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Local WWII veteran operated railroads in Germany, Austria

Posted: December 30, 2011 1:34 p.m.
Updated: January 2, 2012 5:00 a.m.

In response to a November 2011 column in which railroad artifacts were discussed and pictured, Eugene Carl Griggs of Lugoff called to say he enjoyed it very much. Gene is a retired former employee of the Seaboard Railway. Little did this columnist know our conversation would lead into some very interesting and little known areas of World War II history.

Before broaching that topic, let’s begin with some information about Gene’s background. He was born in Patrick, S.C. in 1922 and grew up on the family farm adjacent to the farm of my grandparents. He attended Cat Pond and Patrick Elementary Schools and graduated from Cheraw High in 1941.

After a brief job in a Cheraw drug store, he learned Morse code from a Mr. Chinnis, the Seaboard depot agent at Patrick. He then went to Hamlet, N.C., took an exam, received some additional training, and was hired as a night-shift telegraph operator by the Seaboard Railway.

He went to work at his first job at Cassatt, S.C. on April 15, 1942. He continued to work at various locations on the Seaboard from Raleigh, N.C. to Cayce, S.C. until he was drafted. He received two six-month deferments in 1943 due to railroad employees being critical to the war effort. He entered the U.S. Army at Fort Bragg on March 28, 1944.

While traveling by train to a basic training post at New Orleans, La., he learned most of the new inductees on board had worked for railroads. He relates, “We became the 746th Railroad Operating Battalion. I was in Headquarters Co.”

From military history and their experiences in Europe during WWI, the United States Armed Forces knew when they opened a second front in Europe they needed to be prepared to take over the control and operation of railroads there. The railroads would be critical to winning the war and then critical to both sides in the peace to follow.

After three months at New Orleans, the Battalion journeyed to Harrisburg, Pa. where they received some six months of training in most phases of railway operations. Gene states, “We had men building tracks, repairing equipment, running engines and everything if necessary.”

On Christmas day 1944 the Battalion left Camp Kilmer, N.J., boarded a ship and the next day, departed New York Harbor to join a convoy being formed to go overseas. On the trip over, the Flag Ship George Washington, on which Gene traveled, developed rudder problems, forcing it to drop out of the convoy. In a few hours the rudder was repaired and in about a day or so, the ship rejoined the convoy. They arrived at SouthHampton, England, on January 7, 1945.

On January 25th the Battalion boarded barges for the trip across the English Channel to a camp on the banks of the Seine River in France. As they journeyed from this point across France in February, March and a part of April 1944, they began to work with the French on railroad operations.

The 746th and other such battalions followed behind the Army as it advanced across Belgium and then Germany, and took control of the railroads in U.S. hands. When possible, they traveled by rail as they followed the Army.

The trip across Belgium was by truck. Gene relates, “The Battle of the Bulge was still going on in Belgium and we could hear the bombs exploding. We arrived at the Rhine River the 11th and had to wait until late that day until the bridge got completed. We entered Germany about 8 p.m., the first railroad battalion to enter Germany.”

The 746th was in Marbury, Germany, April 17-19. They advanced to Genterhausen on April 20th and while there they briefly came under fire by a few German soldiers. They stayed at Genterhausen until May 14 and during their stay there, Germany surrendered on May 7th. Next they were at Altenbeken May 19- July 7, Kassel July 8-17, and then to Munich on July 18.

The 746th Battalion and similar battalions took control of the train system in Austria and Germany under United States control. The Battalions performed this service from their base in Munich until early January 1946 when they turned the operation over to the occupying military government.

The 746th Railroad Operating Battalion departed Europe and arrived in the States on April 29, 1946. Eugene Carl Griggs was honorably discharged from the Army on May 3, 1946, as a Tech 4 Sergeant and immediately reunited with his wife and children.

Gene’s family has recorded his WWII experiences in 29 pages of copy accompanied by 50 photographic illustrations. It contains many, many interesting stories which we could not include in this “bare bones” account of his interesting and little-known but extremely valuable service to this nation.

After his Army service Gene returned to work for the Seaboard as Depot Agent at Blaney, S.C., the job he held before going into service. In 1949 Gene came to work at Lugoff as Depot Agent where he worked until his retirement in the early 1980s. He handled much of the rail traffic associated with the DuPont Plant during and after it arrived in town.

Gene is a deeply religious man who actively participated in the First Baptist Church of Lugoff when it was being organized and for many years thereafter. He presently attends the First Presbyterian Church at Lugoff.

Gene’s beloved wife of some 67 years passed away about two years ago but his five daughters and their families provide him with much attention, love and care. At least one of them is by to see their 89-year-old, soft-spoken, kind and gentle father almost every day.

Tom Brokaw has named Gene and his fellow WWII servicemen’s generation, the “Greatest Generation.” His family knows an additional fact. He is not just a member but a Distinguished Member whose life demonstrates his deep understanding and commitment to the words, God, country, and family.

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