The September 11 Tragedy You May Never Know

Coshocton, Ohio (1950)–Most of the National Guardsmen were asleep when the Spirit of St. Louis rammed the back of their “troop train.”

It was September 11, 1950. The men were part of the first infantry called to the Korean Conflict. Before they could make it to the front lines, 33 of them would die in the land of the free.

In light of the events on September 11, 2001, the story of the tragedy in 1950 will likely remain in the archives for much of America.

For the people of Lackawanna and Wayne Counties, Pennsylvania, from where most of the 109th hailed, and for the people of Coshocton, Ohio, the 1950 date remains a day for memorializing two tragedies.

The Build to Korea

When the Coshocton tragedy took place, the United States didn’t yet have boots on the ground of Korea, not enough to fight.

Part of the 28th Division, the 109th Field Artillery Battalion was a unit of National Guardsmen on their way to Camp Atterbury in Indiana. The Pentagon had called the whole 28th Division to report. They were the first troops called to service.

It had been months since North Korean troops spilled over the 38th parallel into South Korea. That was back in June. The U.S. could no longer wait to intercede.

After dropping two nukes on Japan in World War Two, the United had already demonstrated its might, but the North Koreans were not deterred. They knew the U.S. wouldn’t risk harming the South Koreans, nor could the U.S. afford any more bad press over nuclear bombs.

Boots on the ground, starting with the 28th Division, was the only option.

The Call of Duty

On August 1, a federal alert went out calling the 28th to report for duty. On Sep 8, the 109th paraded in the streets of Pennsylvania before preparing to leave. On September 10, the troops boarded special cars as part of a troop train, bound for Indiana.

During that trip, the troop train kept stopping for mechanical issues. When they reached the north side of Coshocton, they pulled over to get the issue fixed.

Many of the men were asleep. The train sent a flagman to warn oncoming trains as it was yet early in the day. A stop signal went up, and they waited.

Then the St. Louis came barreling down the same track. The flagman waved everything he had, but the headlamp on the train didn’t slow down. When he realized the engineer didn’t see him, it was too late, and there was nothing he could do about it.

The Spirit of St. Louis

Similar train to Spirit of St. Louis |

Sgt. Fred Mendicini was asleep in a coach car when he woke to the sound of screaming brakes. The St. Louis had missed the flagman because a heavy fog covering the area. He was also behind schedule and going too fast.

By the time the engineer knew they were in trouble, there wasn’t enough time. By that point, he was working on damage control.

Inside the troop train, Mendicini had the same mission: damage control. He ran backward on the train, shouting at the men to hit the floor. He figured that was their best chance of survival.

Crash experts agreed after the accident that his instincts were right. Had he done nothing, they would have lost more lives.

The St. Louis plowed into the back of the stopped train at about 48 mph, tossing the first car into the air. It shoved the next one aside, then rammed a third car before coming to a stop. Two of the cars landed in an upside-down v-shape on the nose of the St.Louis.

The crash left 278 people injured, but killed 33 of the national guardsmen before they’d even arrived at camp.

When the dust settled, the military recognized the 33 as the first casualties of the Korean Conflict. It was, at that time, the worst domestic tragedy to befall a September 11th.