Tales of The Trail Boss: Part 3: The Great Train Robbery
When last we met, I regaled you with a story about the epic battle between The Trail Boss and Tallil Tom, an Iraqi turkey with a bad attitude. This time the saga continues with, The Great Train Robbery. In this episode, I’ll introduce another character, whom I’ve mentioned before (here & here) my good friend and long time Battle Buddy, Sam.
Sam as he likes to tell it, was the brains behind the distribution of every kilogram of supplies throughout the entire Southwest Asia Theater of Operations. I won’t admit this in front of him, but he’s likely correct. He is flat out brilliant, even though he looks like he dresses out of a dumpster (to the great chagrin of Sweet Allie, his long suffering wife). He claims that he wanted to go North with my crew, but was too important to the logistics effort to to leave Kuwait. The way it really was; I put the kabosh on him coming. Sam had been my roommate for multiple previous deployments. He snores…loudly. I figured it might be worth getting shot at a time or two, just to get away from that racket and get a good night’s sleep for once. Sam will chime in from time to time in this episode, but his complete rebuttal will be found as a supplemental article later.
Mike: Task Force Shamal, as we named ourselves (after the dust storm laden desert wind) had a pretty good run. We first went Northwards into Iraq and captured an Iraqi airfield, where we established a logistics base, helped the Air Force establish a forward airbase from which to launch ground support aircraft and where The Trail Boss fought that Iraqi turkey to the death.
We then bolted West to establish a base at Gharma rail head, just East of Fallujah, where we actually ran a few “test” rail operations (more on that later).
We had accomplished all assigned missions and more than a few unassigned ones. We were feeling pretty full of ourselves and then…
Sergeant Major: The order from 377th TSC HQ in Kuwait to pull out of our current base of operations at Gharma Rail Station just outside Fallujah, Iraq was a huge disappointment. We had all trained for such an experience our entire careers and now were living it out in real time. Nothing up ‘til that point had been so satisfying as doing what we had trained all our lives to do. We were ready for more. But orders are orders.
Mike: I briefed my stalwart CSM on the directive to head back to Kuwait telling him we probably had a couple days before we needed to head out. I don’t know what I was thinking.
Sergeant Major: I heard the tactical phone ring in our mobile command post and heard my Colonel answer, “Shamal-6 speaking,” followed by a a flurry of “YESSIRs.” After hanging up the phone, COL Ford looked at me and said, “I just got my ass handed to me for not being out of here already. Any way we can get the hell out of here by first thing in the morning?” I responded, “In the words of a famous American Infantry Colonel, “YESSIR!” I cannot print his next reply and to tell the truth, I really didn’t get to hear all of it. I was too busy hightailing it out of the CP before he could get off a shot.
Mike: After cooling off for a bit, I remembered from long experience that I had never been accused of cornering the market on brains, and that I should probably convene my senior leaders to brainstorm some options.
Sergeant Major: Shortly after the phone call, COL Ford called a meeting of his leadership team. He said the first thing we needed to do is decide how we are going to get back to Kuwait. Everyone thought he meant to plan for a road convoy; which routes to take, and a Plan A, B & C for our return, to include contingency plans. Everyone but The Trail Boss who wise cracked, “There’s a railroad right here. Let’s just take the train.” Boss erupted in laughter along with all the rest of us—again, except for one. I noticed our interpreter get up from his seat and leave the meeting. Knowing he would have little to do with the planning I gave his departure little thought.
Mike: I was just about to wrap up this initial planning meeting when our Iraqi interpreter who had left the meeting, suddenly returned saying, “I have the train. How many cars do you need and when do you want to depart?” I couldn’t believe it at first. But after some back and forth it really did appear that our interpreter had gotten us a train. So, I requested 7 flat cars to be on site the next day at 0700.
Sergeant Major: We now had another option besides an extended road convoy with our beat up vehicles. Before we pushed the button on the decision, COL Ford & I had one final talk. I reminded him how he had decided to take a less obvious route to Tallil airbase on D-Day. By doing so, the only folks we encountered where from one small tribe of curious but harmless Bedouin. We had bypassed a huge number of Iraqi units that might have given us trouble. Taking a train back to Kuwait would be much the same…bypassing or outrunning potential trouble. However, he still had some concerns. Number of flat cars needed, cost, number of stops and secrecy. The cars and secrecy were no problem. The conductor would list his cargo as supplies; no mention of American Soldiers. The cost and number of stops still posed a problem.
Mike: It looked like our need for rapid movement (no stops) conflicted with our need for secrecy (billing the train as a purely cargo movement meant it had a lower priority in the Iraqi rail system). I decided we might have to risk one or two stops along the way. The other issue, was how to pay for this little jaunt. Although there was some attraction in becoming known as the first American since the Civil War to hijack a train, I had once taken a 1 hour tour of Ft Leavenworth Military prison, and a single hour in that place was more than enough for me.
Sergeant Major: Initially we thought our interpreter had quoted a price of $54.00 per man for our little train ride. After multiplying $54.00 times 18 men, COL Ford asked all the Officers to start shelling out the cash to see if we could get the $972.00 required. As the table began stacking up with cash, the interpreter said “No. No. $54.00; that’s it.“ The interpreter reassured COL Ford he had negotiated the train to transport our men and equipment for a total cost of $54.00. COL Ford told everyone to put their money back in their pockets and he gave the interpreter $54.00 out of his own money. Years later we would learn that…meanwhile back at our main headquarters in Kuwait…
Sam: Our command had been negotiating with the Iraqi Government, such as it was, in an effort to obtain permission to use their rail lines to move equipment and materials from the coast to Northern Iraq. The price appeared to be about $5,000 per rail car, once the rail lines got up and running sometime in early July.
Mike: The train arrived exactly at 0700 the next day. 7, count ‘em, 7 flat cars and a passenger car. Being as it was his idea in the first place, I assigned The Trail Boss to get the train loaded up with all our rolling stock and let me know when we were prepared to depart. As always, he got it done and done right. Soon, we were on our way South.
Sergeant Major: We were off; rocking and rolling. Literally. Within the first five miles every piece of our field expedient blocking and bracing material had vibrated loose and fell to the ground. It’s a miracle none of that stuff caused a derailment.
Although one or two of our stops caused some minor concern, there was one really hair raising incident. As darkness fell, we had gotten well South of any expected trouble; that same darkness provided us some concealment. COL Ford and I were commenting on lights that appeared to be a city. One of the train crew came to us and explained the lights were from his home town. I asked him where we were, and he tried to explain, but neither COL Ford nor I could understand his explanation. Realizing that, he asked, “Do you know the Garden of Eden?” We replied that we did. Rolling his hands around in a circle he said, “It is here.” The hair stood up on my head. I pulled out our map. Sure enough, we were South of Baghdad, near Al Diwaniyah which is flanked by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Those two merge in extreme Southern Iraq and become the Shatt-al-Arab river. That’s where we were, home of Adam and Eve and the Cradle of Civilization. Meanwhile, back in Kuwait…
Sam: One of my many bosses, Major General C, who was responsible along with my Commander (known as “the Big Boss” in Meet The Trail Boss)called me into his office. He asked if it were not my job as DMC chief to know the whereabouts of all Coalition troops, especially US units? I assured him that he was correct. Looking me straight in the eye, he asked, “Who are the Soldiers on the train headed South from Baghdad with 377th TSC patches?”
Sweat poured from my face as I tried to convince him that there were no 377th TSC Soldiers on a train anywhere in our AOR (area of responsibility). I quickly tried to mollify him by firmly stating that I would look into it, as I escaped from his office, now lighter by one buttock cheek. As I headed towards the Operations Center, I thought with venom, “Mike Ford!” “Yes, he who never reports and is totally unmanageable, along with his band of undisciplined misfits, has got to be responsible for this.”
My only question was, how was it possible that Mike could have come up with 5 grand per flat car AND gotten the Iraqis to move freight in March, 3 months earlier than their promised start date in July? There was a rumor that two, 250-pound boxes of Saddam’s Gold were missing. Had Mike captured them and was he using the proceeds to pay for the train?
Mike: It was a wild ride, but we finally made it to the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr. Once again, Trail Boss took care of getting the vehicles offloaded and in into formation for the final road convoy down into Kuwait and our base at Arifjan.
Sam: I put out an all points request to arrest any US troops on any train. I knew that they would have to stop for fuel and water in Tallil. A report did indeed come in from Tallil. The train was spotted alright, but it blew right through Tallil without stopping. I did have one final ace up my sleeve. No matter what, the train had to stop at Umm Qasr, the last stop in Iraq prior to reaching Kuwait. In other words, it was the end of the line…and would be so…for Mike Ford.
Our British friends at Umm Qasr reported that the Soldiers on the train, led by “a cheeky bugger, Leftenant Colonel Mike Ford,” were indeed from the 377th TSC, headed South into Kuwait. MG C was gonna have my other buttock cheek. I could only hope that Mike would be arrested and spend the rest of his career in the internment facility in Kuwait awaiting trial and ultimately be sentenced to life in Leavenworth for the hostile takeover of an allied train, the first train robbery in over 100 years!
Sergeant Major: We finally made it back to our base in Kuwait. We pulled in to our unit compound, lining our vehicles up at the back entrance. We all dismounted and COL Ford posted himself at the head of our formation. I sent a Sergeant inside to inform our Commander, known as “the Big Boss,” that we were back. Out comes the Big Boss followed by at least 50 other staff members. COL Ford called us to attention, saluted the Big Boss and barked out, “Sir! Task Force Shamal reports back for duty with the Main Headquarters!” As the Big Boss returned the salute, cheers broke out and we were mobbed. A “near beer” (non-alcoholic Budweiser) was shoved into my hand. Never has any beer tasted so good.
Sam: Waiting on Mike were all the Senior Leaders and a good part of the staff of the 377th TSC. I was looking forward to seeing handcuffs clapped on his wrists and hearing his very limited rights being read to him. As Mike Ford saluted our Commander, instead of handcuffs there were cheers and hugs, even non-alcoholic beers were distributed as the miscreants where welcomed as returning heroes. There. Is. No. Justice.
Mike: We were back. Everyone came back alive and with no parts missing. We were very fortunate. I was most fortunate of all. I got to lead the best team ever assembled. When people congratulate me on becoming a Colonel, I am always quick to respond that it wasn’t my talent. It was the talents and effort of all those folks who “shoved me up there.” My CSM, The Trail Boss, Sam, along with hundreds of other Officers and Troops, made me look better than I ever could on my own.
The more senior I became, the less it was about actually doing stuff myself. It became more about leading and mentoring others. Finally it became about getting the generation behind me, ready to take charge of my beloved Army. Our concluding episode wherein we discuss, “The Trail Boss, Green Beans and Ice Cream,” is all about that. Stay tuned.
Mike Ford is a retired Infantry Officer who writes on Military, Foreign Affairs and occasionally dabbles in Political and Economic matters.
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