World War II brought many changes to the bucolic way of life people were used to living in Eastern Washington. A huge chunk of sandy real estate south of Saddle Mountain had been condemned and occupied by the government, and nobody knew what they were doing there–and if you got too nosy, they’d shoot at you. On the north side of the mountain, the Yakima Firing Range had been extended into the Lower Crab Creek valley. Fighter and bomber pilots flew missions in the skies above the canyons and scablands that used to stand silent in the blistering heat.
Yet below the mock combat, farmers and ranchers continued to plant crops and herd livestock to feed the country. Oscar Danielson died early in the war, leaving the running of his Crab Creek ranch to his eldest son, Walter. Because he had a job farming, Walter was excused from serving in the armed forces. Not so the next younger sons.
George, the second son, joined the Army and received training as an engineer. His unit was shipped off to North Africa in 1942. Years later, George would tell me that he had “passed through Kasserine Pass about an hour before Rommel took it.” A year or so ago I read Rick Atkinson’s book about Americans in North Africa, An Army at Dawn. In it, I learned that the engineers had been left to defend Kasserine Pass against Rommels Panzerkorps. My uncle was too modest to admit the role he had played in buying extra time for the American retreat through Kasserine Pass.
Lawrence, the third son, also served in the Army in Europe in World War II. His stories I never heard, and indeed, his own family heard little about what he witnessed in Italy until very late in his life. War is hell, so they say.
Even the only daughter, fourth child in the family, was fated to marry a man who served as a Chief Petty Officer in the Navy during the war. But somehow, they all came home alive and whole.
My father told me once about the problem Crab Creek ranchers had with the flyers during the war. Bomber pilots trained with dummy bombs–casings filled with powder (flour, most often) so that their strikes could be noted from the air. But the fighter pilots used live fifty-caliber ammunition, interlaced with tracers so that they could see what they hit. Some of the pilots used to strafe cattle along the creek. Ranchers, howling their protests at Moses Lake Army Air Base in Moses Lake (later, Larson Air Force Base), were told that the pilots would be disciplined as soon as their plane’s tail number was reported. Of course, by the time ranchers came across the decaying corpses of their cattle, the planes were long gone.
It seems the ranchers contributed to the war effort in unexpected ways. But everybody was involved in fighting that war. The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, known as the Milwaukee Road carried freight and passengers from the Midwest to Seattle, or in the opposite direction. During this era the company was introducing the Hiawatha trains, designed to run at speeds up to 100 miles an hour. The Hiawatha that ran to Seattle wouldn’t be introduced until 1947 (inspiring the Othello School District to name their newest Elementary School Hiawatha), but nonetheless, the Milwaukee Road was of paramount importance to the people of Central Washington. It’s hard for us to recognize what importance railroads had during those days, but the road to Seattle at that time was what now passes as the narrow gravel road along the foot of the north slope of Saddle Mountain: a road that at one point descends a scree on the edge of a canyon, so narrow that only one car can pass at a time.
During the Second World War, train travel was virtually the best way to go. Air transport was extremely limited, and the public viewed it as dangerous. But trains like the Hiawathas, traveling up to 100 miles an hour, matched or exceeded the best speeds that racing cars could achieve.
The Army, the Navy and the Marine Corps could care less–and the Air Force didn’t yet exist. Nonetheless, when soldiers (sailors or Marines) had to be transferred from one port of call to another place, the railroad was the way they were dispatched. So it was that sometime during the course of the war (I don’t know when, because these photographs are not dated), a number of soldiers and sailors were provided passage on the Milwaukee Road.
I suppose that this was around 1943…not because I have any firm evidence, but because it falls within the parameters of the wartime traffic. My father owned these photographs, and he seems to appear in one of them, although I’m told that it is not really him. But that is the way he dressed as he tended his farm when I was a boy. The photographs were taken sometime during the war, and they come from a small town in Eastern Washington, Warden (which is something my father told me). I have never been able to find information about this forgotten train disaster beyond what my father told me, and this is perhaps because the government didn’t want this event to be known.
In the summertime, the extreme heat of the Eastern Washington desert causes the rails on train tracks to expand. If insufficient space for expansion has been provided between the rail segment, a rail can buckle, causing a locomotive to derail. Evidently this is what happened to a troop train in World War II at Warden, Washington. The locomotive left the tracks, plowing into the loess at the side of the rails. The cars it was pulling continued along the tracks until suddenly halted. One car kept going, slicing through the car ahead, and killing a number of soldiers, sailors or Marines as it accordioned to a halt.
I have offered copies of these photographs to a couple of museums in Washington State, but without response. So now, I release them to you. The government didn’t allow this train wreck to be publicized during the Second World War, so the deaths that occurred here never made the news. But not all casualties in wartime occur on the battlefield. It’s never to late to mourn the dead. Click on the following photographs to see an enlarged image.
My family was lucky during the 1940s. We lost nobody. Millions of others died in combat or as victims of an unbelievable policy of extermination…in Europe or in Asia. Some of the Armed Forces died at home, before they ever reached the foreign shores, but I wonder if their families ever knew that they died not of enemy fire, but of the forces of nature and faulty engineering.