For 56 years I have been haunted by the memory of a human leg, torn off at the knee, sticking out of a soldier’s combat boot. The grisly limb was on a pile of bloody GI field jackets, trousers, helmet liners and boots at a French village in Normandy on January 17, 1945. Near the pile of debris lay two long rows of bodies — one row for the dead, one for the injured. The able-bodied scurried about and searched frantically for blankets and first-aid kits. It was, no doubt, a sight commonplace on the battlefield, but this was not a scene of combat. This scene of death and destruction was a train wreck, and these were the bodies of men who had been on the Continent for only about six hours.
By late December 1944, the initial success of Adolf Hitler’s Ardennes offensive spurred the Americans to ship all available reinforcements to the European Theater of Operations (ETO). Army units of all descriptions hastened to complete their training in the United States and were ordered to Europe instead of their original destinations in the Pacific. The first convoy to proceed directly to France from the United States cast off from New York on January 1, 1945.
Among the ships carrying personnel and war material in that first convoy was Henry Gibbons. She had been built in 1943 as a troop transport, and New Year’s Day saw her loaded with armor, medical, engineer and quartermaster units. Sleeping arrangements belowdecks were cramped and uncomfortable, and meals were served only twice a day. Most soldiers, having trained together as a unit, stuck with their group during the voyage. Cards and gambling brought some of the men together, but the real social catalysts were the 40 nurses who were also on board. The nurses helped to forge friendships across unit lines and danced with the men to all the music played by impromptu bands formed during the voyage.
The largest outfit on board was the 782nd Tank Battalion. Sporting a reputation as the best-trained group of tankers in the Army, it was made up of 695 enlisted men and 42 officers. Next in size was my own unit, the 134th Evacuation Hospital, numbering 388: 40 nurses, 35 doctors, a warrant officer, 305 enlisted men and seven medical administrative officers — of which I was one. The 1471st Engineer Maintenance Company and the 565th Quartermaster Railhead Company followed us in size. Finally there was the 553rd Ambulance Company, consisting of 80 men and three officers.
By the time Henry Gibbons came into Le Havre, France, on January 16, there was an atmosphere of friendly familiarity aboard. However, the discomfort of a lengthy voyage in stormy seas made the troops anxious to disembark and get on with their wartime responsibilities.
My unit was called first. Once down the gangplank, we were loaded onto waiting trucks. We understood that being the first to get off and loaded onto trucks was special treatment due to the presence of the nurses in our ranks. Nevertheless, it was not an easy trip. We sat on hard wooden benches in the back of open trucks with only a canvas covering overhead as we rode through darkened villages in a freezing wind. We were en route to a newly activated staging camp named, as they all were, for a popular American cigarette brand.
We arrived at Camp Lucky Strike at 2 a.m. and were assigned to tents pitched on the frozen ground. Miserable and complaining, we bedded down as best we could. Our bedrolls were back with the rest of the troops, but we opened up the musette bags we carried, which contained extra socks and underwear, toilet kits, a blanket and half a canvas pup tent. We officers chivalrously gave our blankets to the nurses and wrapped ourselves in the thin shelter halves, which did little to help us through the cold night.
Back in Le Havre, Henry Gibbons was relieved of the rest of her cargo of men and materiel. The troops came down the gangplank into a grim and silent port. Quietly, unit by unit, they trudged from the dock in biting cold to the railroad station through streets strewn with rubble of the war-damaged port city.
It was 11 p.m. when Lieutenant Reed Morse of Company C, 782nd, marched his platoon away from Henry Gibbons. At the station they were loaded into ‘Forty and Eights,’ French boxcars built to carry 40 men or eight horses. The forward 24 cars of the train were wood, with sliding side doors and single pairs of wheels at either end. Simple couplings linked the cars, which were fitted with rounded steel bumpers to absorb the force of stops. As uncomfortable as these unheated railroad cars were, they were welcome refuge from the wind and rain. Lieutenant Morse and 20 of his men climbed into one of the boxcars toward the front of the train. Other units from Henry Gibbons loaded in turn as they arrived at the station.
Trained in the repair and maintenance of heavy rolling stock, Lieutenant David Matteson and the members of the 1471st were not impressed by the French boxcars. The 1471st’s Sergeant Lowell Sell vividly remembered the events of that night: ‘The 4th Squad of the 2nd Maintenance Platoon was given an empty car, Number 13. Thinking we had plenty of room, this seemed lucky, so we spread out over the floor. Suddenly, the door slid open and two groups from the tank outfit filled our car. Fortunately, our squad decided to stay in a group. We moved in tight, sitting with our backs against the front of the car. Stafford was on my right, while Schonce was in the corner and on my left. Our 4th Squad and the tankers were jammed in tight. I remember a major in their group at the left side sliding door.’
Meanwhile, the 553rd Ambulance Company climbed onto the train. The four officers and 170 men of the 656th Quartermaster Railhead Company were among the last to arrive. Activated in March 1944, they were well prepared for their mission to distribute rations to units operating on the front lines. Sergeant Horace Wesche recalled, ‘We boarded the train near midnight in cold rain turning to snow.’ Arriving at the station after most of the other units, they were allotted the metal cars at the rear of the train.
After what seemed like a wait of hours, around 2 a.m. the engine jerked the cars into motion and Troop Train 2980 began to roll. The men removed their steel helmets and used their field packs as back cushions. The cold, the train’s uneven motion and the hard floor guaranteed a sleepless ride.
They did not know that their impatience to get underway was matched by that of the officials who were responsible for the train’s schedule. The pressure was on. During January 1945, Le Havre had become the principal debarkation point in the ETO. Within a two-week period, the capacity of the port was almost doubled. Not far away, Camp Lucky Strike was designated the largest staging camp in Western Europe, with room for 66,000 military personnel. The plan was to move GIs by truck or rail from the port to the camp, where they were to remain about six weeks to assemble equipment and prepare for movement to the front.
Hard-driving Maj. Gen. Frank S. Ross, the ETO’s chief of transportation, demanded that the troop trains move quickly. Any delay had to be explained in detail to transportation officials.
Troop Train 2980 was no exception. To assure continuous operation along the train’s route, a second engineer and fireman rested behind the coal car in a passenger car equipped with a small stove and bunks. The train’s two French crews rotated duty under the direction of a U.S. Army transportation officer. An English locomotive powered number 2980, drawing 45 Forty and Eight boxcars — 24 wooden cars with well-worn mechanical brakes and 21 steel cars in better mechanical shape. In the face of wartime demands, the British engine had been placed in service without a speedometer or speed-recorder.
After departing Le Havre, the train crawled the 32 miles east to Motteville. It took five hours to cover the distance. A rest stop at Motteville allowed the engine crews to rotate duties. Some soldiers warmed themselves by exercising along the tracks while cocoa and doughnuts were served to the engine’s crew. During the pause, one engineer took a moment to protest about what he considered the engine’s poor brakes, but he was reassured by his superior that there was nothing to worry about and sent on his way to St. Vaast. The stop at St. Vaast brought additional queries from the concerned engineer about brake safety, but he was again ignored and told to head for St. Valery.
Sergeant Sell remembered: ‘The night was long and cold. It seemed like most of the night the train moved very slowly or was stopped a lot. I supposed the devastated rail yards we crossed made movement difficult. It appeared that after daybreak we did move a little faster and more steadily, perhaps 10-15 miles an hour.’
The train stopped and started, swayed and creaked through the early morning. Twice it stopped in villages and soldiers climbed on board, yelling to nearby buddies and smoking. Dawn broke while they were at one stop. The engine was uncoupled and sent to the rear of the train. It now took off in another direction, with the engine leading what had been the rear. The engine was later returned to its previous position.
Toward the front of the train, Sergeant Julius Farney asked Lieutenant Morse, ‘Lieutenant, how long will we be in this cattle car?’ ‘Sergeant,’ responded the lieutenant, ‘your guess is as good as mine. But if you think about it we’ll have to stop somewhere to get our tanks and equipment, so relax.’
A few minutes after resuming the trip, the train seemed to pick up speed. The men of the tank battalion agreed that things were finally progressing. Troops in the other cars opened the sliding doors and sat with their legs dangling out. Lieutenant Morse’s men worked to open their door, but it was stuck tight, so they settled back to await the end of the ride.
The six miles of track from St. Vaast sloped unforgivingly to St. Valery and the English Channel. Although the engineer appreciated the need to limit his speed, his brakes did not respond adequately, and the train gradually gained momentum. The cars with air brakes slowed, but the rest gained speed and neutralized the engineer’s efforts. The engine and trailing cars soon began to weave and sway. With brakes on, sparks flew from the wheels and tracks. The engineer blasted his whistle, but the troops on the train, joyful to finally be moving, ignored the warning.
In car 13, Sergeant Sell’s platoon noticed: ‘After one stop, perhaps this is when the train relief crew took over, we did finally move faster, maybe 20-25 mph. We all commented that it would not be long now. Soon we began to move much faster and we were pleased.’ Sergeant Wesche in the quartermaster company recalled, ‘The train moved slowly most of the night, but about 10 a.m. on the 17th it picked up speed.’
The acceleration, however, soon began to seem excessive. The cars started to rock and the snowbound countryside flew by. Gaining speed on the downhill grade, the whole train pitched and rocked, building momentum every minute. The relief crew in their rest car realized the rate of speed and motion was dangerous. In preparation for an impeding crash they wrapped themselves in their bedrolls and lay against the wall of their car. Horrified at the sound and sight of the train hurtling toward their town, the villagers in St. Valery crossed themselves and watched the troops sitting happily in some of the boxcar doors, legs and feet hanging out.
As the train picked up even more speed, Sell realized ‘the car was skipping on the tracks. Then there was this jerking and lunging. Then the sense of being airborne.’ There was a squeal of metal on metal, and sparks were now flying from around the wheels. The men in Sell’s car could see other men jumping. When Lieutenant Morse’s car began to pitch and rock, he tried again to open the sliding door, but it would not budge and he shouted to his tankers, ‘You men put on your helmets!’ Suddenly, the screech of metal on metal pierced the car. There was a scramble — and then a crash.
At 10:35 a.m. the engine blasted into the cul-de-sac at the end of the line at St. Valery at about 60 miles an hour. It tore through the metal guardrail and crossed the sidewalk into the brick station. Shattering the near wall, it hurtled through the empty waiting room and poked 4 feet of its boiler through the opposite wall. The coal car fell into the station basement, and the whole train came to a sudden halt.
The force of the crash caused wooden boxcars to splinter and pile up on each other, hurling wheels and couplings about randomly. Sliding doors slammed shut on soldiers’ legs; cars accordioned into one another behind the coal car, crushing men and pinning them in the wreckage. One bumper tore loose and flew into a mass of injured men at the bottom of one car. The relief crew, still wrapped in their bedrolls, was thrown 30 feet clear as their car crashed.
For Sergeant Sell, the airborne sensation came to an abrupt stop. ‘I sat stunned for a moment, not knowing what happened,’ he recalled. ‘A large chunk of iron had come through the front end of our car, right between Stafford and me. It was either the coupling or a buffer from another car in front of us. Stafford and I had both been hit on our shoulders, but we both said we were OK. I saw French people running toward the train, most of them with wine bottles. I could not see down the right-hand side of the pile, but I could see to the left. We were high up on the top of six or seven cars. As I climbed down, I saw bodies and much blood. But I kept on climbing down. I felt helpless!’
At Camp Lucky Strike, muffled shouts and the thud of running feet woke me. My shelter half, thin as a sheet, had worked its way from under me, and I felt the frozen ground chilling every joint. The sun was beginning to warm the tent. I was alone. As the adjutant, I knew the colonel would expect me to know what the commotion was about, so I struggled up, scrambled to my feet and went outside.
As one of the doctors, Captain Edward Boone, rushed by, I asked, ‘What’s going on, Ed?’
‘There’s been a train wreck in the town,’ he said, ‘and they’ve called for a bunch of doctors and nurses to help with the casualties. Our equipment is still on the ship, so it will be rough trying to treat them. Someone said they were troops from our transport. Maybe we weren’t so unlucky to be brought out here on those trucks after all. See you later. They’re ready to go.’
I hurried on to the headquarters tent, where Sergeant Nester was cutting temporary orders for all 35 doctors and 40 nurses. The authorization was from the Base Section commander, so I signed the orders and made it official. When the colonel came into the tent, I tried to learn more about what had happened.
‘We don’t know,’ he told me, ‘but they’ve told us that 45 French boxcars filled with troops from our ship jumped the track and went through the station. It is the end of the line in a village called St. Valery-en-Caux. They say it’s not far from here on the English Channel.’
When we reached St. Valery, the scene we encountered was one of chaos and horror. Pinned men crawled from the debris as they gradually freed themselves. Ten cars were piled as high as the station roof, while wreckage to the rear formed an even higher pyramid. Some unfortunate men dangled from splintered cars by their damaged legs, while others had suffered spontaneous amputations and crushing injuries. Eight men in a forward car were dead of no visible injuries.
The engineer and fireman, though injured, were saved by the bulk and weight of the engine. The stunned relief crew survived with mild concussions. Some men were untouched, but were stunned to find neighbors on either side dead or dying.
The French villagers did what they could. Monsieur Cherfils, the mayor, and Monsieur Brouard, the head of the local police, rushed to organize local assistance. Fortunately, the station had been empty. Even the stationmaster’s wife was on an errand in the downtown area of St. Valery. So there were no civilian casualties. Military police were dispatched from nearby camps, and a cordon of security surrounded the accident scene.
Uninjured medics from the units on the train used their aid kits and syringes of morphine to help the injured. Military doctors and nurses rushed in from the 134th Evacuation Hospital and went right to work. Captain S.J. Beale, one of our doctors, later recorded his impressions of what he found: ‘News of a wreck. They need help. Stirred to go to help. Horror! Brain churned with disbelief. Clumsy boxcars piled in a tangle of wood and wheels three tiers high. A poor GI starting to jump from the top car — left arm, left leg and head outside — middle of him crushed as doors closed on him, staring through sightless eyes. A small fire between ties and a rail of the railroad under a helmet with boiling water. Nobody else near it. Who to help? Crawling under the wreckage and over a crushed body dressed in GI twill.
‘A voice, `Jim, you’re here to help!’ A guy from the tank battalion with whom we had played cards on the ship. His legs were pinned in wreckage — fully alert and mindful of his situation. A useful corpsman had started an IV. Another voice from behind, `We’ll be getting him out soon.’ `So long.’ `So long, Jim.’
‘Outside, utter dismay at the helplessness. A journey to the local hospital, to follow French doctors and some of our senior medical officers observing injured personnel who survived. I couldn’t do a damn thing to help anybody!’
Sergeant Albert Lufburrow of the 1471st Engineers escaped without injury. In his efforts to give help, he cradled a GI with head injuries. The man looked away and said, ‘It’s getting dark. I want to go home.’ Then he died. Eight or 10 men from the 1471st supported the side of a demolished car while Captain Boone crawled underneath and finished a partial leg amputation with his penknife.
Remembering the contents of my own bedroll, I searched frantically for it. I wanted blankets, whiskey, a first-aid kit — anything to relieve the suffering that lay all around me. Most of the bedrolls had been torn open and ransacked as villagers and soldiers tried to help the wounded. During the frenzied search, I came across that dismembered leg still shod in its boot.
Sergeant Sell remembered Captain Brown getting the 1471st together. I started hunting for Bob Luginbill of the 565th Quartermaster Railhead Company, and finally we found each other. Fortunately, his company had been riding close to the rear of the train, where most of the cars were still upright. Some had slipped off the tracks but were otherwise all right. I finally got back in formation with the 1471st.
When the noise, dust and confusion died down around the railyard, Lieutenant Morse discovered he was ‘hanging upside down by one leg and unable to reach the ground.’ He later recalled: ‘Blood was running down my leg to my belt, and a long sliver of wood was through my upper leg just above the knee. I reached up and pulled it out. During the hour I was hanging, I talked with one of my brother officers who was pinned but otherwise uninjured, and one of my 17-year-old soldiers whose chest was crushed and who kept asking me to help him. I reassured him as much as I could, but he died in the hospital two days later. I hung there for over an hour, feeling no pain and in such intense shock that one of our medics I met some years later told me he thought I had died.
‘It was a scene of complete horror, a total shambles. There was just about every conceivable injury among the men who died and the injured: heads snapped off, single and double amputees, much crushing of heads and bodies.’
Nurses from the 134th followed the injured to a local hospital. Despite language difficulties, they worked alongside the French staff to aid and comfort the injured.
Brief news articles about the disaster appeared in the Herald Tribune’s European edition, The New York Times, the Chicago Sun Times, the Chicago Tribune and the French Normandie on January 18 and 19. The French newspaper’s description of the accident incorrectly indicated that an American engineer had been at the controls and that the brakes locked the wheels of train. In fact, it had been the 580 tons of men and equipment that overrode all efforts to slow or stop the train.
French rail authorities held an immediate investigation and delivered their findings on February 21, 1945. They concluded that the brakes were inadequate and that the absence of a speedometer had hindered the engineer. The investigators also determined that the crew operating the engine was relatively inexperienced on the St. Vaast-to-St. Valery grade and that there was no cause for further inquiry.
In his summary report to French rail headquarters and the U.S. Army years later, Lucien Maffiers, representative to the French Railway System, stated: ‘A lack of judgment and evaluation of speed would never have existed on a locomotive provided with a speedometer; it was a convoy unfit for transporting men, but we were at war.’
Eighty-nine soldiers had been killed, and 152 were injured. The 85-man ambulance company in the first four cars lost 33 dead and 28 injured. Despite their losses, all the units were filled with replacements and sent into action. It took the 782nd Tank Battalion until April 23, just weeks before the German surrender, to move to the front. The 553rd Ambulance Company was outfitted with 10 ambulances and put to work within one week of the disaster. The 1471st Engineers and the 565th Quartermaster Company were operational by mid-March.
Although the French had conducted an inquiry after the accident, the U.S. Army did little to investigate the tragedy. The Transportation Corps’ meeting minutes of that time only mention the wreck at St. Valery twice in passing.
Minutes of the Transportation Corps meeting held in the office of the chief of Transportation of the ETO on January 18, 1945, under the Military Railways classification, read: ‘Twelve ammunition trains (5,500 tons) were moved out of Le Havre yesterday. The discharge of ammunition is around 2,600 tons, resulting in a decrease in the backlog of approximately 2,000 tons. Military Railways reported on the train accident at St. Valery yesterday.’ Minutes of the meeting for January 19, 1945, discuss the weak points in the supply plan, namely barge loadings at Antivey and rail movement out of Le Havre. This sentence is in the middle of a lengthy paragraph: ‘Military Railways reported that the French at Le Havre sent all of their mechanics to the scene of the accident at St. Valery and were therefore unable to operate the freight trains out of that port.’
The logistical history of the Normandy Base Section, dated June 12, 1945, gives the only concrete reference to the tragedy: ‘A troop train wreck occurred at St. Valery in District `A’ on 17 January 1945, at 10:30 hours in which 89 were killed and 152 injured.’
It is evident that the train was overloaded for its braking capacity and was driven by a relatively inexperienced engineer without the benefit of a speedometer. Despite two protests, the engineer was ordered to continue his trip by U.S. Army Transportation Corps officials under pressure from higher authority. It was a tragedy based on ignorance and poor judgment, for which there was no alternative or satisfactory outcome.
On January 17, 1945, 10-year-old Jean Claude Vigreux watched in horror as the train tore through his town. Years later, as mayor of St. Valery, he headed the effort by townspeople to memorialize the 89 Americans killed in the wreck. On September 11, 1994, the citizens of St. Valery gathered at the rebuilt railroad station and dedicated a plaque that reads: ‘To the memory of the American soldiers come to free the soil of France who were killed accidentally at St. Valery-en-Caux. The 17th of January, 1945.’
While those killed at St. Valery have been remembered in France, there has not been any recognition of the incident by the U.S. government to this date. Some survivors of the wreck have even been refused treatment at Veterans Administration hospitals in recent years on the basis that there was no train wreck involving U.S. soldiers at St. Valery. It never happened.
This article was written by Russell C. Eustice and originally appeared in World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!