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Olyphant veterans remember 33 National Guard members killed in 1950 train crash

September 24, 2023

Pennsylvania National Guard veterans Harry Caines and Pat Cerra have not forgotten a train crash over seven decades ago that killed 33 fellow soldiers and injured scores more. Now in their 90s, they want to make sure others remember it, too.

On Sept. 11, 1950, at the outset of the Korean War, a troop train carrying 600 guardsmen from the Wilkes-Barre, Carbondale and Honesdale areas was traveling from Northeast Pennsylvania to a training camp in Indiana. The train stopped on the tracks in Ohio to repair a mechanical problem. A passenger train barreling along on the same line failed to stop and rammed the troop train, decimating the last two cars and killing and wounding many of the soldiers aboard.

Caines, 90, and Cerra, 91, were not on that train. But they were on a troop train on the same rail route a day later and attended a memorial service at the crash site.

While they did not know any of the victims, the tragedy has stayed with them all these decades later. Caines had a banner made a few years ago to commemorate the 33 dead by displaying the sign on his front porch each anniversary.

“It was something in the back of my mind for years,” Caines said of having the banner made. “I wanted to do something (to honor them) but I put it off and put it off and put it off.”

He took his idea to Jaworski Sign Co. in Scranton, which made the banner for free.

Natives of Olyphant, Caines and Cerra served in different companies. Afterward, they became closer friends and still visit each other regularly. During a visit last month, on Caines’ front porch, they recalled the time of the crash. Cerra also credited fate for scheduling changes that kept their units off the struck train.

“We were supposed to be on that train and for some reason we never got on,” Cerra said.

Tragedy strikes

The horrific train crash, among Northeast Pennsylvania’s greatest military tragedies, stunned the state and nation.

The troop train was en route to Camp Atterbury in Indiana. While stopped on the tracks near Coshocton, Ohio, the troop train was slammed at 5:15 a.m. by the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Spirit of St. Louis passenger train.

Flagmen had placed flares and lanterns down the tracks to alert any oncoming trains. The passenger train’s engineer saw the disabled troop train ahead, but was unable to stop in time.

Troops of the 109th Field Artillery Armory in Wilkes-Barre, colloquially known as the Kingston Armory, were in the last two cars that were smashed “like tin cans,” according a news article quoting a survivor. The third car from the rear also derailed but wasn’t as severely damaged as the last two that had most of the dead and injured.

The late Gen. Frank Townend was a lieutenant colonel aboard that troop train when it was hit.

“I was half-awake at the time,” Gen. Townend told the newspaper in 2000. “When that train was about one mile away, I finally realized, it isn’t going to stop. I yelled into the last two cars, ‘Wake up, there’s a train going to hit us. Everybody out!’ There was not a sound of reply.”

“It’s the worst tragedy I’ve ever had, of course,” Gen. Townend said.

When the bodies of the dead were returned home, tens of thousands of mourners lined the streets of Wilkes-Barre.

Caines and Cerra want family members of the victims to know that their loved ones are remembered.

“The people down the line in Kingston, in Wilkes-Barre, they were the ones who took the brunt of the accident,” Caines said. “Those people should know they are being thought of.”

The wreck might have spared the surviving and other Northeast Pennsylvania guardsmen from active duty in Korea. Townend said he believed the military assigned them to the Allied occupying force in Germany instead.

Family men

Caines and Cerra each served about nine months in Germany during the Korean War.

After their service, each got married and raised a large family.

Cerra and his wife, Georgette, married for nearly 67 years, have six daughters and 51 grandchildren, great-grandchildren and step-grandchildren.

Caines and his late wife, Jean Ann, were married for 62 years at the time of her death in January, and have three sons, a daughter and nine grandchildren.

“God took good care of us,” Caines said.


(c) 2023 The Times-Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.