WWII railroad battalion trained in Clovis

By Don McAlavy

On the windy afternoon of April 25, 1942, at Camp William C. Reid on the south edge of Clovis, the Stars and Stripes were raised during a small but impressive ceremony and the 713th Railway Operation Battalion was born.

The U.S. Army, realizing the major role rail transportation was to play in World War II, decided to organize and train units for this purpose.

The mission was to create a dependable rail transportation for troops, supplies and equipment in the battle zones of North Africa, Italy, France and Germany. The railroads in the United States sponsored and trained men, and the Santa Fe Railroad in Clovis trained four companies made up of men coming in from almost every state in the Union. Most of them were formerly employed by railroads. All of them were now soldiers with a definite job to do.

All the barracks at Camp Reid were built by the Bridge and Building Platoon. The Girl Scouts of Clovis had started a council building but ran out of money. They chose to donate the uncompleted building to be used as an officers’ club.

They got it back after the war.

The B&B bunch also built a three-room home for Mrs. Thompson of Clovis. She had lost her son in the battle of Bataan and had recently lost her home by fire. Funds to build her new home were donated by the people of Clovis and members of the Carpenters Union working at the Clovis Air Force base.

More than 42 buildings were built at Camp Reid, not counting small supply buildings. Camp Reid was named for a Captain in the Spanish-American War. For many years he was a solicitor for the Santa Fe Railroad. The site was just west of where the old Worley Mills plant was located. The 26-member civilian work staff at Camp Reid headquarters was headed by Bo Womack, personnel director. Aweida Wilson, May Foreman, and Maybelle Smith were supervisors. All of them were women except for Womack.

After completing their training, Company A railroad soldiers boarded a train for Fort Dix, N.J., on Jan. 20, 1944. After innoculations and getting full field equipment, they boarded the Hawaiian Shipper, a converted banana boat, and headed for North Africa. After 12 days on the ocean they realized how Columbus felt when he sighted land. The debarked at Casablanca, Morocco.

On an African troop train they went to Algeria and to Tunisia, and from then on it was rebuild and remake bombed-out railroad tracks, railroad stations, railroad bridges and more.
Dry as it was, the men had a terrible hankering for ice cream. They built a freezer with a water jug used for the inner container. The beater was welded together from scrap metal and the outer container was constructed of two-inch lumber. To top it all they used a G. I. power rail drill to turn the whole contraption. It was about the size of a 55-gallon drum.

“It was the best ice cream we ever had!” said Sgt. Potter of Kansas.

On to Italy on October 6, 1943, landing in Naples and finding a completely bombed out railroad yard that they would never forget. Enemy bombers were over Naples about every other night to bomb repaired rails. They witnessed Mt. Vesuvius volcano blow its top in March of 1944. They shoveled volcanic ash off rails.

On August 30, 1944, they went to southern France fixing railroads for seven bone-weary months.

It was Germany on March 31, 1945. They traveled in trucks as they had gone as far as they could by railroad. They reconstructed an 1853 colored stone bridge over the Enz River. The bridge’s arches were 45 feet long and its height from rail to ground was 108 feet.

The 94th Engineers helped on that project. The first train cleared this bridge on June 5, 1945. Germany had surrendered on May 7, 1945. The first 22 men from Company A had already packed up and headed for the good old U.S.A. As far as I know all 275 men of Company A got back alive.

Four Clovis men were part of Company A: Juan M. Cornejo, William H. Robertson, Ben B. Scott, and Virgil C. Whittington.

Don McAlavy is Curry County’s historian. He can be contacted at: dmcalavy@telescopelab.com