On the anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy which claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 Americans in the year 2001, it is important to take the time to remember another terrible incident that occurred over half a century earlier.
The year was 1950 and American troops had just entered into the bitter conflict between North and South Korea. Patriotic men around the nation hastened to join the newly-federalized National Guard units that were training ordinary citizens in the art of warfare.
William W. Hodge, then a resident of Carbondale, was one of the men from northeastern Pennsylvania who signed up to fulfill his civic duty.
He had already served in World War II as a member of the 54th Troop Carrier Squadron carrying mail, freight, and wounded servicemen in the Aleutian Islands, and he was ready to serve his country again.
Hodge, age 90, now resides in Jermyn with his wife, Florence. He lives in a spacious and tidy home that, drawing on his years of experience as a carpenter, he built with his own hands.
He has raised three children and two of his six grandchildren. He has traveled throughout the United States in a camper experiencing the sights and sounds of our great nation. He has endured two wars, World War II and the Korean War. And he has cheated death more than once, surviving not only military duty but also airplane and automobile accidents.
Most vivid in Hodge's memory, however, is the accident that claimed the lives of 33 men from the 109th Infantry Artillery Battalion as they traveled by train through Ohio bound for Camp Atterbury in Indiana for training.
The sequence of events began on Sept. 10, 1950 in Carbondale at the train station on 7th Avenue.
"The 109th Infantry, the 2nd battalion, was over in the armory on 8th Avenue and we marched over to the railroad station. The train was sitting there waiting for us to leave. It was two engines and eight old coaches, just sitting coaches because we were only going from Carbondale out to Indiana. It would only take one day, so they didn't provide sleepers," Hodge recalled.
He continued, "The train was sitting there waiting, and everybody was milling around. There's mothers there with kids, wives kissing husbands good-bye, mothers and fathers. There was a lot of confusion.
"The engine crews were sitting there for hours waiting, so they went over to Salvaggio's beer garden. They had to round them up, and get all the soldiers on the train, all the kisses good-bye, and all the crying. We were late leaving Carbondale."
That late start proved to be of utmost importance for the men from Carbondale.
Hodge explained, "When we got to the Wilkes-Barre yard, we had to switch over to the Lehigh Valley track that was going to take us down to Harrisburg. The thing about it was, when we got to Wilkes-Barre, we were late.
Page 2 of 3 - "The Lehigh Valley crew had put their cars, eight cars and two kitchen cars, out on the main line waiting for us. See, they wanted to get ahead because we were late and the trains are supposed to be on time."
He continued, "So anyhow, when we got down there, they pushed us over to the transfer track and we wound up on the head end of the train. It was two engines, our eight coaches, two kitchen cars, and eight cars of the 109th Field Artillery. That's how they wound up on the back of the train and we wound up on the front of the train.
"And when the wreck happened, that wreck happened in the back of the train the worst, and that's how the men got killed."
There were over 650 troops on the train that left Wilkes-Barre at 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 10 and headed west towards Pittsburgh.
After a brief stop, the train departed from Pittsburgh at 1:30 a.m. and traveled westward into Ohio with a fresh crew and engines. Minor repairs to a steam line delayed the train east of Dennison, Ohio. The train took on water for its steam locomotive from the standpipe near Dennison, then proceeded on its course.
At 4:38 a.m. near West Lafayette, Ohio, the train came to an abrupt and unexpected halt when an airline broke and the brakes engaged automatically. The flagman hurriedly lit emergency flares to warn approaching trains that the troop train was stopped, and he hastened back down the tracks with his lantern to signal to oncoming trains that they needed to stop.
Despite the flagman's best efforts, the Spirit of St. Louis, a passenger train out of Pittsburgh, slammed forcefully into the back of the train carrying the national guardsmen. Hodge still remembers the moment of impact.
Hodge said, "Well, that was some wreck. When that hit, I got thrown right out into the aisle. I was sleeping on a seat, kind of curled up on a seat. I said 'My God, what the hell happened?'
"I got up and I went to a window alongside of me, and I opened a window and stuck my head out and I looked back up the tracks and I could see all the cars standing up on end. And I said 'My God, we've been in a wreck!'"
The aftermath of the accident was harrowing. The troops on the train, as well as townspeople and emergency responders from the surrounding area, worked to free trapped guardsmen from the wreckage.
After exiting the disabled train, Hodge ran up the tracks towards the damaged cars where he was ordered by an officer to gather blankets and flashlights in order to help locate and rescue survivors.
Page 3 of 3 - "I could remember crawling up in one of those cars, pouring water on a guy that was trapped under a seat, and there was a welder from one of the little towns close by and he was there cutting the guy out. We had to pour water on the guy to keep the flame from the torch from burning him," Hodge recalled.
He added, "All railroad beds are made of cinders. And the guys were laying there in the cinders bleeding, black, dirty. Four of us would get in and we'd roll a guy on a blanket and each get a corner and we'd run down that little railroad bank and out in that field. It was a cornfield, and it was September, so the corn field had been cut. And it took a long time to dig everybody out."
The trapped and injured shared the wreckage with the bodies of the dead. Thirty-three men died, and all of the deceased were from the Wilkes-Barre area because the lateness of the Carbondale troops had garnered them what proved to be the safer position near the front of the train.
"It happened around 6 in the morning and I worked until around 11 in the morning carrying bodies out and the like. Then they called muster. Muster means that you have to go back to your company and everyone has to be accounted for by voice. And by that time they had all kinds of emergency personnel out there," Hodge said.
After they were identified, the bodies were sent by funeral train back to Wilkes-Barre where a crowd of more than 3,000 people were awaiting their arrival.
Hodge has never forgotten the events of Sept. 11, 1950, and said he feels that he is very lucky to have survived the train wreck as well as several other potentially fatal mishaps throughout his life.
He expressed the wish that people would not let the memory of this tragedy, which occurred hundreds of miles away but which has such relevance to the people of northeastern Pennsylvania, fade.
"Pennsylvania had 33 men killed with combat boots on and fatigues, and they only got paid damn little. People need to remember those men who were going to fight for their country, not just the people in New York who died," Hodge stated.
He said he wishes a memorial or a plaque could be placed locally to commemorate the event and to ensure that people will not forget an important part of the military history of the National Guardsmen of the 109th and of the City of Carbondale.
It is hoped that as we reflect on this somber day of national tragedy, the loss of those who died on this date in 1950 will not fade from memory, and that they too will be remembered as heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.