railways. Operated largely by the 711th and
730th (later 791st) Railway Operating Battalions of the Mili-
tary Railway Service, Persian Gulf Command, it traversed a
single-track, standard-gauge route through miles of desert via
Arak and Ahwaz. The two daily trains handled military
letters for the occupying forces and for Russia, the latter
being turned over to the connecting Soviet-operated line
from Teheran to Tobruk and the U.S.S.R. In three separate
four-wheeled German R.P.O. cars, clerks of the American
and British armie.=, as well as civilian Iranian R.P.O. clerks,
distributed mail for their respective personnel. With no
official title or postmark known to us, this railway post office
operated until July 1, 1945.

In China we operated the Tientsin & Chinguantoo R.P.O.,
a 150-mile route serving Marine outfits guarding the railway
and manned by Marine clerks— probably the only line so
staffed. Clerk T. V. Atwell (on military leave from the
R.M.S.) reported that the train once returned to Tientsin
minus its mail car— which was finally located in a train mak-
ing tracks for Manchuria miles away. Atwell, the other mail
clerk, and three generals pleaded with railway personnel in


vain— none could understand English— as they were shifted
around; with only two days' rations on board, it took them
five days to be returned to Tientsin.

The Tokyo-Sapporo Military R.M.S. route on the Japan
State Railways was operated by the Army, using an R.P.O.
car with small square windows and the lettering "U.S. MAIL
CAR" and "AOMORI-SAPPORO" in English and Japanese.
Though it carried all the first-class mail for northern army
units, only registered matter was sorted in transit; this alone
kept two six-man cre\vs busy. They had a sixty-two-mile car

There was a still better-known Military R.M.S. route in
North Africa, but despite contrariwise reports, it did not
actually sort mail in transit. This train from Casablanca to
Oran, however, did carry a mail clerk; he received, separated,
and dispatched closed bags of mail over his five hundred-mile
run in green-painted, ten-ton cars lettered "M. R.M.S." He
had a bunk to sleep in during his twenty-four-hour trip, but
no case or racks. It was projected to go on to Algiers and
connect with two smaller M. R.M.S. routes operating there,
and was in charge of M. R.M.S. Director Carl Gray with a
daily ten-car mail train for nearly a year. One Algiers route
was given a ceremonious 'Tirst trip"— with the mail car left
behind, as embarrassed brass-hats discovered!

Highly publicized in the military news of the day was
"the first time in history that clerks sorted mails in planes,"
also over North Africa, in April, 1943. Actually, no pieces
of mail were sorted— nor was it the first time clerks had been
assigned to mail planes (done in the 1920s— see Chapter 16).
Clerks detailed from A.P.O.'s loere assigned to planes, but
only to separate bags for dispatch as before. A "mobile post
office" was also operated in an army truck to serve Allied
forces: it had a postmark, but there is no evidence that it
sorted mail in transit or carried clerks on duty when travel-
ling. By far the largest proportion of distribution in transit
in World War II, however, was done in the Navy Post Offices
on our ships, which carried out detailed and comprehensive
transit-sorting of mails from home ports clear to Pacific


theaters of action— many navy mail clerks being former
R.P.C.s, who were publicly commended by the Navy for their
magnificent performance as a class.

Railway mail clerks in general invariably distinguished
themselves in both courage and ability, and in both postal
and combat units, in every part of the forces to which as-
signed; most became officers of considerable rank, but some
met a heroic death. No one could have gi\en more of a
"last full measure of devotion," perhaps, than young Substi-
tute Joseph Rozeman of an Atlanta, Georgia, district. He
subscribed fifty dollars monthly in war bonds out of his small
wages as soon as Pearl Harbor was attacked; solicitous
oflicials protested to no avail. Failing in attempts to enlist in
the Marines, he \vas drafted in the infantry instead; he was
detailed to a permanent United States installation but de-
manded (and was given) combat service in the Pacific— then
was w'ounded on Leyte, finally killed on Luzon. Railway
mail officials were sent to several occupied and other coun-
tries after the war to rehabilitate civilian postal service, par-
ticularly in Germany; hers was placed in charge of former
R.M.S. General Superintendent Steve A. Cisler and ex-
R.M.A. President Pete Schardt— former R.M.S. Division
Superintendent, A.E.F. postal head, and Southern Railway
official. Even today ex-clerk Archie Imus is top postal officer
for Germany's United States Zone. (See Chap. 15 re Turkey.)

When war broke out anew in 1950 in Korea, again involv-
ing this country, the P.T.S. quickly girded for action. Once
more, military mails gained priority and were handled as in
World War IL

But even in the absence of war's alarms there are still
floods, wrecks, fires, and sometimes train robberies to chal-
lenge the mettle of the railway mail clerk. Over seventy-five
R.P.O. lines have had to suspend service at once because of
floods, as in the widespread ones of March 1936 from Maine
to Ohio. As in the Beardstown deluge (Chapter 1), the appal-
ling Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Flood of 1889 was taken in
stride by clerks on the N.Y. Sc Pittsburgh, the Pennsy's main
line. They found dieir train stalled at the edge of the flood;


water was rising at a dangerous rate. But one clerk quickly
jumped out, ran up a side street, and returned with a wagon
and four horses into which all mail was loaded. They drove
to Altoona and sorted it there at the post office.

There are dramatic stories of other floods. The de luxe
Ambassador, Train 332 of the CentVt-B&;M's St. Albans &
Boston R.P.O. out of Montreal, Quebec, was stalled bet-\v'een
two track washouts in a vast waste of water at Roxbury,
Vermont, for nearly a week without any contact from the
outside world; Clerk Harold Kimball had to walk fourteen
miles to get his mail out. That was in the 'twenties; but
earlier, in 1905, St. Lou. k Little Rock (MoPac) Train ,6 ran
smack into a fifteen-foot wall of water at Piedmont, Mis-
souri; the engine crew jumped back into the R.P.O. car as
their head end was hurled into the torrent, and Clerk
Wilson Davenport finally swam fifty yards of raging water
to high ground to secure help, saving a drowning tramp on
the way. Floods invade even postal cars, necessitating piling
all mail on top of racks and working knee-deep in water;
Clerks Harry Stone and j. G. Mcllhenny did that for hours
in a Kansas City R; Albuquerque (Santa Fe) mail car in
Kansas City, and when relieved could get home only by
walking over car tops and yard fences. Ogden R: San Fran-
cisco (SP) Train 9 was twice involved in huge floods on the
"Overland" route. In 1911, says the Go-Back Pouch, the
train left Ogden on February tenth and didn't get back to
its terminus until after eleven days and a 2,300-mile detour.
Rabins: streams and washed-out trestles and tracks confronted
it everywhere; food, water, and necessities ran out, the SP
dining-car department finally furnishing rations; the hungry
and unwashed clerks were shuttled in slow stages to Winne-
mucca, San Francisco, Sparks, Reno, Sacramento, Portland,
and back to Ogden! The other (1921) flood involved a fierce
storm on the Utah salt flats, with tOAvering waves of brine
from the Great Salt Lake crashing the train as clerks swept
water out.

This same train was the victim of one of the most spectacu-
lar wrecks in R.M.S. history. On September 12, 1932, Train


9 left the rails near Emigrant Gap in the Sierras, and the
R.P.O. car tumbled six Jnuidred jeet down a mountainside
without a single fatality! All four clerks were badly injured,
yet they convoyed their registers by truck to Sacramento,
checked out each pouch after hours of guarding the mails,
and completed their trip report in full detail.

In typical contrast was the most recent of our major
R.M.S. wrecks, mentioned with a few others in our first
chapter. When the Pennsy's Red Arroiu, N.Y. Sc Pittsburgh
Train 68, reached Bennington Curve at Gallitzin, Pennsyl-
vania (near Altoona), a sudden derailment brought death to
six Pennsylvania clerks in February 1947— H. E. Bohner of
Lemoyne, H. L. Bowman of Bowmansdale, W. E. Moore of
Pittsburgh, P. J. Leiden of Altoona, B. M. jakeman of Phila-
delphia, and G. C. Bowman of Tyrone, who was suspended
eight hours by his feet before being cut loose, dictating his
will in the meantime. Others were badly hurt.

The news shocked the nation, for scarcelv even one or two
clerks per year had been killed in wrecks for decades— none
at all in 1944, 1941, 1939, and other recent years. But the
employment of untrained wartime railway workers and lack
of equipment upkeep were beginning to show; three more
men were killed that year, or a total of 33 for the twelve
years 1936—47 inclusive. The wrecks record is again im-
proving, but much needs to be done in pushing a vigorous
safety program.

W^e can only skim through some of the other vivid or tragic
wreck scenes of the past. We see the New York Central's
Wolverine, N.Y. k Chicago Train 8, running off a curve at
Rochester in 1945, killing Clerk Al Van Camp; another
N.Y. R: Chic, train piling up at Canastota, New York, two
years later, when another Al became a hero by saving the
lives of scores amid scalding water and steam (Al Novak,
flagging a second train just in time); the Fourth-of-Tuly crack-
up in 1944 of the Santa Fe's Chief, when clerks sloshed
around in hot oil, saving pouch mail, to be greeted and as-
sisted by General Superintendent John Hardy, who was
riding the same train; the Chic. Sc Omaha (C&NW) train


which broke in two just after a clerk threw off the Vail, Iowa,
pouch, injuring a passenger, because the pouch hit a switch
standard opening the points; the two widely separated clerks
killed in the same month (July 1937) at grade crossings, each
by an R.P.O. train on which he had once worked: one on the
New Haven's Boston & N.Y. at Warwick, Rhode Island, the
other at Hoopeston, Illinois, on the Chic. & Evansville
(C&EI); and many others, which pass in a crashing panorama
before our eyes. Only yesterday, heroic clerks on Chi., Ft.
Madison &: K.C. (SFe) Tr. 22, in the shock of a frightful wreck
(July 5, 1950), did practically all the rescuing of injured pas-
sengers. (No clerks were seriously hurt in the crash of the
PRR's Spirit of St. Louis, Pitts. & St. Lou. Tr. 31, on Sept.
11, 1950, into a troop train, killing many soldiers.)

The most historic of all mail-train crack-ups was doubtless
the song-famed "VV'reck of the Old 97." The engine and four
cars of Washington k Charlotte (Southern) Train 97 simply
crashed down over the broken side of a seventy-five-foot
trestle at Gretna, near Danville, Virginia, on September 27,
1903. Eleven mail clerks were killed, but three other clerks
of that crew have survived to this day, still in the Service or
recently retired. Two of them, J. H. Thompson and Jennings
Dunlap, stayed on the same line until then. Thompson re-
tired in 1941 to his home at Lexington, Virginia, after com-
piling a huge scrapbook of "Old 97" clippings and meeting
every President since McKinley. He was a good friend of
David G. George, author of the famous song, who was the
telegrapher at Gretna and had a premonition of the wreck;
he often told Thompson how he watched Old 97 race "down
grade at ninety miles an hour" to the fatal curve, an hour
late, with two firemen keeping up a full head of steam.
Thompson reveals that George lost an entire fortune defend-
ing his song rights.

Some remarkable "series" of wrecks on the same line, or
involving the same clerk or other strange coincidences, have
occurred. Besides the thirty-eight afore-mentioned wrecks on
the old Indianapolis & Effingham, we recall that James L.
Stice (see Chapters 10 and 16) was in eleven smashes and


injured in four, and that seven consecutive wrecks on the
Omaha & Kansas City (MoPac) years ago invariably involved
one particular clerk— it caused so much superstition among
trainmen that railroad officials demanded his transfer. Roy
V. McPherson, of the Utica, New York Terminal, has pub-
lished accounts of four amazing hairbreadth escapes from
death; in one case he would have been decapitated at Moira,
New York, when the engine smashed its cab in sideswiping a
boxcar, had he not jumped back from the mail-car door just
in time. Again, running on the old N.Y. & O. R.R., his train
was derailed at an open switch at Kildare, New York, just a
few feet behind a standing boxcar of dynamite. And finally,
in addition to nearly drowning on a cruise on his layover, he
tells of Slopping his Nyando & Tupper Lake (NY&O) R.P.O.
train upon a trestle near Madawaska, New York, to have a
derailed truck of the tender fixed— only to fall off the trestle
and get sucked into a quagmire in tlie creek below, barely
getting out!

In 1948 the two opposite R.P.O. trains on the same run
were both wrecked when they met head on— Newport &:
Springfield (BR:M-CVt-CP) Trains 78 and 79, near Newbury.
Vermont. Train crews on both crack Boston-Montreal fiyers
were killed, but the clerks escaped ^vith injuries; they care-
fully salvaged the mail from the crumpled steel R.P.O. cars,
one having to be cut up by torches for junk. It was the worst
wreck in all New England in a forty-five-year period. And
on the C. R: N.W. the same train was wrecked three times
in 1942— Chic. & Omaha Train 5; while in a 1945 smashup,
day-old chicks, turkeys, and white mice escaped the mails
when Buffalo Sc Wash. (PRR) Train 575 was wrecked, its
mail car jumping over the engine!

An astounding thing happened on the old Hutchinson &:
Kinsley R.P.O., a Santa Fe cutoff route in Kansas, because
of a wreck not involving any mail train! On delivering the
first pouch en route one trip (Partridge, Kansas), the puzzled
local clerk remarked that the depot had been moved across
the track, even though it still bore the same name. Making
the next throwoff, Abbeyville, tliey noticed tire train cross-


ing another railway. "They've built a new railroad here
since we were out last week, John," remarked the local man.
This station, also on the wrong side, flew by before they
could check its name; but on viewing the "scenery," it ap-
peared as familiar as ever. But when the third station
whizzed by on the wrong side, the alarmed clerks called the
train porter and asked where they were. They were at
Ellenwood, on the Santa Fe's main line twenty miles north
or Zenith, the cutoff stop where they thought they were!
The conductor, familiar with both routes, had nesrlected to
notify the clerks of a sudden detour necessitated by a wreck
on the cutoff. The disarming similarity of the two routes,
even to parallel competing raihvays on the left for miles out
of Hutchinson and identical blind sidings and chutes, had
been responsible.

The specter of fire is ever-present. A Diesel locomotive
blaze on Albuq. & Los Angeles (Santa Fe) Train 18 at Fon-
tana, California, cracked all window glass on the R.P.O.
car recently and set its vestibule fabrics afire; clerks assisted
in quenching it with extinguishers, one being injured. A far
worse fire in Detroit R: Cincinnati (BR:0) Train 57 at Weston,
Ohio, not long; aQ;o consumed all mail in the letter cases and
all clerks' belongings and grips; yet the men managed to
save all registers and escape uninjured. The Rock Island's
Rocket, Train 7 of the Omaha R: Colorado Springs hit a huge
oil truck at Dellvale, Kansas, in 1947, and flaming oil \vas
showered into the R.P.O. car from all openings; pouches
of mail caught fire, exits and creep doors were stuck or
blocked, and clerks barely escaped. At least four clerks have
been killed in other fiery wrecks— Paul Crysler and John Gall,
in that of a Chicago 8: Streator^ (CBRrQ) gasoline car at
Oswego, Illinois (194.S); and two others on the Atlanta, Val-
dosta R: Jacksonville (Sou-GCR:F, near Valdosta, Georgia, in
a burning-trestle collapse) and on a Childress R: Lubbock
(F\V'R:DC) gas rail car near Casey, Texas— both in 1942. A
Norf. R: Winner (CR;NW) R.P.O. car was derailed at Spencer,

'Now Chi. & Zearing.


Nebraska, rolled over, and burned with its mail (the clerk
escaped) just recently in 1950.

There may be smoke where there is no fire, as Clerk-in-
Charge L. Beaumont Reed of the N.Y. & Pitts. (PRR) fortu-
nately discovered one day at Monmouth Junction, New Jer-
sey; he scented a hotbox there and notified the baggageman
that it was a certain engine ponywheel. In spite of a cautious
crawl from there on (to pick up a new locomotive at Tren-
ton), the hot wheel and its mate sheered off at Princeton
Junction, New Jersey, and the pony frame dropped to the
tracks. No one was hurt as the train ground to a stop. Reed
little dreamed that the Pennsy's famed Congressional would
be wrecked from that same cause on the same tracks a few
years later, somewhat farther south, at Frankford Junction
in Philadelphia, to become the most appallingly fatal rail
wreck of modern times. (Neither did the two clerks on the
N.Y. & Wash, multiple-unit local just ahead of the Congres-
sional suspect anything, even though one of them— this writer
—had personally observed Frankford Junction as a check mark
for his C.-in-C. just a half hour before!) Reed's valiant feat
was credited by all with saving himdreds of lives (see Chap. 16
re broadcast).

Many daring train robberies occurred, too, in addition to
the few mentioned previously— especially on lines out of San
Francisco. (Mail-train robbers were once given the death
penalty.) The most spectacular was undoubtedlv the De
Autremont brothers' bombing of a Portland R: San Fran. fSP)
R.P.O. train near Siskiyou, Oregon, on October 11, 1923.
They ruthlessly halted the train with a dynamite trap, killed
every trainman and postal clerk (only one or two R.P.C.'s
were on duty), and stole thousands of dollars. Postal inspec-
tors, with only a coat and some tools as evidence, spent
$500,000 carrying out the world's biggest man hunt for three
and one-half years; all three brothers were eventually cap-

Online LibraryBryant Alden LongMail by rail : the story of the Postal Transportation Service → online text (page 20 of 38)