Megan Seibert

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Megan Seibert

The Iron Horse: How Illinois Railroads Aided the Allied Victory

After the fatal attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, our nation came together as one to join our allies in a fight for world freedom. Each state contributed immensely to the World War II effort, and Illinois was certainly no different. World War II saw much larger troop and war material shipments because of the fact that it was a two-front war, meaning both coasts were needed for shipments to Europe and the Pacific. Illinois’s safe central Midwest location, open terrain and proximity to Lake Michigan made it an ideal location geographically for training troops, growing crops, and producing war materials because deliveries could reach any U.S. coast within two days by train. With the rationing of gasoline, tires and repair parts, coal-fired trains would become a vital means of transportation over airlines, buses, cars and trucks during World War II. Chicago became the hub of the nation in a state with the most square miles of track connecting a huge national network of train lines, making Illinois one of the nation’s most vital war production centers.

Illinois had several military training facilities including the largest naval training station in the nation at Great Lakes, the navy’s largest air training facility in Glenview, and the largest army training facility in Illinois, Camp Ellis. Illinois trained well over two million servicemen. Ninety-eight percent of our nations’ military was transported by railroads in troop trains, marked with white flags, known as “specials.” Approximately 114,000 of these special troop trains moved 43.7 million armed forces during the war, or one million per month.

World War II saw a huge increase in war shipments compared to World War I. Ninety-one percent of all military freight was transported by railroads during the war. An impressive 373 billion ton miles of freight (meaning a ton of freight moved in one mile) were transported in 1940. By 1944, that number nearly doubled to 737 billion ton miles. Illinois ranked third in the nation in industrial production. Many Illinois companies including the Pullman Company, International Harvester, and the Dodge Plant (which was the largest factory in the world) produced tanks, aircraft parts, patrol boats, gun carriages, and airplane engines. Illinois had seven ordinance and artillery plants throughout the state including Rock Island Arsenal, the largest production facility in the western world. Illinois led the nation in the production of ammunition and artillery, and was responsible for manufacturing 20 million shells a year. Chicago was the largest producer in the world of military radio and communication equipment from companies such as Zenith, Motorola and Western Electric. Chicago’s central location made it an ideal site for business, industry, and freight, because Illinois had the largest railroad complex in the world along with East St. Louis.

Illinois ranked third in the nation in agricultural output. The state was number one in the production of soybeans, and ranked second in corn, hogs, and cheese. Coalmines were put to use again because of the large demand for coal to run factories and railroads. In fact, Illinois was the third largest producer of coal in the nation. The railroads were responsible for delivering these resources in addition to 900,000 barrels of oil daily during the peak of the war in 1943. The “Iron Horse” would have a significant impact on a successful allied victory, carrying eighty-three percent of all traffic between 1941-1944. Illinois was at the center of this vital network of train lines responsible for moving civilians, troops and supplies efficiently throughout the country during a time of rationing, high demand for manufactured goods, and the need to ship simultaneously to Europe and the Pacific. Although the Great Depression took its toll on many railroad companies, the nation’s railways prospered like never before during World War II. The nation would come together in more ways than one, as the trains traveled from state to state and coast to coast moving people and supplies to their destinations. Illinois should be remembered for its heroic people, ideal training facilities, valuable resources, manufacturing contributions, and most importantly, as a vital transportation center supporting a nation and aiding the Allied victory.