The 109th’s saddest day
September 13, 2010
The Times Leader,
Wilkes-Barre, PA

Memorial service honors soldiers killed in a 1950 train crashBy Steve Mocarsky smocarsky@timesleader.com
Staff Writer

It happened 60 years ago, but William Hodge still remembers the horror vividly.

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Specialist Anthony DeMarco places dog tags on a cross during the 1st Battalion 109th Field Artillery remembrance ceremony on Sunday.

AIMEE DILGER/THE TIMES LEADER

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William Hodge, a survivor of the train wreck that killed 33 109th Field Artillery soldiers on Sept. 11, 1950, displays photos from a memorial near the wreck site after a ceremony Sunday outside the 109th Field Artillery Armory in Wilkes-Barre.

STEVE MOCARSKY/THE TIMES LEADER

A corporal with the 28th Infantry Division, 2nd Battalion of the 109th Regiment, Hodge and the rest of the Battalion had been mobilized for the Korean War and, on Sept. 11, 1950, was on a troop train headed to a mobilization station at Camp Atterbury, Ind., when the train broke down near the village of West Lafayette, Ohio.

“I was in the last car of the first eight. There were two kitchen cars behind us, and then the eight cars with the 109th Field Artillery on the end,” Hodge, 87, of Jermyn, recalled.

Despite warning devices placed out by the train’s crew, a civilian passenger train, The Spirit of St. Louis, rear-ended the stalled troop train.

“Up in the front, we got thrown around a little, but we ran to the back when we knew it was a wreck. It was pretty horrible, let’s put it that way. I remember seeing guys laying on the ground mangled, covered with cinders. There was a high cinder bank about 20 feet high, down to the cornfields, on a curve, on a foggy morning,” Hodge said.

“A diesel engine went through the last car, right on the car body, meaning it took the sides right off it. Then it hit the next two cars and turned them up on end. That’s where most of the guys were that were killed. Most of the engine was in there, too, in those last three cars,” he said.

Hodge and other soldiers hauled blankets and flashlights from their end of the train down to the wrecked end.

“We took the bodies of the dead down into an old cornfield and we had them laying on the ground because there was no road real close by. The ambulance had to come in through some pastures and fields to pick up the bodies and take them to the hospital,” he said. Thirty-three men died in the crash.

Hodge described the experience following the 60th Annual Memorial Service in remembrance of all members of the Field Artillery’s 1st Battalion who lost their lives in service of their country. The service was conducted on the front lawn of the 109th Field Artillery Armory on Sunday afternoon.

Lt. Col. Scott A. Mathna, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, called the incident the “most horrific accident ever” involving Pennsylvania soldiers in peacetime.

“Events such as this can potentially tear a unit apart. But as a tribute to soldiers, family and community, it has made us stronger,” Mathna said.

Mathna met several days ago with several members of the 1st Battalion who were aboard the troop train and involved in recovery operations at the scene.

“As I listened to their stories, it made me realize the profound effect the event had on their lives. The emotion and sorrow displayed by one veteran as he told me a story about two fellow 19-year-old soldiers from the 1st Battalion 109th Field Artillery Regiment who lay next to him and passed away was absolutely heart-wrenching,” Mathna said. “Let us never forget this tragedy which occurred 60 years ago and the sacrifice and pain suffered by all involved.”

In recent years, the ceremony has evolved, Mathna noted. “Since Sept. 11, 2001, our commitment as guardsmen has never been greater. The 109th … has deployed more than 700 soldiers in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom,” he said.

Soldiers placed sets of dog tags representing the fallen in each of the major battles in which the 109th participated, from the War of Independence in 1775 through Operation Iraqi Freedom. Sgt. 1st Class John Paul Karpowich noted that a cross had been added in recent years to honor the fallen in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Representatives of several veterans organizations presented memorial wreaths, which were carried to and displayed around the memorial on the armory lawn.

The Wyoming Valley Band played patriotic music at various parts of the ceremony, including “En Avant,” a march composed by former Battery D member 1st Lt. Phillip Gasbarro. “En Avant” is French for “Forward” and is the Battalion motto.

Mathna noted that the Pennsylvania Army National Guard has lost more soldiers than any other state in the war against terror over the last nine years – 48, including one of their own, Staff Sgt. Sherwood Baker.

“Let us never forget all the veterans who paid the ultimate sacrifice, their families, friends and communities,” Mathna said, closing his remarks with a message to the soldiers and families of the 109 Field Artillery Regiment past and present.

“Thank you for your service and your commitment. God bless. En Avant.”

Source:  Times Leader, Wilkes-Barre, PA

HARRISBURG - A yellowed typewritten press release from a Pennsylvania governor gives an idea of the impact a horrific train accident involving soldiers from Luzerne County had back home 60 years ago.

Ceremonies last weekend marked the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 1950 tragedy that claimed the lives of 33 members of the 109th Field Artillery Unit, Pennsylvania National Guard. The troop train carrying the soldiers was stopped due to mechanical problems on a rail line near Coshocton, Ohio when it was struck from the rear by a passenger train, the Spirit of St. Louis. The unit was en route from Wilkes-Barre to Camp Atterbury, Ind. as part of the 28th Infantry Division's deployment during the Korean Conflict.

The governor at the time, James H. Duff, put out this statement as the news trickled in.

"I am appalled to learn that a troop train carrying units of the 28th Division, Pennsylvania National Guard, on their way to a camp in Indiana, was wrecked this morning near Coshocton, Ohio, and that a number of our troops were killed and injured.

"General Frank A. Weber, Adjutant General of Pennsylvania, has sent planes from our headquarters at Indiantown Gap to the scene of this disastrous wreck. General Weber has also been in touch with General Kreber, Adjutant General of the State of Ohio, who has gone to the scene of the wreck to render every assistance possible.

"C.M. Wilhelm, commissioner of the Pennsylvania State Police, has also been in touch with the head of the state police in Ohio, who are also lending every aid. Details and names are not immediately available concerning this disaster, but names will be furnished at the first possible opportunity, both killed and injured, so that everyone may know fully and at the earliest possible moment all the facts and also in full who the casualties were.

"As Governor of the Commonwealth, I express to the parents, wives and relatives of all the boys in the Division our anxiety with them until the uncertainty of the casualties has been cleared and also the profound sympathy of every citizen of the State and of the Nation with those who have given their lives at this early stage for the war in which we are now engaged."

Duff was running for the U.S. Senate that fall. Judge John Fine of Luzerne County was running to succeed him as governor. Both won that November. Lt. Gov. Daniel Strickler was on active military duty at Camp Atterbury as the 28th Division's commanding general.

The press release referring to the 109th's tragedy was discovered decades later in the crevices of one of the antiquated file cabinets still in use in the Capitol newsroom.

Robert Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. Contact him at rswift@timesshamrock.com.

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