Ken Dickinson is still haunted by a tragic train crash that killed dozens of servicemen.
Ken Dickinson was just 20-years-old when he and two other local men boarded a bus headed for Carbondale.
It was early September of 1950 and Dickinson was joined that fateful day by Tim O'Connell and Jack Romaine. All three were members of Company H, 109th Infantry of the PA National Guard, which had just been federalized for the second time in nine years.
The Maple City men were embarking on the first leg of their call-up for action in Korea.
Dickinson and his two friends took that bus to the Pioneer City, then boarded a train. Their final US destination would be Camp Atterbury, located in south-central Indiana.
Sadly, Fate intervened along the way.
Dickinson, O'Connell and Romaine traveled across Pennsylvania and Ohio by troop transport.
The train carrying them kept getting longer with each stop along the way as more soldiers boarded. Cars were added as needed and soon there were hundreds of young men headed to Camp Atterbury.
By the time the train reached the outskirts of Coshocton, it was experiencing mechanical difficulties. Finally, just after daybreak on Monday, Sept. 11, the engineer ground it to a halt.
Later reports indicated that the trouble was a “steam valve controlling the air brake system broke.”
The transport sat motionless on the tracks just west of a signal. Conductors jumped off and ran back down the tracks. They deployed flares in hopes of warning other trains about the situation.
Sadly, a combination of fog and human error rendered the flares useless.
A passenger train traveling on the same track, the “Spirit of St. Louis,” came roaring out of the mist. Her engineer, William E. Eller, later testified that he was “running late and going too fast” … which turned out to be a recipe for disaster.
The “Spirit of St. Louis” was only supposed to be going between 15 and 20 mph. However, some eye witnesses estimate that it had actually been traveling nearly 50 mph.
The train roared out of the mist and plowed into the helpless troop transport, reducing the last three cars to a mass of twisted metal.
It was dawn on the morning of Sept. 11, a day that, in the United States at least, is forever destined for mourning.
I've traveled up to the Dickinson home in Cherry Ridge to talk with Ken about that terrible day nearly seven decades ago.
He was born in Jermyn, but has lived the vast majority of his adult life on this tranquil, idyllic property in the country.
We're sitting in his garage which is also part “man-cave,” complete with refrigerator and flat screen TV. He has it tuned to an old black & white western, the sound muted.
Now 87-years-old, Ken looks off into the distance when he talks about what happened. There's catch in his throat and a tear in his eye as he recounts the terrible event.
“It was about five a.m.,” he said. “We'd just been told that we were going to eat breakfast. I was reaching up for my mess gear when it hit. The impact threw me over the seat. There was glass from the windows and the lights everywhere.”
Ken blacked out briefly and when he regained consciousness … well, he was lying right in the middle of a nightmare.
His face was on fire and his mouth full of blood. He learned later that his jaw had been shattered and his teeth ruined. Fortunately for Ken, though, he was one of the lucky ones.
“A lot of people died that day,” he said in a hoarse whisper. “A lot of people were terribly hurt. It was an awful, awful day.”
The sun soon rose on an absolute hellscape. Ken's transport had been derailed and the last three cars obliterated. The dead and dying were tossed about like rag dolls.
Ken was helped from the car and separated from his friends. He wound up in an Indiana hospital.
Not surprisingly, none of the survivors of this tragic crash were sent to war. The vast majority ended up either discharged or in Germany.
Ken eventually served his country for a total of five years. Afterward, he returned to Honesdale and tried his best to put the nightmare behind him.
By the Numbers
Fire departments from all over the area scrambled to the scene as news of the disaster quickly spread.
The Red Cross even responded, setting up tents in a field adjacent to the tracks. There, doctors and nurses did their initial triage. They stabilized the injured as best they could, then began shipping them off to nearby hospitals.
The dead were laid out on the ground, covered with blankets, jackets, coats … whatever could be found.
Eye witnesses testified afterward that removing the dead and injured was “gruesome work.” Some of the soldiers were “difficult to identify” due to their catastrophic wounds.
All told, 33 soldiers were killed and 278 hurt.
All of the fatalities were members of the 109th Field Artillery Battalion. In addition, scores of men from the 109th Infantry suffered grievous injuries.
According to unit records, this event turned out to be the “greatest single tragedy in the history of the 109th Field Artillery or its predecessors, which participated in every war the United States fought starting with the Revolutionary.”
For years, Ken couldn't go anywhere near a train.
He lived for a very short time near some tracks, but “every time I'd be just about to fall asleep, a train would go by and I'd jump out of my bed terrified.”
Thankfully, Ken has overcome this fear. He even took a “nice, slow ride down to Lackawaxen a couple of years ago” aboard the Stourbridge Line.
He still experiences a bit of survivors guilt because he and his buddies were supposed to be in the last car. The only reason that they weren't was due to time contraints.
“We were in a hurry, so all they could do was just keep adding on cars to the end,” he said. “They usually go in a descending order, but there wasn't time...”
When asked why he is so anxious to talk about his terrible experience all these years later, he doesn't hesitate.
“I just want people to remember,” he said. “A lot of time has passed and a lot of folks have forgotten.”
9-11 means a great deal to millions of Americans … and it does to Ken Dickinson as well. However, in his case there is another terribly painful layer to those memories.
Ken has gone on to lead a happy, fulfilling life. He's been active in many local groups, most notably the Wayne-Pike Shrine Club.
Ken and his wife, Audrey, will celebrate their 67th wedding anniversary in October. They have four children (Linda, Lana, Ken Jr. and Lori).
Still, the memories of 9-11 haunt him.
“I hope one day there'll be some kind of memorial each year,” Ken said. “I'm getting up there in years and I want to know that people won't forget when I'm gone.”