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Posts Tagged ‘troop train 2980’

Read previous Interludes here.

WWII: Europe: France; “Into the Jaws of Death — U.S. Troops wading through water and Nazi gunfire”, circa 1944-06-06, by Robert F. Sargent

WWII: Europe: France; “Into the Jaws of Death — U.S. Troops wading through water and Nazi gunfire”, circa 1944-06-06, by Robert F. Sargent

On June 6, 1944, the Western Allies launched the invasion of Normandy.  It would prove to be a pivotal point in the course of the war as soldiers, by air, land and sea, fought to liberate France from Germany.  Troops landed at beaches all along the northern coast.  As part of the larger strategy, four port cities were identified for capture to facilitate future entrance of Allied troops.  One of these port cities was Le Havre.  Secured in September 1944, the city would then be turned into a major entry and exit point for military personnel and equipment needed at the front.

[Abandoned boy holding a stuffed toy animal amid ruins following German aerial bombing of London, by Toni Frissell, 1945

Abandoned boy holding a stuffed toy animal amid ruins following German aerial bombing of London, by Toni Frissell, 1945

By the end of 1944, the Germans were in retreat.  While an Allied victory was in sight, much of Europe lay in waste.

Polish kid in the ruins of Warsaw, September 1939, by Julien Bryan

Polish kid in the ruins of Warsaw, by Julien Bryan

Caen, 1944

Caen, France

As a new year dawned, the Allies were pressing hard and in great need of reinforcements. Fresh troops were crossing the English Channel into Le Havre.

40 and 8 Boxcar

40 and 8 Boxcar (in this image from World War I)

There they could be transported inland, either by rail or by road, to staging camps where men and machines were made ready for action at the front. On January 17, 1945, in Le Havre, Joseph A. Horne, with the men of the 929th Heavy Automotive Maintenance Company, was supposed to board troop train 2980.  The train was to make its way to a French village bordering one of the largest of the military staging areas, Camp Lucky Strike.  Indeed, the train’s 45 wooden cars, called Forty and Eights, were filled with U.S. personnel including men from the 553rd Ambulance Company, 656th Quarterhead Railway Company, 4th Squad of the 2nd Maintenance Platoon and 1471st Engineers.  And, indeed, the train did depart.  What happened next has been called an avoidable tragedy.

For much of its journey, the train crawled along, sometimes at 10 miles per hour, en route to the train station in St. Valery-en-Caux.  But then something happened. The train picked up speed.  With worn out brakes and no speedometer, there was little the engineer could do.  Packed tight into the cars and unaware of events, the military personnel were at first overjoyed to be moving faster.  They did not know the brakes had failed. The train crashed into the St. Valery railway station. Cars crumpled, piling mountain high.  The reports of the carnage were gruesome. At least 87 people were killed and 150 injured.

Horne and the men of the 929th were not on the train due to “some error on the part of an officer, as a result we rode the 40 miles from Le Havre to Lucky Strike in open trucks.”  Later Horne would take photos of the wreckage.  How do we know that? Because he says so in the caption notes he wrote that accompany the roughly 200 photos he took between 1945-1946 as he served in Germany and France.

His detailed notes, along with prints and negatives, are in a box in the Library of Congress.  They have yet to be digitized. Why he was taking photos with the 929th remains unclear.  Further research is needed.  After having worked as a photographer with the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information, perhaps the military or some other arm of the federal government was continuing to utilize his photographic skill.

In any case, photocopies of at least 80 of the photos he took show images taken from January through at least June 1945 of the men of 929th at work, at play, and interacting with locals in France and Germany and of refugees, or “displaced persons”, from several other countries.  They show a war-ravaged European landscape, and they also capture the persevering spirit of people in the midst of war.

Russian girls who work in the kitchen of the 929th, by J. A. Horne

Russian girls who work in the kitchen of the 929th, by J. A. Horne

Former officer in the Russian army, captured by the Germans, and now attached to the Displaced Persons Unit of the 929th, by J.A. Honre

Former officer in the Russian army, captured by the Germans, and now attached to the Displaced Persons Unit of the 929th, by J.A. Horne

Frankfurt Vicinity, Germany. French family on Highway 8 returning home, by J. A. Horne

Frankfurt Vicinity, Germany. French family on Highway 8 returning home, by J. A. Horne

In his notes he describes taking photos from a moving train as the 929th travelled from Camp Lucky Strike to Verdun.  He describes holes in the sheet metal roof of a 929th shop caused by an air attack, and burned out tanks lined up to be salvaged near the shop area.  He describes a local elder, or burgermeister, in a German town pointing out the architectural highlights and history of his home.   The man refused to be photographed but he guided Horne around his city directing his photography.  Horne’s  caption notes, which are quite extensive, end with this statement:  “Other captions on back of prints.  Sorry I can’t do a good job on these captions.  There just isn’t time.”  The notes end around May 1945.

Around this time, the war is effectively ending in Europe.  The final battles are taking place, and soon Germany will surrender to the Western Allies and the Soviet Union.  And as German labor camps are secured, the full horror of the war comes to light.

Buchenwald Corpses, 1945

Buchenwald Corpses, 1945

What happens to Horne over the next six to twelve months is unclear.  He later summarizes that period of his enlistment as serving as an education officer.  Somehow, at some point, he comes into contact with the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Unit, the men and women tasked with recovering, preserving and eventually restituting the world’s great art, including the paintings, books and spiritual items that had belonged to the Jewish families of Europe.  By June 1946, he would no longer be enlisted in the Army but be employed with the MFA&A as a civilian.

U.S. soldier in a bombed church, by Toni Frissell

U.S. soldier in a bombed church, by Toni Frissell

He would be reunited with some of the same colleagues with whom he’d worked at the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information.  He would be called upon to utilize his skills with language, especially German, his understanding of photography, and his experience in engaging with other cultures.  And, as he would later describe to his son, there would be the adventures to be had as former allies became enemies.

Stay tuned for further Interludes in June.

 

Sources/Further Reading …

About Cigarette Camps

Russell C. Eustice Recalls the Troop Train 2980 Tragedy at St. Valery-en-Caux During World War II

The WWII 300th Combat Engineers  553rd Ambulance Company

Area Soldier Survived World War II Train Disaster

More about the picture of the Polish boy in the Warsaw Ruins 

More about photographer Toni Frissell and Women at the Front

More about the Monuments Men

Introduction to the Holocaust

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