The Forgotten Train Wreck

News of the wreck was suppressed. It is not known how many GIs lost their lives when this troop train derailed.

News of the wreck was suppressed. It is not known how many GIs lost their lives when this troop train derailed.

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.

All content, including photographs, music and graphics
Copyright 2009, Mark E. Danielson
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11 responses to “The Forgotten Train Wreck

  1. Thanks for your posting of the pictures. I believe the train wreck was in 1943. I have two photographs of the same wreck with myself and my two sisters in the photos. We were living in Mae Valley at the time. I graduated from Moses Lake High School in 1957. Let me know if this email reaches you.

    Regards,

    Sam Driggs

    • There is a lot of interest in this wreck in the railroad history community. It’s nice to hear a confirmation of the event from somebody outside my family. Some of the photographs I have show a handwritten date of 1943, so you’ve definitely got some more photographs of the same wreck. Is there any way for you to post them?

  2. This wreck occurred at 12:52 a.m. August 4th, 1943 at Warden, Washington. I have a write-up about it from the Tacoma News Tribune and I think it was covered in several other local newspapers. It was not a derailment, it is, in fact, a wreck between two trains. The local freight had just come off of the branch line at Warden and had pulled down to the west switch, prepared to leave town for Othello. They had pulled down too far beyond the clearance point and the troop train sideswiped the local freight. Eleven sailors were killed and another eleven injured. Most of the fatalaties occurred in the twelfth (of nineteen) coach when it was telescoped by the rear of the eleventh coach, as seen in your photo. The locomotive that the farmer is looking at is class F-5 4-6-2 Pacific No. 849 that was being used on the Moses Lake Local, engineer Robert Renn, fireman Seifert. The locomotive with the telephone pole laying on it was S-1 4-8-4 Northern No. 251 that was pulling the Troop Train, engineer William Plybon. Note the white paint on the telegraph pole, this is the mile post, 1975 (miles from Chicago) which were painted directly on the poles in those days.

  3. Forgot to mention, you can also look at the official ICC investigation report on this accident by Googling “DOT Library” and looking the accident up on their historical railroad accident reports online.

  4. My Mom and Dad were on that train I believe. We always heard stories when we were young about the wreck. My Father was in the Service and he and my Mom were going to Walla Walla I think. They told us the first 6 cars went over and they were in the 7nth. car. We had a suitcase that had a big gouge in it and we’re told that it hit my Father in the head during the crash. Both were ok. We never saw any pics or other evidence of the crash….thank you for posting about the accident.

  5. Thanks to Allen for the correct info about this wreck. The engineer was a great Uncle of mine, he was told to wait on the siding but got impatient and thought he could make it by before the passenger train came along. He saw the passenger train coming in the distance just after he had come onto the main line. He tried to reverse the train and get it back on the siding. He managed to get it all on the siding except for the locomotive and maybe one or two cars. He safely jumped from the cab of the locomotive before the impact.

    • Caleb, thanks for that additional information. I had no idea so much was known about the wreck when I first posted these photographs. I had tried to share them with the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, without success, so I decided to post them myself. I’m glad I did. I take it you are from the Suko family around Warden. I’ve been friends for years with a man who must be your cousin. My dad played in a dance band called the Five Jives in the thirties, with Emil Suko. Best of luck in the Ukraine. My visit there in the 1970s is an unforgettable memory.

  6. Mark, thanks for your posting this. I knew your father Luke. My father was Emil Suko. Caleb is my son and he is right about the way the accident happened. The track wraps around Warden so it is hard to see far around the curve due to various buildings. Train speed was normally lower as it passed through town. I have most of the same pictures. I was born in 46 so didn’t see the wreck but heard much about it in the family. It was one of the worst wrecks on the Milwaukee. Uncle Robert evidently didn’t know the troop train was coming through from Lind toward the coast. I was told it was an unscheduled one. I believe the man with the pith helmet and bib overalls was my grandfather, Martin Penhallick, a former railroader from Moses Lake who came to look. Robert Renn lost his job and some years later died of cancer I am told. According to the investigation I do not think he was charged other than loosing his job. .

    • Mark Danielson

      One of the great things about writing this blog has been that our misunderstandings about local history can be clarified by the community of readers of the blog. Your family and mine have had many connections, especially during the decades before and during World War II. My dad (Walt, who was Luke’s oldest brother) played in a band with Emil Suko. They called themselves The Five Jives, and they had gigs in all the Central Washington hot spots: Warden, White Bluffs, Hanford, Othello… I met Emil a couple of times when he was an older man. Once I was at his house with your cousin, Randy Mohr. Randy and I have been friends since I was fourth grader at Lutacaga Elementary School. He lives in Bellingham now, not far from me. I’ll let him know you wrote.

      I had been told that the man in the pith helmet wasn’t my dad before I posted the picture, but I forgot to change the name of the file, so it still claims that it was my dad. Walt used to dress exactly that way when he worked in the fields on his farm. I remember dad mentioning Martin Penhallick, but I don’t know the context any more. I wonder if dad learned how to dress from him? It’s only through this blog posting that I’ve learned the details of what isn’t such a forgotten crash after all. I’m familiar with that section of track, since I spent seven summers working in a grain elevator just across from the depot in Warden. I know the curve, and I can see why your uncle wasn’t able to see far enough to stop his train. But would his braking have actually avoided any sort of collision? Maybe we’ll eventually hear from more people in the know.

  7. Mark, I clearly remember Luke but not Walt. How great to make the connection again. I think Luke played at my dad’s funeral. I do remember the Five Jives too. Randy Moore and I are both in ministry. He is up north as you know. I pastor a Baptist Church in Gig Harbor. Tell him hi. I am pretty sure that is Martin Penhallic but not 100%. The old Warden Depot has been moved a few blocks up the hill and is the Warden Museum. I have not been in it yet so wonder if they have pics of the wreck there. I was in it once in the 50’s when we bought tickets to Chicago. The old telegraph key still worked. The agent demonstrated it for me. Memories.

    I did read the investigative report. One note of interest on the wreck is why the last few cars may have telescoped. It may be because when applying the air brakes in emergency mode it may take some time for the air to reach the last cars on the train. Therefore, when the passenger engine skidded into the the local freight engine that was backing off the main line it likely caused a tremendous jolt. Most of the train was in the braking mode except the last cars. Therefore, they probably slammed harder into the next forward car causing a telescoping effect and much death. Robert almost had the whole train off but not enough. I am told by a conductor friend of mine that modern trains, using electronics, apply the breaks from both the front and rear at the same time. That would make braking more consistent. Interesting point.

    You mentioned you had more pictures of the wreck. Would love to see them.

  8. Cascade Rail Foundation would greatly appreciate having copies of these photos, if you are still willing to share them.

    I purchased and donated a photo of this wreck to Cascade Rail Foundation. I think it was a wire service photo. It would be very helpful to have more photos of this event.

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