In the United States, commercial railroads transported most of the military cargo and personnel as well civilian goods. In January 1939, the American Military Railway Service (MRS) consisted of only a few reserve units. But the first three months of the Pacific and European conflicts brought about marked changes in the organization of army transportation and underscored its importance to eventual victory. In July 1942, the MRS organization, with the exception of major track and bridge construction, was transferred from the jurisdiction of the Corps of Engineers to the army's newly formed Transportation Corps.
The MRS's wartime success can be attributed chiefly to two factors: first, in civilian life a large proportion of the officers and enlisted men had been railroaders, and second, American railroad companies had accepted sponsorship of or affiliation with MRS units and trained them following World War I. The troops were inducted and trained as compact operating units and were quickly readied for active duty in units that were up to battalion-size, and the railway's existing civilian management structure became the unit's military chain of command as appropriate.
MRS units first deployment was in 1942 to Alaska. They took over the rehabilitation, operation, and maintenance of the army-leased White Pass & Yukon Railroad. This 110-mile line was the only access to the subarctic areas along the ALCAN (Alaska-Canada) Highway. The line facilitated the completion of the highway on schedule and the construction/expansion of the strategic airfields linking Alaska to northern Canada.
MRS units followed Operation torch, the Allied landings in North Africa, operating railways in three nets conforming to the boundaries of French Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. These lines were generally single-tracked, with the main lines being standard-gauge and the branches usually meter-gauge along the 1,400-mile length of the system. Both steam- and electricity-driven locomotives were used, and the system was by and large undamaged prior to the invasion.
The North African Campaign served as a primer for solving the rail problems that would be encountered in future campaigns. Following the Axis surrender in North Africa, the Allies focused on rehabilitation of the Tunisian system, and France assumed control of civilian operations. Some MRS units continued to assist the French; others deployed to operations in Sicily, where the 750-mile Sicilian rail net played an important role in supporting the Allied advance, and from there to the European mainland in the September 1943 invasion of Italy.
Allied bombing and Axis demolition had left the Italian railways almost inoperable, but prompt temporary repairs enabled needed ammunition, rations, and petroleum, oil, and lubricants (POL) to leave the port of Salerno three weeks after the initial Allied assault. MRS units, together with British railway units, restored operations that enabled combat units to receive the supplies they needed to push forward despite the extensive destruction of bridges and tunnels and the Germans' use of track destroyers. In October 1943, the MRS assumed control over all Allied railroad troops and the operation of all state and privately held railways in Italy. British and American railroad units were assigned separate zones to support their respective combat troops and worked together to rehabilitate the entire Italian system. Many of Italy's rail lines were operated electrically, with power coming from plants behind German lines so those lines had to be converted to steam operation. Italy's lack of coal reserves required converting coal-burning locomotives to diesel, as the latter fuel was easier to import. The United States sent in additional diesel locomotives, and this dual system for fuel kept the railways operational. Repairing damaged rail yards was another major challenge.
In January 1943, the MRS took over from the British the operation of the 865-mile Iranian State Railway in order to substantially increase Lend-Lease shipments to the Soviet Union via that route. This undertaking was a challenge of major proportions, as the railway wound through 126 tunnels, crossed 3,000 bridges, ran through formidable canyons, and climbed to an altitude of 7,200 feet.
A key element of planning for Operation overlord, the Normandy Invasion, involved improving the national British railway system, which suffered greatly from a variety of problems during the war. Before D day, thousands of MRS personnel, many of whom were veterans of other theaters of operation, arrived in England to take the first steps toward establishing railway service to support the Allied invasion. Some of these men helped assemble record numbers of rolling stock prefabricated in the United States, as well as conditioning American locomotives to run on British rails; others were trained to operate the French railway system, which was similar in structure to most European systems and operated over 26,000 miles of track. All these preparations paid off handsomely.
For Allied railway units, the major challenge of the invasion was to remedy the massive destruction of French ports, rail yards, and tracks west of Paris, which was caused by German demolition and Allied bombings. Allied railroad personnel made use of captured German and French equipment, and additional U.S. locomotives and rolling stock were shipped into the theater as the Allied front line advanced. Maintenance units worked continuously to reestablish track, living on trains and making repairs from well-equipped shops located on the trains. As the Allies moved forward through France, French railway workers cooperated with Allied railway units in clearing wreckage from yards and from rights-of-way and repairing roadbeds. Just three months after D day, the rail lines were open to Paris, and in another month MRS railheads were established in Brussels and Li?ge, Belgium.
In Germany, the government closely controlled the operation of the German state railway and it was always a part of Berlin's war planning; its personnel were highly trained, and German railway maintenance was effective throughout the war. The system continued to operate despite heavy Allied air attacks, enabling the German army to prolong hostilities for many months.
Railroads—or the lack thereof—affected both sides involved in combat in the Pacific Theater. Railways in China, Burma, and India were limited and not as robust as those in European countries. China had a simple rail net, and Japanese forces captured its rail centers early on; with the Japanese occupation of northern Indochina, the Yunnan-Indo-China railway was closed. Before and during World War II, the Japanese strategy in the Orient was designed to isolate China and deny its armies needed support from outside. The Japanese had great success in this effort in the early stages of combat, closing the Burma Road.
India was the arsenal for the Allied effort in the Middle East, and its rail system was heavily burdened by the demands of war, production, and the growing Indian economy. It also suffered from the handicap of having tracks of different gauges. For example, the rail line from Calcutta to Ledo went through some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world, and the line also switched from standard-gauge to meter-gauge track, which required double handling for all cargo. British and Indian railway personnel worked the standard-gauge portion, and the MRS assumed control of some 800 miles of meter-gauge track, including the branch lines. MRS personnel were superimposed over existing railway staff, ensuring that no one lost his job. Waging a constant battle against the elements and disease, the MRS team focused on railway improvements to meet increasing wartime demands. By the end of 1944, over 200 locomotives and 10,000 cars from the United States were in use in the Indian system.
The Japanese completed a railway across the Dawna Range from Thailand to Burma in 1943. The Burma-Siam railway was Japan's principal supply route to its armies in Burma. Lacking construction equipment, Japanese engineers forced some 61,000 Allied prisoners of war and more than 260,000 local nationals to hack a path through the steaming jungles with the most primitive of tools, without medical care and with little food. One estimate held that for every mile of track completed, 325 men died. During the Burma Campaign, the Japanese railways continued to operate, despite heavy Allied bombing. When the Japanese began to withdraw, British rail troops made the necessary repairs to support offensive operations. Although the terrain was difficult, the British imported light locomotives and other equipment from India and adapted the jeep to rail service.
Luzon in the Philippines was the only island in the Southwest Pacific Area where rail lines had any importance in military operations. The MRS took over railroad operations in the Lingayen Gulf area in January 1945, rehabilitating locally available equipment and track that had been severely damaged by the Japanese. American rail equipment was shipped in, and local nationals helped to repair track. By mid-May, eight trains arrived and departed Manila daily. By October 1945, approximately 3,200 MRS officers and men and 6,000 civilians were involved in the Luzon military railroad and civilian management took over after hostilities ceased. Although railways did contribute substantially to logistical support operations in New Zealand and Australia, the lines were operated for the most part by local nationals who provided shipments on a commercial basis.
The Allied powers' effective, worldwide use of rail lines for moving troops and supplies was a key factor to their victory in World War II. And the MRS was the critical element in this effort. The total strength of MRS as of June 1945 was approximately 44,084 officers and men, which were broken down as follows: European Theater—28,828; Mediterranean Theater—3,207; Persian Gulf Command—3,473; China-India-Burma Theater—4,036; Southwest Pacific Area—2,772; and Alaskan Department—915.
C. Ernest Edgar III
Beck, Alfred M., et al. The Corps of Engineers: The War against Germany. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1984.; Bykofsky, Joseph, and Harold Larson. United States Army in World War II: The Technical Services—The Transportation Corps, Operations Overseas. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1957.; DeNevi, Don, and Bob Hall. United States Military Railway Service. Toronto, Canada: Stoddart Publishing, 1992.; Dod, Carl C. The Corps of Engineers: The War against Japan. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1965.; King, Benjamin, Richard C. Biggs, and Eric R. Criner. Spearhead of Logistics: A History of the United States Transportation Corps. Fort Eustis, VA: U.S. Army Transportation Center, 1994.