| It happened 60 years ago at the height of World War II. The world community had suffered through numerous major conflicts, destruction and casualties during the past three years and no one knew in the closing days of 1944 that it would all be over by the summer of 1945. To sustain the war effort, the supply lines had to be kept open at all costs. The railroads were a vital artery to the task at hand and invaluable in carrying out their mission. Buffalo was the nation's second largest railroad center after Chicago based on the amount of freight which originated or passed through here on a daily basis. The forces of nature however had other plans between December 1944 and February, 1945 conspiring to nearly derail the war effort! The following story is reprinted verbatim from the April, 1945 issue of the "Army Transportation Journal."
"On the evening of December 11, 1944, snow started to fall in upstate Western New York. This was the start of the most prolonged and severest winter storm in the memory of the oldest Buffalo inhabitants, a storm which caused the most critical domestic transportation crisis since 1918, and one that came perilously close to interrupting the steady flow of fighting supplies to our far-flung battlefronts. Here is the story of the storm and how it was finally licked by railroaders with the assistance of the of the US Army Transportation Corps. Without the army's help a major transportation crisis very possibly would have developed into a major transportation catastrophe.
After the heavy snowfall of December 11, 1944 intermittent snow and cold continued, but it was not until the last days of the month, when a thaw was followed by a quick freeze and more snow, that the real damage was done. Almost every freight car in Buffalo was not only frozen to the rails but encased in drifts which had frozen around the trucks, piled up to the floors, and in some cases up to the car roofs. The only solution was to go to work and dig out each individual car with pick and shovel. When a whole track of cars had been dug out, it was possible to move the cars and then clear the track with plows and bulldozers, but after two or three adjacent tracks were cleared, the tracks on each side were completely blocked by the snow and ice which had been cleared from the middle tracks. If additional snow should then come there would be no place left to pile it, so to guard against a complete tie-up it was necessary to move flat cars in on the clear tracks, load them up with snow and move them out to the main line where the snow would be dumped.
The crying need was for manpower and motive power. Every railroad linking Buffalo with the eastern seaboard was badly tied up, and vitally needed war shipments were arriving at the ports in ever decreasing numbers. Sufficient motive power could be obtained by reassignment of available power, but the manpower problem was not so readily solved. Finally, on January 8, 1945, the railroads serving Buffalo appealed to the War Department for military personnel to help untangle the congestion. Trainees from Sampson Naval Training Station had been at work for some time helping to clear the snow, but the point was now reached where experienced railroad men were needed quickly and in large numbers. The railroads forwarded their personnel requirements to the 4th Military District of the 2nd Service Command in Buffalo, where they were screened and sent on to the Service Command Headquarters at Governors Island. They then were turned over to the records unit where lists were drawn up of names and stations off all men within the Service Command who had railroad operating experience. Since the number available in the 2nd Service Command was insufficient to meet demands, the unfilled requests were forwarded to the Chief of Staff for Service Commands, ASF, in Washington, D.C. and a similar census was made of the 3rd and 5th Service Commands.
The storm abated somewhat during the middle two weeks of January, 1945, and operations improved slowly until by the 21st things were back to normal. On the 22nd, a record number of cars were moved eastbound out of Buffalo. Then the blizzard hit again on the night of January 22, 1945. This time it consisted of sleet accompanied by a 45 mile an hour gale. Engines could not get traction on the icy rails, and sand was blown away as soon as it hit the ice. Once more the cars began to pile up. The real crisis was now on. On that date the Car Service Division of the Association of American Railroads issued an embargo, forbidding the shipment of anything but war freight and essential civilian supplies to or through the entire affected area, which included the whole eastern seaboard south of the Potomac and as far west as Indiana.
Luckily, the soldiers, who by this time had been given 15 day furloughs and sent in to Buffalo by the three adjacent Service Commands, began arriving on the next day (January 23). They were put to work immediately, assisting with the yard operations and clearing the tracks. These men were paid regular railroad wages and provided with food and lodging by the railroads in addition to their Army pay. A liaison officer was dispatched by Colonel E.C.R. Lasher, Zone Transportation Officer, Second Transportation Zone, to Buffalo to keep the Zone Headquarters informed of conditions, to locate and expedite urgently needed shipments, and to furnish the Traffic Control and Rail Divisions and Director of Operations, OCT, with desired information.
The storm continued, on January 25, 1945 only 38 trains with 1,763 cars were dispatched eastbound, as compared with a normal average of 85 trains and 5,200 cars. The situation caused the Association of American Railroads to put into effect one of the most drastic embargoes ever issued. It prohibited the shipment within the affected area of almost everything except the most essential was material. The embargo was effective at 12:00 A.M. January 27, 1945 and continued for three days though January 29, 1945." 1
The embargo order placed a heavy administrative job on the Army and the Navy, for it assigned to them the responsibility of judging what so-called "commercial" traffic was sufficiently essential to their operations to move against the embargo. This meant that a vast volume of freight which was not shipped in the name of the Army or Navy, but which figured importantly in the end production of war material, had to be analyzed to determine what shipments were worthy of certification for movement into or out of the embargoed area.
To handle this job for the army, Brig. Gen. W.J. Williamson, Chief Traffic Control Division. OCT, ordered his Control and International Branch to establish a special temporary unit to "screen" all requests for certificates of essentiality. Four men-a Major, a Captain, a Lieutenant, and a civilian-were chosen. The Lieutenant was boss. On the morning of January 26, as soon as rotary telephones had been installed on a battery of four desks (so that outside transportation men would have to call but one number), the quartet of "screeners" went into action.
The wires were hot with incoming calls from industry traffic managers, civilian government officials, city mayors, poultry farmers, and a host of dignitaries. Each had the most important shipment in the country, and demanded that the Army issue a certificate to move it against the embargo. A like stream of appeals flowed in over the teletype and telegraph wires. 2 "Meanwhile, with the help of the Army railroaders who kept pouring into Buffalo, the number of cars dispatched rose steadily to 5,195 in 83 trains on January 29, 1945. By that date, 180 soldiers, experienced as firemen, switchmen, machinists, and sectionmen, had been assigned and were working.
Again the relief was short lived. On January 31, 1945 a severe snow and windstorm hit the stricken area, piling up drifts still higher and virtually paralyzing all forms of transportation. The number of cars dispatched eastbound dropped off to 1,992 in only 43 trains for that date. and remained at almost the same figure (2,028 cars in 44 trains) the following day. During this period all railroads in the area reported having either freight or passenger trains actually stalled in the drifts. On the 31st, New York Governor, Thomas E. Dewey mobilized the New York State National Guard to assist in the digging out. Schools were closed throughout the region and all business was shut down in Buffalo for a day to conserve fuel and to permit civil authorities to mobilize their forces for snow clearance. Additional troops were obtained by the Army, granted furloughs, and rushed to the area, bringing the total assigned here to 375. On February 1, 1945 at the direction of the ODT and the ICC, a new though less stringent embargo was put into effect to last for 96 hours.
Slowly but surely, the battle was being won. On February 2, 1945 a total of 3,318 cars were moved eastward, on the following day, 3,989 moved out, and on the 5th 6,218 cars, well over normal, moved towards the seaboard. On the 6th, all railroads reported that all main lines were cleared and traffic was flowing again at a normal rate. Barring another blizzard, the major crisis was past. The soldiers and National Guardsmen were kept on the job as insurance against a further emergency and to help clear up the backlog of stranded freight, but by February 12, 1945 it was generally felt that the worst was over.
Besides making available vital manpower, the Army, through the Office of the Chief Of Transportation and the 2nd Transportation Zone Headquarters in New York city, rendered invaluable assistance by taking steps to ensure that the most urgent war shipments were given priority over all other freight, helping to obtain empty cars for war plants in the stricken area, and keeping other government agencies informed of the situation. In addition, the 2nd Zone office set up a system for authorizing priorities on express shipments, which were badly tied up in the New York city area because the truck drivers and loaders were unable to get to their jobs.
"A few figures on the snowfall and cold will serve to indicate the difficulty under which the railroaders were operating. The snowfall at Buffalo from December 11, 1944 to February 1, 1945 was in excess of 90 inches, while at Syracuse it was 102 inches. The snowfall for January at Buffalo was 50.6 inches, which was by far the most ever recorded in one month. In addition, the cold was continuous with the thermometer going over freezing only once or twice in the period, and falling below zero frequently. It reminded some of the story of the Southern soldier who was stationed in a camp in the mountains of Colorado. The first snow fall impressed him very much> He wrote his mother that "five inches of beautiful white snow covers the countryside." His next letter informed his mother that two feet had fallen. By the time he wrote his third letter, winter had really set in and he wrote: "Dear Mom, we now have six feet of the damn stuff."
Naturally such a storm had some adverse affect upon overseas supply. In some cases ships could not be fully loaded since cargo which had previously been allotted to them simply did not arrive. The railroads generally ran several days behind with their deliveries, and ice accumulation in New York harbor made lighter movements and ship loading extremely difficult. However, the war goods kept flowing to the seaboard in a fairly large volume, and so far as it is known no serious lack of availability of material developed. That this was the case can be attributed not only to the supreme efforts of the railroaders but to the able assistance rendered to them by the Army. Mr. E.W. Coughlin of the Association of American Railroads who directed much of the activity in the Buffalo area stated: "Freeing the soldiers to work for the railroads here was a real lifesaver, the carriers felt the same way."1
1. Captain John W. Lovell and Lt. John H. Hobart, "Battling The Blizzard of Buffalo," Army Transportation Journal, April, 1945 pp. 16+41.
2 Captain W.H. Schmidt, Jr. "Embargo," Army Transportation Journal, April, 1945, pp. 16+40.
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