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The Story of the American Expeditionary Forces

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Light Rail Operators

Company D, 21st Engineers

Contributed by Mrs. Sharon L. (McCrady) Stone
Granddaughter of Leland M. McCrady, Co. "D" 21st Engineers

Presented the Great War Society


Author Unknown

American Engineers on Captured German Locomotive

Feeling that the History of the 21st Light Railway Engineers and especially the incidents surrounding the History of "D" Company of that Regiment should be set down in print for the benefit of all members of that Company the following is a brief History of that Organization. How well I remember the trip from the Recruiting Office to Camp Grant that has brought us so many days of woe. The arrival at Rockford, the ride on a "Dinky" train to Camp Grant, the long walk through clouds of cold, whirling snow, plentifully mixed with sand, the seemingly futile hunt for the quarters of the 21st Engineers Regiment.

On the 16th day of December word came that we would be moving out, after two hours of waiting in the bitter cold before the station at Camp Grant. The "Con" tossed up a "Highball" and we were off. After traveling all night and until noon the next day, we arrived in Detroit. At 5 PM we departed, going into Canada. The next stop was the City of St. Thomas, where we were given a royal welcome by the Canadians. We passed Niagara Falls at midnight, after several more stops we arrived at Camp Merritt to rest for a few days before going overseas. . .

January 13th at 8:45 A.M. we slung our packs and slipped down the ships ladder onto a small passenger scow and shortly arrived on French soil. The sun was shining brightly and our spirits high, we marched up the long hill, took a swing around the town for exercise and then down to the Railway Station where we were initiated into the wonders of the French HOMMES 40 - CHEVEAUX 8. [Forty men or eight horses.] We all boarded the Railway carriages, which looked like small dry goods boxes with four steel wheels under them and about 4 P.M. that afternoon our train started on the long trip to Gievres, France.

After three days and two nights of travel during which we suffered no small hardship from the cold, our cars not being heated, and got decidedly tired of corned beef and tomatoes we arrived at Camp Duquesne on the evening of January 15th. Immediately upon debarking from the train we marched down the track a short distance and stopped in front of an empty warehouse, which was to be our new home until we had unloaded and constructed our new barracks.

The following week was spent unloading and constructing barracks of all sizes and Camp Duquesne began to grow very rapidly . . . During the latter part of our two months stay at this point we unloaded thousands of tons of machinery and supplies of every description, both for the use of our own Regiment at the front, and for the use of many other Engineer Regiments which were still to come from America.

On the 23rd day of January we record the first death, that of one of the most cheerful and generous men in our company, Private C. J. Cochrane. His death came as a shock to the men as he had only been sick but a matter of hours when his death was announced. A wreath was bought by the company and we buried our beloved comrade with all military honors.

On the 7th day of March we again entrained and this time started for the long awaited, service at the front. After two nights and three days of travel we arrived at Sorcy-sur-Meuse. There we were a distance of nine miles from the front line trenches. Upon our arrival at the station and as we were leaving the train we witnessed our first air battle. A German plane had came over to greet us and small white clouds of smoke alternating with black ones were bursting all around him. . .

Our task was to construct a light railway from Sorcy to Corneville, there connecting with the French Light Railway which ran to that point from Pagny which formed a perfect network of tracks directly behind the trenches.

Company "B" working out of Corneville in our direction connected up with us near the village of Vertuzy and this marked the day we finally came into our own and commenced on the work for which we had enlisted. Light Steamers, Tractors and cars were shipped in on broad gauge and after being overhauled in the shops which Company D, had constructed, regular trains of engines and cars began to leave Sorcy daily for the front. Shortly after the supply trains were put into operation our Regiment took over the task of hauling rock, crushed by machinery installed and maintained by the 28th Engineers, from Vertuzy to Neuf Etang and points closer to the front. This crushed rock was to be used by the 23rd Engineers in constructing the Military Roads, which later were to play such an important part in the transporting of Guns and Ammunition in the preparations for the St. Mihiel Offensive.

Great care was exercised in construction of these roads. They stand today, a monument of the industry and courage of the 21st and 23rd Engineers. Tourists, for many years to come will slip over these roads on their high powered cars, never realizing that they were built by men who were under constant shell fire from the German Batteries located behind Mont Sec which were directed by the Hun Observation Balloons.

Regular trains were run out of Sorcy hauling supplies for the front and had been operating about a month when about the middle of July our railway took over the work of transporting relief troops of the 82nd and the 89th Divisions from Corneville and other points where other troops were billeted to Edgwood, a siding located close to Rolacourt and within a few kilos of the trenches. This was a dangerous service; German Planes being always on the lookout for sparks from the steamer and quick to turn their machine guns on them or to drop bombs. Great care was taken, to movements always being made at night and to our credit it can be said that no losses occurred amongst the troops while in our care.

Men from D Company were also assigned to relive the French Telephone Operators and the men in the advanced telephone service which lay through Nauginsaard Wood down to Neuf Etang, across to Corneville and around to Brucy were constantly exposed to gas attacks and shell fire. . .This service, both for engine and crews and the telephone operators was very dangerous.

Mont Sec, a strongly fortified German position dominated the surrounding country, Nauginsaard Wood, Bois Chenoit, Rolacourt, Brucy, Mandres, Hamonville, Beaumont and Rambicourt being some of the villages and forests that lay at the foot of Mont Sec. German observers, both in balloons and in observation posts on Sec kept vigorous lookout for signs of steamers or tractors operating through these points and were ever ready to shell us.

On the night of June 16th the Germans made a serious attempt to force us to abandon operations in Nauginsaard Wood. Heavy artillery fire was concentrated on Lights Out, Pondesse, Neuf Etang, Corneville and especially against the vicinity of the passing track, Engine track and dugouts at Nauginsaard. Here the men took refuge in the operators' dugouts which was the strongest built. This dugout was safe shelter against the direct hits of the German 77's but was no shelter against the direct hits from the shell that the Germans were directing against the vicinity of the dugouts in an attempt to destroy them. Shells ranging in size from 77's to the big 210's tore grate holes in the forest and the earth around the dugout, gas was mixed with high explosives and the men lay for hours in this dugout with their gas masks on, expecting any moment that a 210 would put an end to them. The fire ceased about 3 A.M. and when daylight came the boys were all out inspecting the results of the enemy shell fire. The track was torn up in numerous places and big trees cut down by shells had fallen across the track, blocking all traffic. Work was immediately begun clearing up the debris and restoring the track and operations were carried on as usual.

As the summer wore on, work became harder in preparation for the offensive planned, as events later proved for the 12th of September. The three spurs running out of Nauginsaard for the purpose of supplying ammunition to our batteries were enlarged and the spur running to Edgewood was lengthened to Rolacourt and then connected to Brucy, also a branch of this spur was built down to a point in the first trench defense where huge cement pill boxes were constructed. Another spur reaching to Delatoille was lengthened and connected with Hamonville, Mandres and Beaumont. Another spur reaching to Bois Chenoit was re-graded and built to the edge of the woods, immediately behind Rambicourt.

In August, hundreds of sections of decauville [?] were stored under camaflouge along these spurs, hundreds of tons of crushed rock to provide ballast for this track was also stored and huge preparations were made to cross the low ground in front of Mont Sec, bridge No-Mans-Land and connect up with the German Light Railway which was known to exist in the forest at the foot of Mont Sec.

On September 12th at 1:05 A.M. the great drive for which we made our gigantic preparations commenced. Huge 16-inch guns mounted on board gauge railway equipment threw their great shells over our heads. Nine point two's hidden here and there in Nauginsaard, boomed at regular intervals and eight-inch howitzers threw their two hundred-pound shells in unison. This terrific barrage lasted until daylight, tons of high explosives falling on the German defenses, then the tanks were sent forward accompanied by the infantry, the barrage was raised and the doughboys were busy wiping up German machine gun nests and dugouts. About 7 A.M. Artillery Operations against Mont Sec were discontinued as it had been surrounded and the fact was established that no batteries were on the Mountain. Tanks quickly skirted it and the doughboys followed the tanks, rushing dugouts and taking prisoners as the Germans, terrified by the barrage had retired to their dugouts, many of which were made of cement and went forty feet under ground. So closely was the barrage followed that they were surrounded and taken captive before becoming fully aware that the barrage had passed over.

Great excitement and joy spread throughout the American Command for Mont Sec the great German stronghold had fallen with out hardly a blow. The Americans, not satisfied with their easy victory started a vigorous pursuit of the Hun. Heavy Artillery was left far behind, the 75's had a hard time to keep up with our doughboys. By evening the St Mihiel sector had fallen to the Americans and the Germans were desperately holding on a new line across the mouth of the old St. Mihiel pocket. The Boche was allowed to remain on this line while the positions taken were consolidated. So soon as it developed that our attack was successful, work was commenced on connecting up our light railway track with the network of Boche track some two kilometers distant from our railheads.

Three tractor crews had arrived during the night of September 11th and the morning of the 12th, and they commenced hauling rail from the piles stored in Nauginsaard and the Bois Chenoit towards the end of the spur at the edge of the Bois Chenoit. Company "A" began work about 2 P.M. and with the aid of a colored labor battalion track was laid and work trains operating past Rambicourt and nearly to Xivray before night. Work continued through the night and the following day saw the light railway crossing no-mans-land. September 14th saw connection made with German track. Immediately work trains commenced the ballasting of the new track and within a week a firm roadbed was established connecting American and German Rail.

Loading a Supply Train

Ammunition was moving up to the new battery positions and the Railroads of Sorcy and Pagny were in direct connection with the Army once more. Trains operated night and day being exposed to enemy shellfire and bombing. The Boche made several night raids on Sorcy, and Sergeant Riley of Company "C" was killed by a bomb on the night of September 17th. Corporal Bert Morgan and Privates Albert Wehmieier and Martin Nelson were placed in charge of the machine gun erected for defense against these night raids but the German planes came over so high, that our machine gunners were unable to locate them as a target to shoot at. Rain prevented the Boche from returning to continue his night raids for several days but on September 21st "A" Company was attacked about 10 P.M. and the bombs were dropped in and around the camp.

On September 27th, we recorded the second death in our Company, that of Private John P. Vanderdose, who was instantly killed by the accidental explosion of a one pound shell. We buried our comrade with all military honors at Vertuzey Cemetery on the 28th Day of September 1918. His many friends forming a Guard of Honor to bear him to his last resting place.

During the period from September 15th until October 7th, all of the 1st class combat troops of the line, were withdrawn from St. Mihiel sector, the drive being abandoned there and they were massed near Verdun in preparation for the Argonne Meuse Offensive. On October 7th, the tractor crews were ordered to Montfaucon with all equipment.

On the afternoon of October 8th, two tractors and four crews left Kivray on their way to Montfaucon. The men forming these crews were, Conductors Murry Jensen and Kelly and Caine, Engineers Sather, McEwen, Carey and Watson, Brakemen Byrne, Beleal, Mayo and Loftus, being the first Company "D" men to arrive on that front. On the second afternoon we arrived at Dombasle. Shortly after arriving during the early evening, Engineer McEwen had the honor of saluting no less then General Pershing. Several of us missed the chance to see Pershing, but were glad to learn that he was not to busy to return a salute to his light railway boys, even if they did look more like ditch diggers then soldiers, as we were all pretty well caked up with mud owing to our labor during the night trying to get over the country with a car that insisted upon jumping off into every mud puddle it passed. On the afternoon of the second day, we were at Montfaucon and witnessed several air battles. Two planes were shot down in flames but so far away that we did not know whether they were friend or foe.

On October 10th, the balance of the personnel of our Company loaded onto three trains hauled by our petite locomotives and started on the long trip from Sorcy to Aisne. That afternoon they arrived at a point near Vigneulles, where they were forced to stay until dark as they had to pass a point which was in plain view of the Germans and of which the Germans had the range. After dark they proceeded and upon arriving at this dangerous stretch of track were greeted by shellfire, from German 77's. The Germans had the range and shrapnel struck the cars and engines. To make matters worse the engine on the head train left the rails and the Company was forced to take cover from the hail of shrapnel, which the Germans were throwing at them. After a long and arduous journey the Company arrived at Aisnes, close to the foot of Montfaucon on October 12th, 1918.

As November 1st approached, the bombing and shelling became fiercer and air fights were frequent. The vicinity around Grant siding, where we stored thirty to forty railway cars was a particular object of attack by Boche bombers. One night there were as many as 14 searchlights crossing the sky looking for the German planes.

It was during this time that Engineer George H. Bulla received orders to haul a train of light railway cars loaded with supplies to Romagne. The Boche had a battery of 77's on a hill commanding Romagne and they had been shelling this place regularly. Bulla arrived with his train just south of town and was greeted by a flock of shells from the German Battery. High explosives and gas shell were bursting close to the train and the man abandoned it. Bulla was caught by the gas before he could get his gas mask in place and as a result he spent many days in the hospital, being blind for seven days and suffering with his lungs.

On the morning of November 1st, the Offensive was resumed against the German positions out of Romagne and two of our tractor crews were sent up with trainloads of the 16th Engineers who were to repair the newly captured track. When they arrived, the 16th men unloaded and started up the track only to have a battery of German 77's open up on them, a second Lieutenant and two men were killed. During the period from November 1st to 11th, the balance of the Company was moved from Romagne where they operated trains from Montfaucon to Landres-St. George, hauling rations, for the 89th Division and Ammunition for both the 89th and 91st Divisions.

US Light Rail in Operation

The night of November 10th, the last night of the War, a member of our Company went out with a lantern after dark and flagged himself a Boche Bombing Plane. The men who thought the war was over quickly changed their minds when the Boche began to acknowledge receipt of the signals. The German evidently opened the "Tail Gate." Bombs began bursting around the camp, throwing rocks and dirt every where. Needless to say, there were no more White Way exhibitions given for the Enemy's benefit that night!

The next day we receive the glad news that the war was over and a mighty sigh of relief went up from the tired men who had endured hardships and dangers for many months with this one thought in mind that soon they would be going home to the U.S.A.

The following month our Company was occupied with the work of hauling ammunition from the scattered dumps along the front up to Montigny, where a large dump was established. The work was carried on cheerfully and well amidst surroundings whish were anything but cheerful. The countryside was torn and destroyed by the shellfire of the two contending armies. No civilians were to be found here at all. Dead bodies lay unburied beside the track and carcasses of horses lay in the beds of running streams making all water a thing to be avoided.

On February 1st, 1919 the word had gone around that our Engineers had pulled the last throttle and our trains had given the last Highball in the land of the French.

Regular Contributor Len Shurtleff recommends the following related work:

Narrow Gauge to No Man's Land: U. S. Army 60 cm Gauge Railways of the First World War in France
Richard Dunn, Benchmark, Los Altos, CA, 1990. ISBN 0-9615467-2-7, $38.50.

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