News: From Korea to Alabama: Train engines still pulling duty
Story by Sgt. Donna Hickman
CALERA, Ala. - The Korean War connection to Calera, Ala.’s Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum surprises virtually all visiting military veterans, says the museum’s president, Jim Garnett. Two of the 40 American-made diesel locomotive engines, built in 1951 for the U.S. Army that served in the Korean War, now provide 12-mile passenger rides for visitors to the official railroad museum of Alabama.
These veteran locomotives are known as the “EMD SW-8” because they were manufactured by General Motors Electro Motive Division, with power supplied by an eight-cylinder diesel engine. The 712th and 724th Transportation Railway Operating Battalions, under the 3rd Military Railway Service of the U.S. Army, conducted the operations of these engines, hauling supplies, ammunition, aviation fuel, and troops from Pusan to just north of Seoul for battle. From there, casualties rode back to a military hospital in Japan.
Sparking museum volunteer Ken Hoffman’s interest in these engines is their connection with his personal past.“I served in Korea from July ’63 through July ’64,” said Hoffman, who served in the Army from 1962-65, ending his career as a sergeant. The Montgomery, Ala., resident was not aware of the U.S. Army trains that had served in the Korean War until he became a volunteer for the museum, however.
What surprised Hoffman most was to learn that the U.S. Army had 40 of these engines working in Korea from 1951-'53. “I didn’t know we had such a big ordeal in the train movement over there.” He said he’s always hoping to have a visitor show up at the museum who also served in Korea.
Likewise, most visitors, even the Korean veterans, are not aware of these veteran locomotives located in Calera until after they arrive. Once they have boarded the railcars pulled by these engines, and the conductor has announced their history, they become excited, said Del Tull, a volunteer for the museum who served in the U.S. Army from 1970-'73.
The two engines at the museum are numbered 2019 and 2022. After serving in Korea beginning in 1951, the 2019 was sent back to the manufacturer for reconditioning in 1953. Number 2022 was rebuilt in 1955. Both served in military bases in the United States until the early 1990s, finishing out their careers at Fort Campbell, Ky. The Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum acquired them in 1995.
Currently, the 2019 and 2022 pull passengers on a variety of cars. Two of the open air cars were flatbeds made for pulling U.S. Army tanks and now carry mostly school-aged kids, who squeal and yell with delight as they ride down the tracks at 15 mph.
Unfortunately, the volunteers have even less information on these flatbeds than on the diesel engines that served in Korea.
Garnett believes the information they have about the 2019 and the 2022 will expand. “We’re going to put the U.S. Army Transportation insignia on these engines,” said the president of the museum.“We’re currently researching which insignia was used in Korea in the early 50s, when these engines served. Our hope is that any military visitors, especially from the U.S. Army, will see that insignia and they’ll ask more about it.”
“I’ve heard some Korean veterans saying they remember seeing those engines when they were over there,” says Walter Akridge, a museum volunteer for the past four years, who grew up in Calera and now lives in Vestavia. But the memories brought to the museum come from even farther back in U.S. military history: “I actually had a World War II vet who rode the Frisco and said when he saw the photos inside, 'I think I rode on this car when I left boot camp to my first duty station,'" said Akridge, recalling that the 93-year-old veteran refused help on and off the 101-year-old car. Manufactured in 1910, this passenger car probably was converted for troop transport, Akridge added.
Garnett hopes for similar coincidences with the museum’s engines that served in Korea. He says he thinks once the U.S. Army transportation emblems are on the two engines, the sight of them will generate some questions and answers from visiting veterans. “And more than likely, one day someone who was associated with these engines will come along and talk to us.”