by Steven James Hantzis
Lincoln: University of Nebraska / Potomac Books, 2017. Pp. xvi, 200.
Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 161234853X
Military Railroading in Asia's Jungles and Mountains
Inspired by a box of memorabilia left by his father, a sometime staff sergeant in the 721st Railway Operating Battalion (ROB), Hantzis set out to learn more about his father’s war, and the result is this interesting history of two largely overlooked subjects, military railroading and the neglected CBI theatre, which included some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world, the jungle clad mountains of northeastern India and Burma.
After an introduction offering some family background and comment on military railroading, Hantzis covers the recruiting and organization of the ROB battalions, each of which was organized around a cadre drawn from one of the nation’s great railways, the 721st ROB was recruited from the New York Central, the 725th from the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific, the 726th ROB from the Wabash, and so forth. He then follows these troops on their nearly 70 day voyage aboard a converted former luxury liner from the East Coast to Bombay in India, and thence overland to the front in the northeastern part of India, altogether journey of nearly 20,000 miles. From there, the book follows these troops as the engaged in upgrading the local railroads, building new ones, and bringing up the matériel needed to support the Allied war effort in the theatre.
As he tells the story of the organization, movement, and work of these troops, Hantzis also gives us a look at the battalion’s personnel and their individual experiences coping with alien cultures and war. In the process, he also fills the reader in on a lot of information about railroading, civil and military, so, for example, we learn that one ROB could sustain operations along a 100-150 mile stretch of line. Although his primary concern is the story of the 721st ROB, Hantzis sets this within the overall picture of events in the theatre.
Rails of War will prove a profitable read for anyone interested in military railroading or the CBI.
Note: Rails of War is also available in several e-editions.