For the first time in a long while I had an interesting evening last night. I dropped down to the Officers’ Club with a couple of fellows and by pure chance – met a Salem Hospital nurse who is with the 304th Station Hospital outside of Metz. She’s a Miss Greenough – about 35 and she’s aged quite a bit since I saw her last. The peculiar thing is that she was with another nurse – from the Beverly Hospital – whom I didn’t remember, but who remembered me. Well, darling, it sure was nice to sit down and talk about old times and old friends. Both of these girls had seen me intern and they reminded me of a good many major and minor escapades in which I had a part. Incidentally I learned that Frank Morse is in Charlours – the town we were supposed to go to. It’s about 100 miles from here and I’m going to try to get down to see him the first chance I get.
Both nurses, by the way, have been overseas for 23 months and yet have points in the 50’s and so they and their hospital are sweating out the C.B.I. They do think they’ll get a trip home first, though.
Sorry, darling, I got busy and I’ve just got back. It’s strange having the battalion all together again. We haven’t been this way since Sherborne – and we’ve never been in one building. Sick-call attendance always picks up in such a set-up because the Dispensary is so easy to visit.
Boy – I didn’t get any mail yesterday – but I wrote “boy!” because I keep referring to a letter of yours 25 June – in which you speak so nicely of marriage. You really got down to facts and figures in discussing the probable date in September, the days in which we couldn’t get married, etc. Yup – late September would be nice and the fall and winter in which “we could keep each other warm” – sure sounded nice. Dammit – I wish I knew when it would be. One thing about being back here and not with a Corps – we don’t get any rumor anymore, good or bad. One day is like another. The only good news is the speed with which they’re getting troops out of the Continent. Every division that leaves means we’re that much nearer our own day for sailing. Almost all of us could pack up right now and take off. What I mean is that we’ve gotten rid of most of the junk we’ve carried all over France, Belgium and Germany; we’ve thrown away a lot, sent the rest home and we’re all ready. I’ve got the equivalent of one or two packages more of clothing I could send home but I’m waiting to see if I’ll need it or not. And thanks for having offered the space in your home, darling, but I’m not going to clutter you up anymore than I already have. I can send it to my Dad’s place of business. You’ve got enough junk as it is – unless I’m mistaken. That reminds me – I still have a sword I never sent out. I don’t know what to do with it.
But I know I must stop now and get going, sweetheart. All this talk doesn’t tell you I love you dearly and that’s really what I want to say. I do, darling, very, very much and never forget it. Just think how nice it will be to tell you that instead of writing it.
All for now – dear – Love to the folks – and all my sincerest love – ever –
ASSAM COAL PRODUCE AIDS U.S. ARMY
By Sgt. JOHN McDOWELL Roundup Staff Writer
|Sargeant John McDowell (center, standing)|
LEDO, ASSAM - I've just returned from a two-mile hike along the biggest little supply line in the India-Burma and China Theaters of Operation. The supply line extends through a labyrinth of tunnels nearly eight miles into the side of a jungle-matted mountain. Traffic along the line consists of chains of squat, wooden gondolas, powered by cable-drive, which carry ton after ton of coal from the depths of the primordial Assamese earth to supply the American fighting machine.
For 70 years prior to World War II, the British worked the rich Assam coal deposits, building a rail line from Calcutta to carry the precious fuel to the outside world and bringing mining experts from the coal-producing centers of England to manage the mines and train Indian technicians.
Today, the rail line which once hauled coal and tea from Assam and brought back civilian luxuries and everyday necessities for those whose job kept them in the jungle on the "edge of nowhere" is now the vital link in an American supply line which stretches 14,000 miles from the United States to ever-growing war depots in the interior of China.
And the coal mines of Assam are diverting 80 percent of their production to this American supply line and to American installations. Working on a round-the-clock schedule, the mines have upped production 30 percent during the war years to an annual figure of 270,000 tons.
The fuel powers the trains which bring war materials from the docks of Calcutta to Hump cargo plane bases in Assam or to convoy assembly depots in Ledo at the beginning of the Stilwell Road.
It powers the Brahmaputra riverboats which carry troops and supplies up that great inland waterway to the beginning of the meter-gauge rail line in Assam. It fires the boilers which run the generators, the laundries, the ice plants in hundreds of American Army installations in India and Burma. It fires the stoves in countless G.I. kitchens.
This was the story - the story of the supply lines that reaches into the heart of a mountain to bring fuel to a military lifeline that extends halfway around the world - that brought Sgt. Frank Shearer, Roundup photographer, and me to the grimy office of one of Assam's largest coal mines early this rain-tinged morning.
We were met at the office by A. G. G. Maltby, general manager of the mine who greeted us with a chuckle and said, "So you want to make a trip into the mine. It's bloody hot, you know. Bloody uncomfortable. You'll sweat like bloomin' pigs."
A South Wales coal miner with 19 years' service in Assam behind him, Maltby is as huge as the mountain he mines. This morning he was dressed in a tattered undershirt covered with an open jacket, khaki shorts, heavy boots and British Army leggings and a steel mine helmet that balanced above his large florid face like an inverted saucer.
We followed Maltby into the main mine tunnel, stumbling along the narrow cable car tracks in the path of dim light from our small miner's lanterns. For a quarter-hour the going was easy. The tunnel was broad and high and reinforced with brick and steel and timber.
As we got deeper into the mountain the air become more humid. Moisture dripped from the arched brick ceiling, and as our lamps cast eerie shadows in the gloom, bats stirred in dim crevices.
The broad brick and steel-reinforced section of the tunnel ended abruptly and we entered a section scarcely five feet high where rough, blasted rock walls funneled sharply down to the edge of the tracks. Heavy timbers supported the tunnel here and as we pushed forward at an awkward crouch, we received more than one bump on the head by forgetting to duck low hanging support beams.
Suddenly the cable which ran up the center of the tracks became taut and started to hum. "A load of coal is coming out," Maltby said. "We'd better get clear of the tracks."
A few yards further on we came to an indentation cut into the side of the tunnel. We crowded into the opening. The humming became louder then was replaced by an increasing clatter. Then from the black recesses of the tunnel a chain of 15 or 20 small wooden gondolas which the British call "tubs," flashed into the radius of our lamplight with their cargo of coal. An Indian miner, clinging to the last tub, blinked in the sudden light, then disappeared in the blackness which lay between us and the outside world. The clattering diminished, replaced by the humming which gradually became fainter. Then all was silent. The cable slacked. The chain of tubs had reached the unloading point outside.
An hour after entering the tunnel we reached the marshaling yards, two miles into the mountain. Here, for the first time, we realized the magnitude of the network of rail lines necessary to bring the coal to the surface.
From the marshaling yards, lighted by powerful lamps, tracks branch out from their converging point into a series of sub-tunnels. In each of the sub-tunnels smaller marshaling points are located in areas where jigs (connecting shafts between levels) lead up to higher levels of the mine.
The various levels of the mine, which step up toward the top of the mountain, are connected with the main marshalling yards by cable lines which ease the loaded tubs down the steep jigs to the main yards and pull up empties to be loaded.
Thus, the main marshalling yards is the nerve center of the mine. It is here that loaded tubs from all working sections of the mine are formed into chains of up to 25, hooked to the cable and pulled to the outside. And it is here that chains of empty tubs from the outside unloading point are broken up and dispatched to various points in the mine, ready for reloading.
In all, the transportation network in the mine is comprised of approximately 16 miles of trackage and nearly the same amount of cable.
Long years of working in the mine's low tunnels had formed Maltby's posture into a permanent stoop. Even when standing upright his torso, neck and head leaned forward as if he were constantly on the verge of plunging into the darkness of a low-timbered mine passageway.
But Shearer and I were unconditioned to life under the earth. By the time we reached the marshaling yards we were soaked with perspiration and our legs and backs ached from walking through the low-ceiling tunnel in an unaccustomed crouch. And we still hadn't seen a miner at work.
But when Maltby reminded us that the going was "bloody well tougher" before we got up to the actual mining operations, we could last as long as the big Welshman.
Maltby's prediction of "tough going" soon proved to be a choice example of British understatement. We walked along one of the sub-tunnels to a jig which led up into the mountain at a 70-degree slope. The cable leading up the jig was moving slowly and Maltby motioned us back from the jig entrance.
"A tub's comin' down," he warned. "Sometimes the blasted cable breaks and there's bloody hell to pay. Had a man killed here last week."
We got back. Way back. Slowly the loaded tub inched down from the jig to the mine level and rolled to a stop. Natives uncoupled the cable and hooked it onto an empty tub. One workman struck a steel gong a sharp blow. At that signal, the cable tightened and the empty tub was pulled up into the black mouth of the jig. Other natives pushed the loaded tub down the tracks toward the main marshaling yards.
When the cable had slacked again, indicating that the tub was uncoupled at the next level, Maltby rang the gong three times. "That's a warning that we're coming up the jig," he said. "Otherwise we bloody well might find ourselves face to face with a blinkin' tub coming down."
The jig seemed almost perpendicular. It stretched up into the mountain for more than 200 yards like a dark, narrow gopher hole. Crude steps were cut in the coal floor of the jig beside the tracks. We clawed our way up the jig, stopping every 40 or 50 yards to gasp for breath. The humid temperature of 85 degrees which we had cursed on the main mine level seemed cool in retrospect. The temperature in the jig, Maltby told us, was approximately 90. It became even hotter as we got farther into the mine.
That was just the beginning. At the top of the jig we paused for breath, then stumbled along the timber-supported tunnel of the second level, passing through a series of iron doors which mark the midway point in the mine's ventilating system. Fresh air is drawn into the mine through the main tunnel which we had followed. Stale air passes out of the mine through another series of tunnels. Beyond the last of the iron doors, we found ourselves in the stale air portion of the ventilating system. The air was heavy and breathing was difficult. Water, tinged heavily with sulfur, lay in pools along the floor of the tunnel.
We struggled up three more jigs, varying from 30 to 100 yards in length, before reaching the level where Bhutan miners were working a large pocket of coal. Bhutans, short, muscular men from India's north frontier country, and Nepalese make up the majority of the mine's 2,000 native workers. Their pay is two rupees per nine hour work day.
Average age of the miners is 26, although some of the sirdars (mine superintendents) have spent most of their lives in this one mine. The four head sirdars have spent an aggregate of 130 years in the mine. Mussa, a white-haired, gnome-like old man is the veteran with 40 years service. Pahala has spent 34 years in the mine and Kesoo and kali Bose have records of 30 and 26 years respectively.
We had to crawl on all fours up a narrow tunnel, know as a chauri, to reach the pocket where the miners were at work. The pocket was approximately 50 yards in diameter and the ceiling was better than 30 feet high. The coal, Maltby explained, is blasted off the walls and ceiling of these pockets with charges of dynamite. Some pockets are as large as 75 to 100 yards in diameter with 100-foot ceilings.
As we stood on the edge of the pocket, watching the Bhutans work the coal in the light of two giant lamps, a trickle of coal dust sifted down from the high ceiling. "Cabadar!" one of the miners shouted. In an instant the miners scattered to the edges of the pocket and in their wake a shower of coal thundered down from the ceiling and echoed in the silence as it fell where the miners had been working.
"Could have been damn well serious," Maltby said when the excitement died down. "Good thing these miners develop an uncanny instinct. When the one Bhutan saw the dust filtering from the ceiling he knew what was coming and shouted the warning - cabadar, which means 'clear the bloody hell out.'"
The trip back was fast and comparatively easy. Leaving the 98 degree heat of the coal pocket, we picked our way cautiously down jigs which had been closed to rail traffic two weeks earlier by a series of cave-ins. In places we had to squeeze through narrow spaces between collapsed timbers. When we reached the main level, Maltby said, "I brought you back that way so you could see one of the mine's danger areas."
It may have been a danger area, but it was a short-cut. We didn't complain.
We rode back from the main marshaling yards to the outside world in empty tubs. It was a weird trip. Crouching low in the tubs so our heads would clear the low ceiling and timbers of the tunnel, we trained our lamps on the sides and ceiling of the passageway. The chain of tubs clattered down the tracks at eight miles per hour, but in the close confines of the tunnel it seemed as if we were careening along at a mile a minute at least.
Suddenly pale traces of daylight drowned the light from our lamps and then we were on the outside, half-blinded in the unaccustomed light of day.
The chain of tubs left the jungled mountain behind. We passed a large corrugated iron factory building where small coal (coal dust) is mixed with pitch, lime and spoiled rice and molded into brickets which are utilized as fuel by Army installations. We passed tattooed Bengalese women shoveling coal or carrying it in large baskets on their heads. Then we came to a stop at the unloading shed where the newly-mined coal was dumped from the tubs onto conveyor belts.
As the coal passed down the long conveyor belts, Indian women picked out the slag. The coal was then sifted and loaded into large railway cars, ready for delivery to the United States Army.