This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Italy. This is the story of a young Italian engineer and an American train that played a huge part in the liberation of Italy. This is a true story. Phyllis Macchioni
Cloning an Iron Horse
ONE WARM SPRING DAY in 1965 Luciano Vigentini, a young Italian engineer walked into a train yard on the outskirts of Milan, handed over the Italian equivalent of $500 and walked out the owner of an 86-ton American steam engine.
His plan was to take the engine apart piece-by-piece, duplicate each piece in one-eighth full scale (1 inch equals 8 inches) and create a working replica. An amazing idea indeed, but that’s only half the story. The engine he bought was not just an ordinary engine, it was a piece of American history: an American Army Transportation Corps USA/TC Class S 160, standard gauge steam engine developed for overseas service by the U.S. Army during World War II.
In 1937, when Luciano Vigentini was born, Europe was on the brink of war. The year he celebrated his fifth birthday, the British began bombing Italy. It was the summer of 1942, and all major highways and railroad routes had been targeted for destruction. The objective: cut off the German supply lines. By the autumn of that year more than 1,600 tons of explosives had been dropped on northern Italy. Milan was in shambles: block after block of apartment buildings and businesses reduced to smoking piles of rubble, roads and bridges destroyed.
“It was terrible,” says Vigentini, “we lived in constant fear. We had no food, no clean water. My mother spent her days standing in long lines clutching coupons for our meagre daily rations of flour, sugar and other essentials. We existed on those precious rations, and worried as we saw them shrinking month by month. My brother and I often went to bed hungry. At night we would be routed from our beds into shelters, the wail of air raid sirens in our ears, during the day we spent hours huddled around a short-wave radio listening to Radio London and the Voice of America.”
The news the Vigentini brothers were waiting for finally came. In 1943 the Allies landed in Sicily and the serious job of liberating Italy began. Town by town the Allies fought their way up the peninsula: Palermo, Catania, Salerno, Naples, and Casino. When they reached Rome, the Fascist government, headed by Benito Mussolini, surrendered and the city was liberated. As the Americans carried the fight north, they often found themselves in rocky, desolate regions, rations and ammunition strapped on their backs, leading pack mules up unpaved mountain roads. It was obvious that a more efficient means of transporting soldiers and equipment had to be found. The only logical solution was by train but there were no Italian trains, or Italian train factories. They had all been destroyed by the bombs.
The United States Army Transportation Corp contacted the American Locomotive Company (ALCO) in Schenectady, NY, the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia, and the Lima Locomotive Works in Lima, OH. They ordered four basic types of steam engines and four basic types of diesel engines. The engines were typically American in design: bar frames, high-pitched boiler barrel, round-top wide firebox and steel inner firebox.
By the summer of 1944, the first of the American trains started arriving in Italy. By 1946, several hundred more, including the S 160, model were being lifted off military supply ships. The train Vigentini bought was part of this fleet. A stripped down, no frills, standard gauge steam 2-8-0 iron horse.
The sturdy S 160 was put right to work. As American soldiers and supplies arrived in the port towns of southern Italy, they were transported north by train, their mission - to rout out the Germans. Even though Italy had signed an armistice with the Allies in September 1943, German troops were still in control of the northern half of Italy and were putting up a fight. It took almost a year, but the Allies were finally able to say Mission Accomplished, The German’s were gone.
With the war over, an even bigger job began: the reconstruction of Italy. With no Italian trains available, the Italian government continued to use the S 160 and other American locomotives. Over the next twenty years, as Italy slowly got back on its feet, the American engines were gradually replaced by newly built Italian models and phased out. The engines that had served in northern Italy were deadheaded to Milan, housed in a train yard just outside of the city, lined up and ready to be sold for scrap.
“I remember the day I got the call from a friend who was in charge of the train yard. He knew I was interested in trains and he asked me if I wanted to come over and take a look at some of the military engines that were coming in. I was. When I got home that night, I sat down at the dinner table, looked over at my young wife and said, “honey, I just bought an 86 ton steam engine.”
What Vigentini didn’t know the day he bought the train was that because the S 160 was a military vehicle, the engine’s specifications had been sealed by the Pentagon and were not available to the public. What this small, seemingly insignificant fact would mean to him years later was hundreds of hours bent over a drawing board, recreating shop drawings from his hand made sketches.
Vigentini’s train sat in the Milan train yard for the next 30 years while he earned a living and raised a family. But every now and again, whenever he had some spare time, he would pass by to visit his engine, and dream about the day he would be able to start his project. And then that day arrived.
“The first piece I took off of the locomotive was the big front grill. I remember I had butterflies in my stomach and I wondered if, after all these years of planning and dreaming, I would actually be able to pull this off. I put the grill on the ground and looked at it for a few minutes and then I bolted it back on. I decided it might be better to start with something smaller.”
The something smaller turned out to be the outside rod that connects the locomotive’s wheels. Loosening the nuts and bolts holding the rod, he lifted it off the train. Then he measured it, sketched it, and went home. Once down in his home workshop out came graph paper and pencils, calculator and slide rule and line by line the scale drawing took shape. Next came the job of cutting, grinding and filing. When the miniature rod was finished, he set it aside. One piece down, thousands to go.
Since the engine was more than double his height, to remove the heavy pieces on top, the smoke stack for example, he needed a ladder, and sometimes some help. Without schematics, the work had to progress in a logical order so he could build the model as he took the monstrous engine apart.
“I would go to the train yard and take off the parts I needed, trying not to hurt myself, or anyone else, in the process. For some large sections, like the frame, I would make a wood or plastic model first to be sure it was the right size before I cut the steel, or whatever material I was using. For smaller pieces I would glue the drawings to thin sheets of metal, cut them out and then smooth off the rough edges with a file. Then I would take the pieces to a welder who soldered them for me. I kept him busy. By the time the project was finished, the soldering material alone cost me more than the train did.”
Over the years he slowly dismantled the old engine. May 30, 2002 was a red-letter day for Vigentini, the original engine was no more, and a perfect reproduction stood in its place. The iron horse had been cloned.
“It took me almost ten years to complete the project. Now when I think about the thousands of parts I drew and made, it even amazes me,” Vigentini turns his head and half closes his eyes as if remembering each and every piece. “There wasn’t anything on the original locomotive that I didn’t reproduced, including the hundreds of nuts and bolts, tubes, belts and screws that hold everything together, and I did it without the original specifications”. And even more amazing, he may be the only person in the world to have accomplished such a feat.
Some pieces, like the coupling rods, were fairly easy to make, but most of the pieces were not. “I realized when I was making the shop drawings that I was going to have to make a few adjustments in order to make the replica operable,” he says. “Conceptually, a steam engine is a simple system in which water runs through a rack of tubes, water in – steam out. The amount of steam that is sent to the cylinder is controlled by a regulator and, as the steam expands and condenses, it pushes the piston back and forth and this drives the wheels. When the valve opens the cylinder to release the steam exhaust, the train moves, but the tubes have to be big enough for this to happen”.
If Vigentini had simply reduced the size of the pipes that carry steam from the boiler using the same reduction scale that he was using for the rest of the train, the pipes would have been too small and not enough steam would be able to pass through to move the train. They had to be re-proportioned, and that was a job he handed over to an expert. “Building a train is one thing”, he says, “building an operable miniature boiler is quite another”.
“I like machines, particularly trains”, Vigentini says matter-a-factly as he leads me down to his workshop in the basement of his modest home in the suburbs of Milan. When I ask him how many model trains he has built in his lifetime, he shrugs and says he’s lost count. I believe him.
Years ago, undaunted by the fact that all the available floor and wall space in his basement had been claimed by model trains, he turned to the only space left, the ceiling. Using a series of pulleys he designed, he slowly lowers a large platform holding an entire miniature train yard. With the flip of a wall mounted switch I watch as a train starts up and pulls out of the yard. It snakes its way along a series of tracks that have also been suspended from the ceiling, going around, under and over heating ducts and other barriers. With the flip of another switch, the wailing sound of an engine comin ‘round the track fille the house. He smiles. “I love that sound,” he says.
On the floor, between two large glass cases holding some of Vigentini’s favorite models, is his masterpiece, the S 160, the letters U.S.A. stamped in gold on the shiny black coal box.
To transport the S 160, Vigentini bought a trailer and then customized it to hold the train. He participates in train meets two or three times a year, and it was at an international train meet just outside Milan, that we first met. He was wearing standard railroad gear, blue striped bib overalls, his striped engineer’s cap firmly on his head shielding his eyes from the sun. To get the train started, this modern day Casey Jones began by shoveling tiny pieces of coal into the firebox using a diminutive long handled shovel.
“I chose the S160,” he said, “because it was my way of honoring an unsung war hero, an iron horse that had contributed so much to the war effort and then to the reconstruction of my country. But I would never take on such a big project again,” he says closing the door to the fire box and signalling to the kids crowing around waiting to ride with him that he was almost ready to go. “There were times I wondered if I would ever get the engine built. From now on I’m sticking to making models I can put in my pocket - or at least in a big bag”.
As the fire in the firebox started to blaze, the water in the boiler started to heat, steam started to build and the wheels started to roll - the USA/TC Class S 160 was off and running once again. Round and round the track the engine went, a smiling Engineer Vigentini at the helm, happy knowing his S160 was pulling cars loaded with excited kids of all ages enjoying a day in the country and not military troops like it did when he was their age.