Friday, April 25, 2008

Battle Weary Soldiers

When locomotive 10217A emerged from General Electric’s shops in Erie, Pennsylvania, men from the United States were preparing to march through the streets of their hometowns, bound for Europe to fight “Kaiser Bill”. The world hoped it would be “the war to end all wars”. The year was 1916. Over the next year, as the bloody stalemate continued in the trenches of France and “no man’s land”, additional sets of G.E. box cab electrics were built and delivered to the then Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul, or simply, the Milwaukee Road. Among them were 10109A, the 10102A, and 10209A.

As soldiers went east to the battle fronts “over there” the GE Box Cabs headed west to the theaters of the Rocky Mountains and Cascades. Grinding through the wind and snow of winter, humidity and heat of summer, these electric motors lugged across the divides of the west the supplies that supported the men suffering in the muddy trenches to the east, across the Atlantic. At times the men themselves were carried off to battle with power provided by “white coal”.

When the soldiers returned home in 1919, victorious, their tour of duty fulfilled, the box cabs had hardly begun theirs. Sadly, the lessons learned from that vicious war did not prevent yet another global conflict. Even with a quarter of a century of service behind them and suffering from the constraints of two bankruptcy’s the electric units of the Milwaukee once again found themselves joining in a new battle, transporting yet another generation of men off to another world war. Renumbered and reconfigured, the battle tested units faithfully answered the call and carried the men and machines needed to meet and defeat enemies on two fronts separated by the North American continent.

Despite having fought yet another war, this time in Korea, to an uneasy political resolution a third generation of men found themselves being taken to the killing fields. This time in a country called Viet Nam. Still the motors of the Milwaukee rolled on. Weary from the strain of constant warfare with the mountains of the west, they were now being helped with their chores by the legions of new diesel/electrics. Over sixty years of frontline service had diminished their ranks. Of a battalion that once boasted 90 units, by 1971, less than 20 remained. Combined in odd matchings to make up for those gone, motors 10109A, 10102A and 10209A eventually became the E 39 A,C, and D. Completing the four unit set was the former 10217A, now sporting E 47A on her number board. Still, whenever the pantographs of these survivors were raised and the controllers notched out, the motors knew that duty had again called and they responded just as they did 60 years prior.

Two generations had gone to war and returned battle hardened when the E 47A posed for her photograph, basking in the warm September sun at Tideflats Yard in 1970. A third generation was enduring the same horrors as the previous two when six months later, these motors made their way westward through the snows of a familiar battlefield, the line over Snoqualmie Pass. Dressed in their fatigues, carrying no metals honoring their heroics, possessing no citations for their devotion to service, the weary soldiers simply carried out their duties.

After sixty six years, three generations, two world wars and two “policing actions”, peace finally came to the 10109A, to the 10102A, to the 10209A and the 10217A. The longest day on the western front, the Coast electrification, came in November of 1972.On that day rest came for the class of locomotive known to the Milwaukee Road as the EF-5’s, having been finally relieved of their command. It came nearly 63 years to the day that marked the end of the “war to end all wars”, the day we now know as Veteran’s Day.

Weary soldiers, veterans all too familiar with warfare, they are gone now. Their fields of honor have been long removed from the landscape, defiled to the point of becoming simple hiking trails. Yet just as the ghosts of the soldiers who gave to their last measure linger above the soil of distant lands, their exploits becoming a part of our history, so too remain the spirits of the warriors of the Milwaukee Road. Caught up in the wind that sweeps across the irrigated fields of Othello and the Royal Slope, the souls of the box cabs are carried across the Columbia River and across the barren sage brush of the Saddle Mountains. Lifted high into the clouds that shroud the Cascades they pass over towns with names like Cle Elum, Hyak and Cedar Falls. They finish their journey along the protected waters of Puget Sound only to make a crisp about face and return. They are sentries, forever keeping their watch over the land they served. They are battle weary soldiers destined never to die.

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