Liberty Locomotive: The Freedom Train

posted Jul 13, 2020, 3:29 PM by Bruce Rowe

It had been a difficult 16 years for the United States, starting with the Great Depression in 1929 and ending with World War II in 1945. Millions of Americans expected relief from their years of struggle and sacrifice, finally getting their piece of the American dream. Instead, many found disappointment and disillusionment. Millions were laid off from virtually all major industries as emergency war production shifted back to civilian consumer needs.

When people look back to the postwar era in the United States, they commonly envision an era of prosperity and social conformity. To an extent this is true—economic growth was steady between 1945 and 1970, and by outward appearances a certain social cohesion was evident. But such a clear line of progress is easier to impose in retrospect than it was to see at the time. For in the wake of World War II, many people feared a return of depression, and the strikes, inflation, and labor disorder of 1945-46 did little to dispel those fears.

This era saw a huge influx of workers into the labor force. Over 10 million soldiers were discharged from the military between 1945 and 1947. At the same time, many millions of union members had worked in war industries during World War II. Their unions had put off any major demands for the sake of national unity. Once Japan surrendered, these demands resurfaced and led to the largest series of labor actions in American history. Over five million workers were involved in strikes during the first year after World War II. There was also the issue of hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding in from war zones.

President Truman called his cabinet and advisors to order. “Gentlemen, we are in a precarious position. We won the war and now we have to win the peace. The table is open for any and all suggestions.”

“Sir, I might have an idea.”

“Who are you?” President Truman demanded as he looked over to the far corner of the room.

“William Coblenz.”

“What do you do and what agency are you with?”

“I’m the assistant director in the Department of Justice Public Information Division.”

“I don’t see how that department would have anything to do with the problem that we’re discussing right now.”

“If you’ll allow me to continue.”

“Absolutely. You’ve aroused my curiosity and you have my undivided attention.”

“I have lunch at the National Archives and usually bring my own food. The other day I brought fried chicken and…”

Vice President Albert Barkley interrupted. “As much as we would like to hear about your dietary habits, could you get to the point?”

“Sorry about that, sir. While eating, I was lamenting about how few people are able to visit Washington and view the founding documents,” Coblenz said.

“Secretary of State Dean Acheson was puzzled. “As unfortunate as that this…so what?”

Truman’s eyes lit up when he realized what Coblenz was getting at. “Yeah, that just might work. If the country could see the tangible and irreplaceable documents of liberty, it might instill that same sense of unity we had during the war.”

“How would we do that?” Barkley said.

Coblenz smiled. “If Moses can’t make it to the burning bush, we’ll bring the burning bush to Moses. What do most of the cities and towns in America have in common?”

Acheson replied, “Americans.”

“A railroad station,” said Coblenz.

“Put a plan together and get back to me,” Truman ordered.

“Yes sir!” Coblenz responded.

Coblenz met with his boss, Thomas Clark, the Attorney General, to discuss their options. “We’re not going to be able to get the money from the treasury…it’s broke. This is going to have to come from private sources with deep pockets. Let me see how many patriots I can find.”

Clark made calls to movies moguls, Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer along with actors, Clark Gable, James Stewart, and James Cagney. He contacted media mogul William Randolph Hearst and industrialists Henry Ford, John Rockefeller, and Charles Vanderbilt of the Union Pacific Railroad. In a few weeks, the American Heritage Foundation was formed.

The Liberty Locomotive was a 2,000 horsepower Alco diesel and the Freedom Train consisted of seven coach cars. Three of them were transformed into armor-plated safe havens for the irreplaceable documents, retrofitted to become bulletproof and fireproof. One of the other cars was for baggage-utility. The remaining three would provide accommodations for security and maintenance crews.

The schedule was meticulously planned, the train would crisscross the United States for 33,000 miles over 16 months. It would stop up to five days at 300 cities and towns to allow Americans to view the historical artifacts.

Some items on display would be the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Also, George Washington’s handwriting in his personal account book, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, plus notes and signatures from Franklin Roosevelt, Chester Nimitz, George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower. Flags and memorabilia from the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War I and World War II were also included in the exhibit.

To make sure the venture was a success, it was preceded by patriotic re-dedication programs, local and national media events and parades. The theme of this publicity tour was Freedom is Everybody’s Job. America bought into it and the Liberty Locomotive and Freedom Train became a national sensation. It was estimated that 10,000 visitors would attend the display per day. Attorney General Clark and Coblenz were pleased at the progress they had made so far, but there was one vital component yet to be addressed and without it, the train could not proceed.

“What do you want to do about security?” Coblenz asked.

“I’ll send a letter to a friend of mine. I’m pretty sure he’ll be able to help out,” Clark answered. He wrote Navy Secretary James Forrestal:

Dear Jim. The purpose of the Freedom Train is to bring more than one hundred fifty of the most sacred original documents in history. I am sure you will agree that we will need an armed guard to protect the valuable and irreplaceable cargo. It is my opinion that members of the Marine Corps would be the most qualified for this patriotic task. Your assistance would be greatly appreciated.

Months of furious activity commenced. On September 5, 1947, a trackside reviewing stand held federal and local officials, designers, factory workers, and celebrities at the American Locomotive Company in Schenectady, New York. President Truman had hoped to attend but was needed in Washington, so Coblenz and Clark represented the administration. Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Duke Ellington and his orchestra provided the entertainment. A state-of-the-art diesel engine painted in red, white, and blue rumbled through a paper curtain. Written on both sides in big lettering were the words “Liberty Locomotive.”

Marching alongside it in perfect lockstep were 25 Marines in their dress blue uniforms. No one in the crowd doubted that the Liberty Locomotive and the Freedom Train were in good hands. Sergeant Griff Stockdale and Corporal Danny Landon were part of the elite detachment. They survived the battle of Iwo Jima and were seasoned combat veterans who had seen more than their share of action against the Japanese force in the South Pacific. Stockdale earned the Navy Cross on Tarawa. Landon won one Silver Star on Saipan and another on Peleliu.

Back in those days, there was no such thing as a diagnosis of PTSD. Many troubled combat veterans came home and were expected to pick up where they had left off before the war started. Alcohol was the self- medicating drug of choice. All the Marines chosen to guard the documents had been out of action for less for than two years. They lived in one club car for 17 months and not one night went by that some leatherneck didn’t have a flashback or nightmare of his wartime experiences, waking up in cold sweat.

Sergeant Stockdale wasn’t much of a drinker, so whenever he wasn’t on duty and began having issues of his own, he tried to find a place to get away from his fellow Marines for a little alone time.

While the Liberty Locomotive and the Freedom Train were stopped in Portland, Oregon, Stockdale found a cold and hungry dog shivering under one of the coach cars in the railroad yard. There was a steady rain coming down. Griff spent the better part of an hour coaxing the black collie Labrador mix close enough so he could pick her up. He cradled the fearful animal in his strong arms and brought her inside the train. Griff dried her off then fed the starving dog some beef jerky he’d stored away in his footlocker. “I’ll get you something a little more substantial when I can get to a store,” he promised.

The grateful dog licked Griff’s face. It didn’t take long for the lovable pooch—Griff named her Molly—to ingratiate herself to the other Marines. Eventually, she became the unofficial mascot of the traveling detachment.

Molly also had a dramatic, immediate effect on the mental and emotional health of the combat veterans. As she slept on a makeshift bed next to the elevated rack of Sergeant Stockdale, a Marine would sometimes be haunted by the ghosts of war while he slept. When he opened his eyes, Molly would be sitting next to him, her golden eyes glimmering in the dim light, and he would immediately calm down. When the episode was especially traumatic, Molly would jump into the Marine’s rack and place her paw on his arm. Even without realizing it, he would drift back into peaceful sleep.

*  *  *

With the train stopping in Salem, Oregon and their guard duty shift over, Griff, Danny, and Molly went into town. The trio stopped off at a city park to eat their lunch. In between bites, Griff would toss a rubber ball for Molly to fetch. Several lumberjacks were drinking heavily at a nearby table. When Molly got too close, one of them threw a beer bottle that barely missed Molly’s head, then yelled, “Get the hell out of here, you mangy mongrel!”

Griff picked up the bottle off the grass and heaved it back. His aim was more accurate. When the bottle hit the table, it shattered, spraying glass all over those sitting there. The five men immediately rose to their feet, their eyes flashing with indignant anger. The largest man stood six-foot-five-inches, weighed 280 pounds, and had a thick black beard that seemed to cover everything on his face except his dark eyes and furrowed forehead.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing!” he yelled again at Griff.

“You threw a bottle at my dog and I threw it back,” Griff replied.

The two Marines were outnumbered five to two and outweighed by several hundred pounds. The lumberjacks were seasoned barroom brawlers, tough hard men, but the Marines were trained killers who learned the hard way from their war time experiences that losing a fight often meant dying. The big man stepped forward and took a swing at Griff, who ducked under it then flipped the man over his hip. Danny did a wrist throw on another man. The Marines knew better than to use their fists, too easy to break a knuckle or a wrist on a hard skull, so they used their hand-to-hand combat skills. Griff had to remind himself not to kill his adversary during the fight. Lucky for the lumberjacks, they gave up before this fact slipped his mind.

The tallest lumberjack saw his friends staggering around after being thrown every which way but loose. He realized they had been beaten. “No more,” he said.

Another lumberjack assumed that Griff and Danny were military and commented, “What service are you with?”

“We’re Marines with the Freedom Train detachment,” Danny said.

The tallest lumberjack brushed the grass and dirt from his clothes and stepped forward, extending his big paw of a hand in friendship. “I guess we should be thanking you for not killing us.”

“That thought did cross my mind.” Griff gripped the man’s hand firmly and the lumberjack winced in pain.

As the lumberjacks limped away, Griff called to them, “Haven’t you forgotten something?”

The tallest lumberjack was puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“You forgot to apologize to my dog.”

“You’re kidding!”

“You’ll know when I’m kidding,” Griff replied. “I smile.”

The tallest lumberjack hesitated and Griff warned him, “We can always pick up where we left off if you would prefer that option.”

One of the other lumberjacks, the youngest of the five pulled out a long-bladed knife from its sheath and brandished it, “Let me take them.”

The biggest lumberjack ordered, “Put that knife away! You’re not going to put us in the position of explaining to your Ma and Pa how you got yourself killed by being an idiot.”

The young man slowly put his knife away and the biggest lumberjack sighed, “What’s your dog’s name?”

“Molly,” Griff said.

“I’m sorry for throwing a bottle at you, Molly.” The five lumberjacks continued on their way.

Danny commented, “Do you think there will ever be a time when we’re not on a way to a fight, in the midst of one or finishing one?”

“Not as long as we’re Marines.” Griff smiled. “We’d better get back to the train. Let’s go, Molly!”

Molly barked and fell in step with the two American warriors.

*  *  *

With the end of World War II, the wartime coalition between the Soviet Union and the United States was expected to bring about a prolonged period of social harmony between the two world powers. To integrate the Communist movement into American life, the party was officially dissolved in 1944 and replaced by a Communist Political Association. That harmony proved elusive and the international Communist movement became more radical and violent. The Truman administration’s loyalty oath program was introduced four months after the Liberty Locomotive and Freedom Train began its tour. Its intent was to expose and drive anarchists from federal employment. One of the more radical factions of the Communist Party was operating on Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base. When they were expelled from federal employment, they vowed revenge against the United States.

The most violent of the group consisted of Earl Browder, Vernon Dunne, Cyril Briggs, Bill Haywood, and David Easterly. Hearing that the Freedom Train would be stopping in Oceanside, they hatched a sinister plan.

The Freedom Train pulled into Los Angeles and the lines to see the historical artifacts were already stretched around the terminal before the Liberty Locomotive stopped rolling. Griff completed his shift of guard duty, changed from his dress blue uniform to civilian clothes and went outside to enjoy the Southern California weather. With Molly by his side, he walked down the sidewalk and past men, women, and children. Molly abruptly stopped, bared her fangs, and growled at a group of five men. Griff had never seen Molly behave this way. He apologized, “Sorry about that,” then turned to his dog. “Let’s go, girl.” 

The last time Griff was in Oceanside was just before he shipped out for the South Pacific. In one way it seemed like decades ago because he was a different person back then. On the other hand, it was as if it could have been yesterday, the memories were that vivid. Griff and Danny weren’t scheduled for duty until 1400 hours.

“Feel like going down to the beach?” Danny asked

“Yeah,” Griff replied.

The two Marines disembarked the train and entered the festively decorated depot.

“I don’t remember this place ever looking this good,” Griff said.

A station agent overheard Griff’s statement and commented with pride, “This is the biggest event to take place since Santa Fe Railway dedicated it on December 7, 1946.”

The new structure had a stucco exterior with marble floors and wainscot in the main waiting room, and florescent lighting.

“It’s better than where I grew up,” Danny quipped.

“I’ve seen pictures of your house. Any place is better than where you lived,” Griff said.

The station agent looked down and saw Molly, “We don’t allow dogs in the building.”

“This isn’t just a dog. This animal is a vital component of the Freedom Train Security Detachment. Without her there is no exhibit. Do you read me?”

“Loud and clear, leatherneck.”

When they exited the building, Molly stopped in place and focused her attention toward an isolated area on the other side of the track. When Griff looked over, he recognized the five men he’d seen in Los Angeles. “Good girl.”

“What’s going on?” Danny asked.

“I saw those five men in Los Angeles.”

“Interesting,” Danny responded.

*  *  *

Griff’s rack was next to a half-opened window. A gentle breeze drifted in from the ocean, naturally cooling the interior of the coach car. It was 0200 hours and the Marine detachment was asleep in the car. Well not everyone.

Molly was laser-focused as she looked out the window, across the track toward a group of trees with low-hanging branches that brushed against the ground when the breeze hit them just right. Molly made a barely audible growl and Griff was up in an instant. Walking down the narrow passageway to where Danny was sleeping, Griff tapped him on the shoulder. Danny swung himself out of his rack, grabbed his .45 caliber pistol, slipped on his pants, and put on his boots. The two Marines exited the train with Molly right by their side.

The plan of the anarchists was to throw grenades into the windows where the Marines were sleeping to neutralize them. The next step was to enter the coach car where the historical artifacts were being kept, steal what they could, and destroy the rest. The five men had stolen military explosives and weapons during their employment on Camp Pendleton so they were well-equipped to carry out their nefarious mission.

Griff, Danny, and Molly found cover behind a railroad maintenance shack. From this vantage point, they could see the train and the perimeter of the railroad yard. They didn’t have long to wait. Molly was the first to hear sounds of boots moving over the rocks of the yard. From the tip of her nose to the end of her tail, it was one long straight line. She was as rigid as a statute. When Griff and Danny finally got a visual of the five men, they saw they were wearing packs.

Danny whispered, “We can’t let them reach the train.”

“Roger that,” Griff agreed, “You go left…I’ll take the right.” Then he turned to Molly, “We’re going to need a distraction.”

The two Marines left their concealed position while Molly remained behind. When the five men reached the middle of the railroad yard with no cover, only 25 yards from the train, Griff raised his hand then lowered it. Molly took off in a full sprint, right at the five men. She ran right through the midst of them and they spun around in confusion. It was exactly what Griff and Danny needed to make their move. They caught the five men in a deadly crossfire. One by one they went down without ever getting a clear shot at Griff or Danny. The sound of gunfire awakened the other Marines and they were outside with their weapons in less than a minute.

The incident was investigated but designated top secret by President Truman. The American public was never made aware that an attack on the Liberty Locomotive and Freedom Train had been foiled. The country already had too many negative issues to deal with.

On January 16, 1949, the museum rolled into Washington D.C. for the last time. The Marine detachment packed their barrack bags and said goodbye to their comrades. But Griff and Molly would remain inseparable.

Whether it was on a remote, blood-stained island with the stench of death all around them, Sergeant Griff Stockdale and Corporal Danny Landon never faltered in their fight against a tenacious and relentless enemy. On that night in a quiet railroad yard in a Southern California town, these two valiant warriors— and one very special dog—once again had charged into harm’s way to do their duty. The Liberty Locomotive and the Freedom Train, and those who protected it, should be a lasting reminder to all Americans that freedom is everyone’s job.

 

Comments