Rails of War
Supplying the Americans and Their Allies in China-Burma-India
Steven James Hantzis
Potomac Books, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2017, 232 pages
Book Review published on: September 8, 2017
Steven Hantzis’s Rails of War: Supplying the Americans and Their Allies in China-Burma-India is an excellent insight into the Allied Force’s actions to close out the China-Burma-India Theater. Motivated by the stories his father and fellow railroad soldiers told him, Hantzis fabricates the personal dialog of real characters based on real stories and vignettes in order to create a realistic and easy-to-read account of history. He does an excellent job of researching different aspects of the war to provide the reader with a complete understanding of the situation. His detail in the many different detours of the story help complete the whole picture of what the 721st Railway Operations Battalion did to support the conclusion of World War II.
Surprisingly, Hantzis not only gives an account of the railroad soldiers in the China-Burma-India Theater during World War II, but he also effectively describes the whole conclusion to this theater of war. His research dives into the operational commanders such as Gens. William Slim and Heitarō Kimura to create an understanding of the struggles of both the Axis and Allied units. From this vantage point, he is able to look at tactical units, like Merrill’s Marauders, to show how their development and employment in the theater affected the war. He could then pivot to the strategic events such as the passing of President Franklin Roosevelt and the affect that had on soldier morale. This allowed him to pull together a holistic look at what happened in the China-Burma-India Theater.
However, Hantzis’s storytelling style used to convey the different situations inside these diverging topics gave me a disconnected experience. I found myself wondering at the beginning of about half of the chapters, “What does this have to do with the Rails of War?” In the end, Hantzis used the technique to paint the whole picture. It was not until I took time to reflect on the story that could I see the whole from the vignettes.
Inside the vignettes about the 721st, Hantzis does an excellent job describing the horrific conditions in the China-Burma-India Theater and details how the American railroader and soldier overcame those conditions. The railroads placed in the charge of the 721st and like units were inefficient and dangerous compared to those in America. Hantzis describes how these well-trained railroaders were able to improve their position and the systems in place to achieve their mission. This line of communication that carried an immense amount of supplies throughout the China-Burma-India Theater was the lifeblood that kept China from falling to the Japanese.
I recommend this book for all military professionals and railroading enthusiasts who want an understanding of how American railroading professionals affected the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II. Rails of War is a relatively quick read, giving good perspective toward the end of the war in the China-Burma-India Theater, while providing good entertainment throughout.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Joe M. Schotzko, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas