Intermittent rain fell outside Pullman Troop Sleeper USAX 7118 on a Tuesday evening earlier this month. Light through the windows illuminated the historic wagon.
The only sounds came from Wabash Valley Railroad Museum co-founder Bill Foster as he explained the history of the troop sleeper.
Seventy-nine years ago, however, the car was probably filled with noises never forgotten by its passengers.
Twenty-nine young Americans occupied her 50 1/2 feet long at a time, along with a porter. These passengers were among the 44 million members of the United States armed forces to be transported across the country on troop sleeping cars for service during World War II. The Department of Defense contracted Pullman Company to build 2,400 troop sleeping cars to move troops for deployments or training. Pullman fitted the steel units with high-speed oscillating motion bogies (the frame) and dual air brakes to allow passenger trains to run at up to 100 mph.
“They rode pretty hard,” Foster explained inside the troop sleeper, which is on the museum grounds at 1316 Plum St. on the north side of Terre Haute.
The servicemen, mostly teenagers and in their twenties, no doubt heard the screams and rumbles of a speeding train car, adding to their thoughts of what lay ahead. The carbon steel berths were stacked three high, with the middle berth able to fold into a sofa during the day. “They were packed in like sardines,” Foster said of the soldiers.
So they obviously heard each other talk about their hometowns, daughters, parents, jobs and, of course, the war. They would have heard the water running from the four washbasins, mounted in pairs at the two ends of the cars, or from the two closed toilets, one at each end. They heard the rustle of sheets and the slap of pillows as the doorman made the beds each night. They heard the breeze through the 20 small windows of the cars, which were not air-conditioned. They heard the whistling and screeching of brakes as the men reached their destination.
Their orders for war service were about to begin.
The Wabash Valley Railroad Museum acquired Troop Sleeper 7118 – built in 1943 at a Pullman factory in Michigan City – in 2014. The car went through several identities after the end of World War II and the Army sold the sleepers of the troop. It became a signal and communications car for the Chicago & Eastern Railroad. Later an L&N Railroad bridge gang used it. Then, when CSX Railroad emerged in the 1980s, that company began to purge excess equipment and the car – twice renumbered – ended up in the North Alabama Railroad Museum.
Eight years ago, the Alabama Museum announced that it was scrapping the Troop Sleeper. Foster and the Wabash Valley Railroad Museum bought the car for its scrap price and hired a local company to bring it back to Terre Haute, a complete process that cost nearly $15,000.
“I think it’s worth it, because it’s unique,” Foster said.
Car 7118 is indeed unique, and will become even more so once fully restored. “Today there are very few [troop sleepers] still there, with only a handful restored to their original appearance and condition,” said Frank Hicks, a longtime volunteer and historian at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, Illinois.
‘Rust bucket’ on arrival
Back in Terre Haute, the Wabash Valley Railroad Museum team is planning such a restoration. However, resources are needed.
It’s come a long way since it arrived on a tractor-trailer in 2014. “It was a real rust bucket when we got it,” Foster said.
The floor around the toilet was rotten. Railroad companies that used the car after its wartime service drilled holes in its center section. Foster has spent much of the past four years replacing damaged steel. New side doors were made to replace the old ones, which were stolen and damaged by vandals in Alabama. The windows have been replaced and fitted with new pine frames, which will also be replaced later by mahogany frames. New vents were installed on the roof. Handrails for the doors were made.
Several local businesses donated materials or in-kind services to replace lost or damaged items.
And, donors from the Wabash Valley and beyond contributed to a matching fundraising challenge this winter on Facebook, generating more than $2,000 in contributions to help give the car a permanent new floor.
More upgrades are needed, however. Among several changes needed for a manufacturer to make more steel window tracks (only 10 of the original 24 remain), rebuilding part of the berths at one end to give visitors a sense of the atmosphere of the war era, while installing information screens on the other end. The goal is to complete renovations to the Troop Sleeper by the 80th anniversary of D-Day in 2024.
“It’s neat,” Foster said. “If people come to see it, they’ll see it’s unique. It will grow in you.”
For now, visitors to the Terre Haute Museum can only see the exterior of the Troop Sleeper. “It is really dangerous for anyone to visit [inside] “, said Foster. The renovation plan – which Foster says will cost an additional $20,000 – will allow people to tour its interior, once completed.
Not a luxury ride
Troop Sleeper 7118 should catch the attention of military history buffs and veterans, especially surviving WWII and Korean War veterans who actually rode such cars. They weren’t riding in luxury, it should be noted.
“When most people think of Pullman, they think of opulent, fancy cars that railroad executives and the wealthy travel in,” Foster said. “It wasn’t like that. They were cheap and dirty – a barracks on wheels.”
The troop sleepers were, however, fitted with a Pullman carrier, as were the high-end passenger trains. The porters were black men, and with the era of racial segregation and discrimination still in place during World War II, their quarters were separate from the troop dormitory areas. Porters climbed a ladder to sleep in a bunk at the end of the car, behind a curtain, Foster said.
The women who went to work in the factories during the war, known as “Rosie the Riveters”, built many of the troop sleepers. said Foster.
Troop Sleeper 7118 joins a varied list of “rolling stock” cars at the Wabash Valley Railroad Museum. The collection includes a 1914 Pennsylvania Railroad caboose, a 1947 switcher, a 1978 Conrail caboose, and a 1922 New York Central Railroad box car. The Haley Tower, which housed a operator responsible for keeping rail traffic safe for a century, was moved 50 feet to its current location at the museum in 1999, and its 1926 interlocking system is still functioning. The museum also has the Spring Hill Tower, which guided railroad traffic through southern Vigo County for decades, and the Turner Depot from the late 1800s.
In 1999, Foster and a handful of other railroad enthusiasts and former railroad workers started the local museum, which is operated by the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Haley Tower Historical & Technical Society. .
Richard Jackson was among the organizers, and several members of his family have also served as volunteers and members of the museum. Jackson lent a hand as volunteers worked the floor at Sleer Troop 7118 this month. Its restoration is particularly important for future generations, he believes.
“Terre Haute has quite a heritage for railroads,” Jackson said. “Things like this need to be preserved for people who have never seen them. And it’s a shame that some of them are disappearing.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.