Historic boxcar brings back memories for Oregon vet

Tim Novotny / The (Coos Bay) World /

NORTH BEND — Ross Turkle turned 88 this month, but a train ride he took through part of Germany almost seven decades ago is still a ripe memory for the World War II veteran.

“Ain’t no way I’ll forget that until I stop breathing,” Turkle said.

That particular train ride was notable for two reasons. First, Turkle was on his way home from the war, and second, he spent three or four days making his way to western France on a boxcar with Spartan accommodations.

The Kansas man, who now resides in Coos Bay, served in the 104th Infantry — the “Timberwolf” division. He is not a self-promoter and is not so quick to talk about his Bronze Star for meritorious service in a combat zone.

His job was to lay, and repair, phone line cable from the front. There came a day when about a dozen telephone lines running near a bridge on the Rhine River at Remagen, Germany, were destroyed by a German shell. About 6-10 feet disappeared.

“We were asked to go repair our lines,” said Turkle. Shells continued to rain down on a nearby ravine as they worked.

“There would be a whistle and a bang, but by the time the noise came up to us, it had exploded. They kept whistling over, but not another shell landed on the bridge,” he said.

The best part of that Bronze Star was that it helped get him out of the Army six weeks early. “I got home for Christmas, 1945,” Turkle said.

But first he had to get back to the U.S. He started his travel home in a French rail boxcar, similar to the one on display at the Coos Historical and Maritime Museum in North Bend, known as a “forty-and-eight.”

True to the name, the boxcar held 40 men or eight horses. The boxcars were utilized for hauling military cargo during both world wars.

They were not built for comfort. The car is about 8 feet wide and 20 feet long, with no padding or even straw on the floor, no electricity, no heat and the bathroom was the open door. The men, Turkle says, slept spoon-style.

“It was crowded. We had our packs, our own barracks bags of possessions and clothes, our own canteen and that’s it. We didn’t have any weapons; we left our weapons overseas,” Turkle said.

And so they went, 39 men and four dogs. Yes, they “liberated” a dachshund and three pups who were repatriated in America. How they did it will remain classified for now.

After the war in 1949, in gratitude for American aid, the citizens of France presented 49 “merci boxcars” — one to each state capital at the time and a shared car between Hawaii and Washington D.C.

The only boxcar in the state of Oregon spent almost two decades in Salem, and then many years at Fort Stevens Historical Park in Hammond. In 2006, it was restored and officially dedicated at its current site by the local American Legion’s Forty & Eight Society.