By Margie Wuebker
Clarence L. Eckstein stood near the edge of the mountain gorge looking down at scrub brush and trees sprouting from the rock-strewn walls. He spotted a huge rock 100 feet below; the inscribed memorial plaque unreadable from such a distance.
A mournful whistle signaling the approach of a southbound train took the Celina man on a fast track back through time to the night of July 6, 1944, and the worst troop train accident of the World War II era.
"I always planned to go back to Jellico, Ky., but it took me 61 years," he says quietly. "To me the place looks as bad as it did the night rescuers brought the injured and dead up with the aid of block and tackle."
Eckstein, a retired rural mail carrier, made the pilgrimage in August after attending an annual U.S. Army reunion in Louisville, Ky.
Now 81, he recalls being among a group of 33 recruits who left Celina aboard two buses June 28, 1944. Family and friends waved as the vehicles lumbered out of town bound for Fort Benjamin Harrison in neighboring Indiana. "It took some time to get processed before we boarded a train in Indianapolis," he says. "We were heading to basic training but no one knew where. Everything was so secretive due to the war."
More than a thousand soldiers boarded the train, with officers ordering men to fill the back cars first before proceeding to the front.
"I thought that seemed kind of funny at the time," Eckstein says with a chuckle. "Generally, you start in the front and move to the back. That order ultimately saved my life as well as the lives of other Mercer County boys."
Many of the young recruits had climbed into bunks in the Pullman car as the train chugged toward the Clearfork River Gorge locals referred to as "The Narrows." Others were in washrooms preparing for bed.
The train left Corbin, Ky., late after a relief engineer failed to appear. The first engineer was mad about having to continue the trip, according to published reports. He apparently attempted to make up for lost time and the train was speeding by the time it approached the first sharp curve
Seconds later the engine, the tender and four cars careened off the tracks into the black gorge. The sound of crashing metal and screaming soldiers shattered the nighttime stillness, Eckstein recalls. Flames cast an eery glow over the tangled wreckage as cars piled one on top the other.
Eckstein was jarred awake when his head nearly crashed through the wall of the front bunk. The Pullman, perched precariously on the edge of the Louisville and Nashville tracks, was being held upright over the gorge by a car standing on end in the river bed below. Nine other coaches also remained upright.
Dazed by the sudden blow, he vaguely recalls someone saying "We have to get out of here" and another recruit urging caution lest too much movement send the car tumbling downward.
The men carefully picked their way through the car to safety. Clad only in underwear, the uniforms hastily discarded at bedtime remained inside.
Eckstein remembers little of the rescue effort as people from Jellico and the surrounding area converged on the scene just off Highway 25. Soldiers screamed for help amid the twisted metal as flames moved closer, he recalls. Searchlights cast an eerie glow as smoke hung heavily over the ravine.
Forty-four men, including former Celina resident William N. Burch (adopted by a Columbus family named Gorey) perished and hundreds were injured. Ambulances ferried the burned and battered to hospitals in Jellico, LaFollette and Oak Ridge.
Eckstein and other soldiers able to travel boarded another train to complete the trip to Camp Croft, S.C. His mother died the following month and he returned to Celina for two-weeks funeral leave. The unit headed overseas during his absence.
A rifleman with the 11th Armored Division, 63rd Armored Infantry Battalion, he left with another unit from Fort Dix, N.J., on Christmas Eve 1944 bound for New York City. Soldiers boarded the cruise ship Queen Mary on New Year's Eve.
"We sailed past the Statue of Liberty Jan. 1, 1945, waving and cheering," he says. "That is a scene I will never forget."
Eckstein was wounded in action by machine gun fire in April, a month before the war shortly ended. He later worked with a grave registration unit charged with locating and identifying the burial sites of fallen Americans.
"I attended many Army reunions over the years," the father of 10 says. "I had been close to Jellico a number of times, but I never felt the urge to stop."
He learned a monument had been erected there from an acquaintance at the reunion and traveled to the site with his wife, daughter and son-in-law.
The August visit sparked considerable interest throughout Jellico. Tourism director Jake Bennett quickly rounded up some people who had witnessed the three-day rescue mission.
"Some helped with the rescue and others were mere children at the time," Eckstein says. "Nobody forgets a tragedy like that."
The Celina man stood at the gorge for sometime, offering prayer for those who perished that night and thanking God he was one of the fortunate ones able to return.
"I might have been one of the statistics had the train been loaded from front to back," he says. "God had other plans for a lot of us that night."