728th Railway Operating Battalion L&N speaker series

L & N sponsored rail effort during WWII, speaker says: Old L&N Depot's All Aboard' series spotlights 728th Railway Operating Battalion
Justin Story

Nov. 29--War transported them from the railroad depots along the Louisville and Nashville Railroad to the European theater.
They weren't soldiers on the front lines, but members of the 728th Railway Operating Battalion, railroad operators who supplied the soldiers of the Allied forces during World War II.
David Wilkins, a native of Bardstown who studied history at Western Kentucky University, spoke Saturday about the work undertaken in Europe by the battalion, which was sponsored by the L&N Railroad.
Now an attorney in St. Louis, Wilkins researched and wrote a thesis while at WKU on the 728th ROB, one of several World War II-era battalions sponsored by American railroad companies.

He returned to the Old L&N Depot on Saturday as part of the historic museum's "All Aboard" monthly lecture series. Wilkins said the formation of the rail battalions came about as an answer to the question facing the American rail industry just before the war: If the U.S. and Allied forces had to fight in Europe, how do you supply the massive armies as they make their way through the continent?
"The answer was, 'Let's see if these railroads will sponsor these units and let the railroaders do what they do best,' " Wilkins said. The battalion, which was activated in 1942, consisted of 900 civilian L&N employees and about 30 officers who received basic training in U.S. Army bases, all split into about 70 detachments.

Wilkins said the battalion focused on making several inexpensive rail cars that would be shipped to England and used during the war effort to haul ammunition and other supplies to Allied soldiers throughout Europe. In Europe, the battalion operated from a rail port in Cherbourg, France. "The Germans had sabotaged the port," Wilkins said, noting that the bombing of the port by the retreating Germans had the effect of disabling rail cars and crippling supply lines. While researching his thesis, Wilkins interviewed members of the battalion, who talked of their experiences in France, including witnessing the execution of French people who had contributed to or supported German efforts during the war. In other cases, police chased French women who had supported the Germans during the war and shaved their heads, Wilkins said. After rebuilding the port, the 728th ROB shipped out 1,600 rail cars of supplies each day to Allied soldiers, Wilkins said. Once the war turned in favor of the Allies, control of the port in Cherbourg was gradually returned to French civilians.

Relying on magazine articles and public records, in addition to interviews for much of his research, Wilkins said the 728th ROB suffered virtually no casualties during the war -- Cherbourg was far removed from
the front lines. Wilkins said he was interested in learning more about the battalion because he grew up in a house in Bardstown along the rail line and there had been little scholarly work done on the 728th battalion's efforts."They were average people who were railroaders by trade and were able to serve their country as professional railroaders supplying the Allies," Wilkins said. "It's a good story because many of the people who served (in the battalion) did not see combat, but they played an important role. Without those transportation corps, it would have been very difficult to supply the Allies as they marched through Europe."

Sharon Tabor, executive director of the museum, said that railroads have been a long-standing passion for Wilkins, and that his lecture on the battalion was a fitting choice for Saturday's meeting, coming between Veterans Day and the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which "He has a very strong railroad background, volunteering at the Illinois Railway Museum and the St. Louis Museum of Transportation," Tabor said.

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