Ambulance Company (Motor)

The 553rd Ambulance Company was organized in the spring of 1944 in anticipation of the need to provide medical transport once Europe was invaded. After months of training, the company shipped out to Europe on the troopship Henry Gibbon in January of 1945, arriving in France on January 15th. Once ashore, the 553rd boarded a French train bound for St. Valery-en-Caux, where they were to board trucks to take them to the first assigned destination, Camp Lucky Strike. Also on the train were the 782nd Tank Battalion, the 565th Quartermaster Company (Rail), and the 1471st Engineer Maintenance Company

Sadly, the train crashed at St. Valery, and 32 men from the 553rd Motor Ambulance Company were killed, and many others were seriously injured. 

Among the dead were a Virginia resident, Private Ivory Carl Baker, and a fellow from Camden NJ, Private Joseph E. Becker.

The surviving members of the 553rd Motor Ambulance Company reorganized, and after replacements arrived and the treatable injured returned to duty, served with distinction through war's end.  

Ivory Carl Baker left a son, Jerry C. Baker, whose research was essential to the creation of this page.  Thanks to Bonnie Errickson, of Cape May NJ, for transcribing the Company History of the 553rd Ambulance Company, which Jerry kindly furnished to this website.

If you have any questions, comments, or have additional information or images you would like to see here, please e-mail me at your convenience.

Phil Cohen
Camden NJ

Ivory Carl Baker Born 1-30-15 Died 1-17-45
Private Ivory C. Baker Private Joseph Becker

Left: Ivory Carl Baker

Right: appears to be
Joseph E. Becker

Photo courtesy of Jerry Baker

The two had gone on leave together on November 14, 1944


of the


The arrival of a twelve men cadre from Fort Dix, New Jersey, formally activated the 553rd Ambulance Company on the twenty-fifth of March 1944.  Lieutenant Leo F. Talbot, by virtue of being the only officer assigned to the company, took over in the role of Company Commander.  A little to his left and just one step behind was First Sergeant Charles A. Valentine, who headed the impressive list of non-coms which included Staff Sergeants Fitzgerald, Huber, Malloy, Mayers and Runnels; Sergeants Barfield and Smith; T-4’s Alexander and Thompson; diminutive Corporal Wett and last (and certainly least) T-5 Bowers.  For the first few days, to these men every day was Friday night and they became quite proficient in the art of “GI-ing” the barracks a bit of artistry usually forgotten by most non-coms.

 This hazardous life gave way to the routine of cadre training and the NCO’s were soon deep into the mysteries of map reading, medical aid, and other related subjects.  Lieutenant Wendell M. Whalen did a one-night-stand by joining the company on the twenty-eight of March and being placed on special duty with the 554th Ambulance Company on the same day.  On the seventh of April, two fortunates turned a deaf ear to the lectures and took off for home or its environs on furloughs, seven days plus traveling time.  On the twelfth Captain Waldemar W. Wober assumed the duties of Company Commander and five days later First Lieutenant Richard K. Jenkins joined the picnic.  On the twenty-ninth Staff Bryant and Sergeant Rainone joined the company turning the picnic into a frolic.

 Lieutenant Talbot left in search of greener pastures on the second of May and two days later Lieutenant Whalen followed suit.  Training and furloughs continued and on the eighteenth Lieutenant Alfred J. Frericks came into the fold.  The “shuttle system” of officers continued unabated and on the twenty-fifth Captain Weber was relieved of duty and transferred to the 554th Ambulance Company.  On the same day Captain Clare J. Lorton arrived from headquarters, 20th Medical Battalion, and occupied the swivel chair.  More training and furloughs and on the eighth of June, Lieutenant William G. Cooper arrived, along with an odd collection of enlisted men blithely called “fillers” on official documents. The aggregation totaled seventy and, according to the Record of Events, the morale dropped from “excellent” to “good.”  Outstanding was the fact that none of these men were rookies, the majority of them being rookies once removed. Their length of service ranged from three months to three years, and with a few notable exceptions the fillers were willing and eager to become an efficient organization.  Having had the shower, the inevitable drizzle remained and to the tenth five more men dripped in.  Lieutenant Henry J. Roth made his debut on the fourteenth and the overcrowded barracks, slightly less than brimful, were somewhat relived when the thirteen men were transferred to the 515th Clearing Company on the twenty second of June.  Five days later Lieutenant Cooper was benched to the 516th Clearing and substitute First Lieutenant Daniel C. Polich entered the game.  Two days later five more men followed Lieutenant Cooper and the company, for the first time since its activation was at T/O strength.

 On the first of the month six fortunates were allowed to adorn the coveted stripes of Private First Class.

 At this time the company was subjected to a most harrowing experience…. the first bivouac.  Over hill and dale at a rugged pace they went, into a distant cornfield, there to spend the night.  Luckily the afore-mentioned cornfield was within sight of the barracks, a very consoling factor, and the soldiers in training set out to pitch their shelter halves and prepare the area.   Perhaps the most amusing incidents occurred, as they always do, at the field latrine.  Despite a will of iron, several men were unable to secure the cooperation of Mother Nature and overcome their desire for certain civilian conveniences.  The training was completed with no direct casualties and a few days later the men burrowed through the infiltration course and wept bitter tears over the toxic gas chamber.  These preliminaries completed, the company shifted into high gear and continued with their basic training.

 On the tenth of July Captain Lorton was hospitalized and assistant driver Lieutenant Polich steered the machine.  When Captain Lorton was transferred to the 122nd Evacuation Hospital on the twentieth, Lieutenant Polich assumed command of the company.

 On the eleventh of August, Lieutenant Jenkins went to the Second Army Mine School at Camp Forrest, Tenn. In search of higher education in the realm of mines and booby-traps.  On the seventeenth, Sergeants Barfield and Rainone, anticipating the bright lights of Baltimore, left for NCO Gas School at Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland.  On the twenty-seventh, Lieutenant Jenkins wordly wise and trap happy, returned from Camp Forrest.  Two days later Lieutenant Michel was demoted per transfer to the 554th Ambulance Company.

 On the first of September seventeen aspirants donned a stripe and moved into the sixth grade classification.  On the fifth of September Lieutenant Folich added to his decorative jewelry an additional silver bar and on the fourteenth the company experienced the MTP exam

 On the 29th of September, the Co moved by rail to Ft. Jackson South Carolina.  The greater majority of the Company being Yankees, the morale was steadily ebbing as the train was nearing its destination.

On the afternoon of the 30th, a hot and bothered crew of ambulance drivers arrived at their new area only to find an array of dilapidated hutments. At this point the morale hit an all time low, due to the fact the fellows were accustomed to solid two-story barracks.  Still recuperating from the hideous task of GI-ing the afore mentioned quarters twice before departure, they went about their job of making their new shacks livable, finishing the day’s work by unloading the vehicles off the flat cars in the rain.

 It was then the Company embarked on its final phase of training which consisted of preventative maintenance of vehicles, continuous flow of map problems, bivouacs, night drives at times 200 miles long, field sanitation and principles of camouflage.

 The office force was kept in a constant dilemma.  In memorandum receipt they drew two GI cars in order to transport various innumerable reports required by the 12th Detachment.  The members of the Company were greatly disappointed in the town of Columbia, which was described to them as seventh heaven.  It was the 12th Detachment policy to send out a downtown patrol over the weekend picking up GIs who did not render the proper military courtesy, this eventually led the men of the Company to spend their weekends in the local PX with 3.2 beer.

 The 6th of October saw the first group of furloughs released to 16 beaming GIs leave for home.  This policy was continued through the first part of December while the rest of the Company went through the final phase of staging.  Numerous annoying showdowns were included.

 The 10th of October rolled around on which day seven PFCs and one Private adorned Corporal stripes supported with a T (They were promoted to Technician Fifth Class- PMC).

 The record of events on the morning report of October 20th shows that in its fifth week of unit training the Company completed the basic medical test and physical fitness test with rating of excellent.  

The Company being in its 8th week of unit training passed the combat intelligence test with flying colors.  It was on that day that two men were promoted to the rank of Technician 5th Class.

 Between the 10th and 20th of November the organization received an addition of 4 men from the 691st Collection Company and finished the MOS and Air Ground Tests with superior rating. 

Thanksgiving Day, most of the men having returned from their furloughs enjoyed a very fine “Thanksgiving party.”  Turkey with all its trimmings and the inevitable pumpkin pie was represented galore.  Entertainment was furnished by various members of the command.  Headlining the feature attractions was a skit entitled “Looking into the Future” in which were assumed civilian activities of some of the men.  It was written by four enlisted men and hilariously presented by Lt. Roth.  A good time was had by all.

 The 24th of November rolled round and we received additional 19 men from 12th Detach. In order to make any desired changes and complete the T/O. 

During the early days of December the outfit was making the last and final preparation for overseas movement.  We were showered with innumerable activities consisting mainly of POM physicals and profiles, a final Second Army vehicle inspection before they were turned over to another organization, final showdowns and issuance of clothing and equipment, fingerprinting, and watching the birdie for 65-10 (Medical Department Identification card).

 In the first week of December a beer party was sponsored by the Company fund.  Beer was steadily flowing out of the kegs and all kinds of entertainment were at large.

 On the 7th of December Lt. Jenkins left for temporary duty to Ft. Hamilton, Brooklyn NY, as a company operations officer.  Promotions were once more in line, two more men were awarded the blissful rank of Technician 5th Class and one the rank of Technician 4th Class.

 On the 17th three more men were made Private First Class and ten men were transferred out to various organizations.

 On the morning of the 18th, three officers and 86 enlisted men boarded the train for Camp Kilmer NJ, arriving there on the 19th.  Within the next two days final staging was completed and at a moments notice the Company was ready to board the boat. It was between the 21st and 31st of December that 50% of the Company was eligible for 12 hour passes each day.  The most blessed event occurred when 90% of the command received 3 day passes over Xmas.  The more fortunate ones spent their last holiday at home; others were welcomed by friends and relatives in New York and surrounding areas.

 The stay at Camp Kilmer was made especially pleasant by New Jersey girls sponsoring private dances for our Company.  Restriction befell the organization on the 31st of December and those who could not find the hole in the fence spent New Year’s Eeve at the service club dance.

 1 January 1945 – The day we’d all been waiting for finally came.  The rumormongers were now put at a loss because this was the real thing.  We were going over.  We all awaited the train with mixed feelings.  Some wanted to go; some didn’t but kept quiet, others didn’t keep quiet; some put on the old bravado and said “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time.” But we knew how they really felt deep down.  Two men watched the proceedings and took in all that was said. They both kept quiet. Sergeant Bryant and Corporal Terrell were veterans of North Africa. They didn’t want to encourage or discourage us so they kept quiet.  It all happened fast. We were on a train, then in Jersey on a ferry and finally pier 84 and the liberty ship Henry C. Gibbons.  A colored band made with the jive much to our pleasure.  The music however wasn’t appreciated too much by our West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio boys and they were in the majority.  The band played on, however.

We got on the boat at about midnight.  She stood at anchor all day of the 2nd and 3rd at 11 A.M. she finally began to move.  Now everyone began talking.  Most of them had never been on a big boat before. Most of them had never left the U.S. before. A few of us were “veterans” at crossing the ocean.  Whitney and Philips, who came from Germany, Terrell and Bryant, who had been in Africa,  Lieutenant Frericks and Lieutenant Jenkins who had been in India and Ireland respectively.  I myself had crossed the ocean at the ripe age of 6. Our trip on the water was to last twelve days.  We saw the grand old girl fade away in the background.  We were on the way.  The chow on the ship wasn’t too good but only ate twice a day.  We all got hungry at about 8:00 in the evening.  It was nice and calm except for three days. Many were seasick.  Our destroyer escort threw ash cans (depth charges) over three times. The first time we were all scared to death. The others didn’t phase us as much. The trip consisted of crap games, card games, chess, our hillbilly band, Hubert Rawlings and his Violin and a swell orchestra that was going over with us. 

The Engineer outfit that had been our neighbors at Kilmer were now our neighbors again. No one ever dreamed that this gay, happy bunch of medics and engineers were destined for something very evil. Time alone knew what fate had in store for us.  On the 14th we saw a Navy plane, a sign that land was near. We pulled into pasture off Southampton and lay there a day.  Mosquito boats & British Corvettes created quite a stir as they went by on their way to patrol the channel. They were the first craft outside of our convoy that we’d seen since seeing the Queen Mary returning very big and grand and unescorted on our third day out. 

 As we were about to go to bed that night we heard the anchor being hoisted. We knew that this was the final trip. Le Havre was our destination. No more listening to the solid music coming over the loudspeaker every day, no more hoping that maybe the ship would be ordered to turn back to the states. The only thing that would remain the same would be the fear of submarines. We were told that the channel was a rough body of water but she was good to us. She was as smooth as the beautiful highway between Sound Bend and Chicago. Late in the evening of January 15th we walked down the gangplank and thanked our lucky stars for a safe crossing. Carrying our full field packs we marched through the deserted streets of war torn Le Havre to the railroad station. There we piled into the famous Forty-&-Eights. After hours of waiting, the train moved out of the station and down the track.  The ride was rough and cold and we had a hard time keeping our moral up and our temper down. We rode the rest of the night and shortly before noon of the following day we found ourselves a few miles from our destination – St Valery-en-Caux where trucks were waiting to take us to Lucky Strike.

 Coming down the mile long slope that leads to the station our train increased its speed.  After having given no indication of slowing down the locomotive smashed through the brick barricade at the end of the track over an open stretch of about twenty feet, through the station walls and finally came to rest in the town square.  Behind it was the tangled wreckage of 48 cars and hundreds of lives.

Those who were able to get about helped remove the wounded who were rushed to the hospital by the trucks that had been waiting for us.  When we had done all that was possible at the scene of the accident we assembled the pitiful remains of the company and got a ride to Lucky Strike in the back of a muddy truck.

At Lucky Strike, confusion reigned.  The camp was newly activated and the sudden call for trucks, supplies and men because of the accident didn’t help make things run very smoothly.  We were assigned tents and then every man had to pitch in with honest labor to get our cots, heaters, fuel and tend to the hundred and one odd jobs that seemed to free us continually.

I’d like to pause here to express our appreciation of the fine treatment, the sincere interest, and splendid help that we received from the personnel of Camp Lucky Strike.  They made a difficult situation much more bearable.

It was about this time that our report of casualties was finished.  This is how it read:

Dead – 32

Hospitalized – 28

Duty – 25

We had been hit much harder than any of us had guessed.

January 19th the first men returned to duty from the hospital and three days after that we got our first assignment. We were to send ten men and ten ambulances to 16th Port in Le Havre on detached service. We were glad to see those orders because we figured that meant our company would not be broken up but there was one drawback, we had no vehicles.  Thanks to the quick work of Lt. Jenkins and Sgt. Huber we were able to pick up the vehicles at ordnance in Le Havre and the ten men were out to the assignment.  If we had failed to report for that job the 553rd might have ceased to exist.

On the 28th of January we left Lucky Strike and hung our hats in a tight little Chateau in Yvetot.  That was like heaven after those tents that we had been calling home.

The next day eight of out men and seven ambulances left for Le Havre to lend a helping hand to the boys that were already there.  Then day after that five men and five vehicles went back to Lucky Strike – this time on D.S.  It seemed good to be really operating even though each vehicle had but one man on it.  It seemed to make our company secure.  We were still a little afraid that we would be broken up. This left headquarters in Yvetot pretty much alone.  They worked on the deceased men’s records and got the few vehicles that remained with them in shape.  The boys in Lucky Strike were kept busy evacuating patients from the Camp to Dieppe and Rouen.  There was plenty of mud for the boys to wade through by this time and they found themselves living in tents again.

In Le Havre the men were pretty well spread out over the city.  There were nine men at the 16th Port and the rest of the seventeen men were assigned to dispensaries and hospitals in various parts of the city.  The men handled all emergency calls in the area, evacuated patients from Le Havre to Rouen and Yvetot covered each ship that docked there and, at times, even acted as taxies for officers. Since there was but one man per vehicle each man drove long hours and was on duty for prolonged lengths of time.  We did our job to the best of our ability though and soon Lt. Carbonetta of the 16th Port called Sgt. Smith to his office and told him that the men had done an excellent job and deserved a written citation for their efforts. Even though the citation never materialized we felt better after hearing that we had pleased the higher ups.

On January 30th Pvt. Hughes who had been severely injured in the train wreck died of his wounds. That brought the total dead for our company up to 23. February 14th saw the promotion of twelve enlisted men and the next day Capt. Polich returned from the hospital. Up to this time Lt. Jenkins had been our only officer. We were all proud of the way he did his difficult job without losing his sense of humor. He was an inspiration to us all.

On the 20th, Lt. Frericks left the hospital and brought our total number of officers up to three. There was still one, Lt. Roth, who had not been released from the hospital.

Lt. Jenkins joined the men at Le Havre on the 23rd. We were still badly in need of assistant drivers on the vehicles. Two men were promoted on the 27th, one to Staff and the other to buck Sergeant. On the 28th of February we received our first replacements, 6 men. We could have used seven times that number but were still glad to see as many as we did.

We lost five men to the infantry on the 1st of March and that put us nearly back to where we had started. Sgt. Meyers was made First Sergeant on the 3rd and the next day the men who had been on DS at Camp Lucky Strike moved into Le Havre. Headquarters left Yvetot on the 6th and set up shop at Le Havre. The company was once more united. We were quartered in a dingy chateau but after a regular routine of daily inspections we found that the building was quite livable.

All this put a different light on our activities. We pulled most of our ambulances that had been working at the dispensaries at Le Havre back to the company and formed a central ambulance pool, in this way we could handle the evacuation of sick and wounded off the incoming ships, and emergency calls in the city, and evacuate patients from hospitals in Le Havre to those in Rouen and Yvetot. This proved to be a very efficient system. It was about this time that we completely evacuated our first hospital. We took all the patients from the 85th Ave Hospital at Le Havre to the 179th General Hospital in Rouen.  We later found ourselves doing this sort of thing often. 

On the 10th of March we saw the arrival of eight more replacements. This brought our actual strength up to three officers and forty-nine men. Seven days later six more replacements came and we began to resemble a company rather than a platoon as we had previously done.

On April 2nd we packed all of our equipment into the backs of the ambulances and the 6x6 bid farewell to Le Havre. We were off for Reime, France it was a long but enjoyable trip and we made it without any mishaps.  Our quarters were located in the small town of Pouillon just a few miles outside of Reims. Before we had even unloaded our vehicles we were directed to send a convoy of vehicles to Soissons to evacuate German POWs.

On the 10th we received 24 replacements and five days later two more.  This brought us up to T/O strength and we felt we could tackle any job we might get.  Our company was re-designated as a Motor Ambulance Company on April 14th.  This had no effect on our operations however.

While at Pouillon our work consisted mostly of evacuating patients from G-27’s to hospitals at Mourmelon, France, evacuating these hospitals to Reims, Guippes and Chalons.  We used up a lot of precious gasoline carrying German FX’s back and forth between Reims, Mourmelon and Mailly De Camp.

We sent one officer and twenty-two men to Arlen Belgium to evacuate all the patients from the 228th General Hospital to the 201st in Verdun.  On April 20th one officer and twenty-two men left for temporary duty at Nancy and returned eight days later.

On the 30th of April the last man returned from the hospital after having recovered from his injuries sustained in the train wreck. May 10th the company paraded in a V-E celebration in Pouillon, the biggest affair the town has ever seen. As to our methods of operations, at first we attempted using the convoy system for both long and short hauls but it was obvious that only on a long haul was that system efficient. We quickly adopted an infiltration system for most runs of less than seventy miles.  When furnished with road maps the drivers easily found any institution they were looking for.   Property exchange was followed closely when operating between hospitals but it was completely ignored when unloading C-47’s or loading hospitals.  Vehicle maintenance proved to be very little trouble because the men knew and used their knowledge of first echelon maintenance. 


Daniel C Polich
Captain, MAC


3 JULY 1945


SUBJECT:  Period Reports, Medical Department Activities 1945 – 1st Semi Annual

TO:              The Surgeon General, Washington, D.C.  THRU Channels

 On May eleventh one officer and eleven enlisted men left for temporary duty at the 101 Ramp Camp. The trucks that brought the liberated prisoners of war to the camp usually had a number of men who required medical attention.  Our ambulances took these men to the 227th Hospital in Mourmelon.  Emergency calls in that area were also answered by our vehicles. These men returned to the company after one weeks work at that camp.

The company gained one 1st Lt. On the 13th of June by the promotion of Lieutenant Frericks. The company was now short one Second Lieutenant.

On the 18th the last of our men who were on DS returned to the company. For the first time since we left the states we had our T/O of the enlisted men complete and all of them present for duty.

June 21 saw the Captain holding a company meeting to inform everyone that the outfit was alerted.  It was obvious that we were scheduled to go to the CBI ----direct!  Since the majority of our replacements had formerly been in combat and many had long overseas time we found that some of the men had over the 85 point quota and others were physically unfit for duty in an active theater. This meant more transfers. On the 26th of June we bid good bye to thirty-three of our men due to their transfers. Nine men left because they had over eight-five points, twenty-one men because of physical defects, two because they had fought in two theaters previously and one because he was over age. On the same day thirty-four men from the 6960 Reinforcement Depot joined the company as replacements.

A farewell party was held the 26th for the men who were leaving the company. This party proved to be the most successful one we had ever had.  June 27th was spent packing our equipment in preparation for our move to Camp Baltimore, a redeployment camp. Early the next morning our convoy moved out of Pouillon and headed for Baltimore.  At approximately 10:00 we reached our destination and moved into tents.  What with reveille, retreat and other formations during the day we felt that we had begun basic again.

Signed Daniel C. Polich
 Captain MAC

553rd Company Morning Reports
Above: March 25, 1944 - The first day of the 553rd Ambulance Company
November 14, 1944
Privates Baker and Becker return from leave
December 2, 1944
Privates Baker and Becker return from leave

553rd Ambulance Company (Motor) at Fort Breckenridge KY
Click on Images to Enlarge
Click on Images to Enlarge

553rd Ambulance Company (Motor) at Fort Breckenridge KY
Click on Images to Enlarge

An Avoidable Tragedy
In the push to meet the wartime demand for manpower, the warnings of the engineers on Troop Train 2980 went unheeded.
 By Russell C. Eustice for World War II Magazine

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.

Although it was cold, many of the passengers on Troop Train 2980 dangled their legs outside the doors of their boxcars in order to get some fresh air and take stock of their new surroundings. This later led to some horrific injuries in the crash.

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 below decks 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.

An Avoidable Tragedy
Page 2

 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 scene at St. Valery after the tragic train accident of Troop Train 2980 that cost 89 GIs their lives.

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 for World War II magazine.
 Russell C. Eustice writes from Hillsborough, N.C.


553rd Ambulance Company (Motor)
Morning Report - January 17, 1945
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