The Army didn’t announce when the 89th Division would leave Camp Funston. But Grandpa understood the clues that signaled their transfer. No more passes home. No leaving the barracks during the day “or more than an hour at night,” to be ready to go at any time. And then there was the demand to cut hair, “the order is to cut it to an inch on top.”
The arrival of trains was perhaps the most obvious sign of the upcoming transfer. From his barracks, which lay in the center of camp, Grandpa must have heard the sound of the approaching trains—their horns blaring ever louder as they pulled into the station, clattering to a noisy stop. Maybe he walked over to watch what he called “most all the heavy stuff” being loaded. Maybe that’s when he took note of the empty passenger cars, the ones that would take the troops to New York, where they boarded ships for England, and later to France.
“There is at least one hundred fifty passenger cars on the switch down by the Depot,” he wrote on May 21.
I can picture my grandfather counting the cars. That’s what he and Grandma taught us to do when we were kids visiting them in Effingham, Kansas. The train tracks for the Missouri Pacific lay on an elevated bed just a block from their home. When we heard the distinctive sound of the train’s horn, low and melodious to my childhood ear, we would rush to the porch to count the number of cars on the long trains that, during the summer months, carried grain from western Kansas to mills in Kansas City. “Twenty, twenty-one,” we’d announce, then fifty-four and fifty-five, until, on a good day, we could shriek in delight, “One hundred cars, we saw one hundred cars!” I doubt our counting was that accurate, only that we knew that one hundred was a big number and the mark of a very long train.
Did Grandpa really have the leisure to count train cars that day in May 1918? I doubt it. But I’m sure he knew a big number meant a long train that would carry thousands of troops. In fact, in the same letter describing the clues of his departure, he answered a question Grandma had asked about the number of men at Funston.
Over this Memorial Day weekend, I’ll think of my grandfather setting off for war a hundred years ago. But I’ll also remember, as is the custom in my family, all the members of our family who have died. We decorate graves as a way of honoring them. I can picture my mother picking peonies from our garden, putting them in empty coffee cans filled with water, and handing them (complete with ants) to my brother, sister and me to hold on the long car ride to King City, where we set them out on the graves of my grandparents’ families. Grandma and Grandpa joined them, years later, in this peaceful place, and so has my father.
One thought on “Trainloads of Troops”
Ah the sound of the train! Low and melodious, as you have described. There is also something ominous about the strength of an oncoming train, or even a distant train. Your grandfather’s description of empty cars and large numbers is indeed foreboding. A fitting Memorial Day tribute to those who’s letters home ceased.