In the spring of 1944, I was stationed at the aerial gunnery school near Kingman, Arizona. I long ago forgot the name of the movie I saw at the base theater on the night of April 9, but I vividly remember when the projector clicked to a stop, the lights came up, and an officer stepped onto the stage in front of the screen and announced, “All hospital personnel and military police report to duty immediately.”
About a half-dozen GIs in the little base theater stood up and hurried to the exits. The lights dimmed again, and the movie started amidst to the quizzical murmur of the audience.
With the show over at about 9 o’clock, I walked out with my pal, Ray Fisher. We wondered what the call for hospital personnel and MPs was all about, but it wasn’t long before we knew. Another friend who had not been to the movie happened to walk by, and I asked him, “What the heck’s going on?”
“Haven’t you heard about the train wreck?”
“What train wreck?”
“A goddamned train slammed into the side of a bus full of cadets.”
“Anyone killed?” Ray asked him.
“Probably killed ’em all,” he answered. “At least 25 guys.”
The MPs had the area cordoned off and we couldn’t see anything, so Ray and I headed for our barracks to hit the sack.
The next morning we got the full word on what probably happened. The gunnery range at Kingman Air Corps Gunnery Training Base lay about a half-mile north of old Route 66, 10 miles east of Kingman. A couple hundred yards south of Route 66, the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks paralleled the highway.
The base entrance lay another half-mile south of the tracks. The main access to the base, from Route 66, was a two-lane road, which crossed the tracks. Wartime Masonite-sided buses always hauled us to the gunnery range where all training with live ammunition took place. Army Air Corps cadets in pilot training also trained at the Kingman gunnery school.
The night before, the last bus load of cadets headed back to the base from the gunnery range just before dark. The driver of the bus apparently saw the speeding freight train coming, and stopped the bus just short of the tracks to wait for it to pass. Unfortunately, he waited with one foot on the clutch and another on the brake, while the powerful engine idled in low gear. Just as the train approached the road crossing, apparently the driver’s foot slipped off the clutch, and the bus lurched forward smack in front of the train.
The train was going so fast on a downhill grade, it took nearly a mile to stop, scattering parts of the bus over half that distance. There were only eight survivors.
As soon as I learned what had happened, I realized my mom and dad at home in Los Angeles would hear about it on the radio and worry, so I headed for a pay phone to call home to tell them I was OK. A bunch of GIs stood in line in front of me waiting to call home, too. But 27 other GIs would never call home again.
The author is a World War II veteran. He lives in Goleta.