Inside the diesel shop at the Western Pacific Railroad Museum, a special moment in history was created Sept. 9 with the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the construction of the “Railroad Car That Saved Lives,” the Charles O. Sweetwood.
The rededication ceremony took place in front of the car itself, with Todd Bruso, host of ESPN’s “Pitlane,” serving as master of ceremonies.
Bruso introduced himself and welcomed attendees from the platform of the freshly cleaned Sweetwood car, saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, the vast majority of all soldiers wounded in the Civil War died for lack of adequate care — specifically a lack of blood. In World War II and in the Korean conflict, nearly 97 percent of our wounded men recovered.
“The greatest single medical defense behind this tremendous change was blood — the blood of our citizens, freely given and sped across the seas by air to save the lives of our valiant wounded fighting men.
“This railroad car was an important agency in obtaining adequate supplies of blood. From January 1951 to November 1953, it travelled to cities and towns along the Western Pacific Railroad and its connecting carriers, tapping sources of large aggregate potential where no facilities existed and where individual blood banks could not be established.”
When the Western Pacific Railroad presented the car to the American Red Cross on Jan. 10, 1951 for use as a roving blood collection center, it was dedicated to the memory of Sgt. Charles Owen Sweetwood, the first employee of the Western Pacific to lose his life in the Korean War. Sweetwood was also the first Nevada resident to be killed in Korea.
When the railcar ended its blood service in November 1953, it had done what many had deemed impossible at the time. Travelling over 28,000 miles, the Sweetwood gathered over 25,000 pints of blood and gave citizens, hundreds of miles from any collection station, the opportunity to save the lives of thousands of wounded U.S. soldiers. It connected and empowered people and united them under the memory of a young man who selflessly gave himself to save others.
Bruso continued, “Sixty-seven years later, we are here to mark several events. Today, we celebrate the construction of this historic railcar, Western Pacific 106, which took place 100 years ago this month. We rededicate this historic railcar to the memory of 1st Sgt. Charles O. Sweetwood, medic in the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division, and join together to celebrate his life, and we come to commemorate the original presentation of this car to the American Red Cross and honor those who served aboard the car and collected and transported the life-saving blood it carried.”
Bruso then introduced the many guests of honor, including Julia Rigutto Pagan, one of the original Red Cross nurses to serve on the car, along with her family; Bill Sweetwood, relation to Charles O. Sweetwood; Diane Remick, daughter of Marty Lummus, who bought the WP106 from the railroad in 1961 and saved it from being scrapped and lost to history; and many representatives from the Red Cross, VFW, California District 1, the city of Portola and the California Senate.
Bruso invited Stephen Walsh, the regional director of communications and marketing for the American Red Cross Gold Country Chapter — celebrating its 100th anniversary this year — to speak first. Walsh noted the unique celebration and said, “This is such a rich, nice story.”
Next to climb the steep stairs onto the train car platform was Bill Sweetwood, relative of Charles O. Sweetwood. He explained a bit of the history of the car to the audience, “Charles Sweetwood was survived by his mother, Bonnie; his brothers James and Budd; and his sister. At the ceremony dedicating the car in Oakland, Bonnie, James and Budd were the first to donate blood. Unfortunately, Bonnie had a cold and could not donate, much to her bitter disappointment. This began a tradition where members of our family would sometimes travel with the car and were the first to donate blood at stops along its route. It is our family’s honor to be here to continue that tradition and to remember the sacrifice and inspiration Charles made. As part of this tradition, our family is pleased to donate this replica of the original dedication plaque that hung in the car during its blood procurement service.”
After presenting the plaque, to be hung in the Sweetwood car, Bill Sweetwood also presented Charles O. Sweetwood’s purple heart and an original Red Cross “blood drop pin” for public display in a new shadow box.
Rigutto-Pagan then climbed up the steps with a bit of help from her family, and when she reached the top, received an uproarious ovation, while she smiled at attendees.
“It is my pleasure to officially rededicate this historic railroad car, Western Pacific 106, as the ‘Charles O. Sweetwood,’” Rigutto-Pagan said with some emotion.
“May its story continue to inspire and may it serve as a memorial to those who have worked to save the lives of those fallen in war. I would also like to remember and thank everyone who donated blood in this car and those who may do so in the future.”
Bruso thanked Rigutto-Pagan for her service on board the rolling blood bank, and she descended to ground level to more applause.
Next came Portola City Manager Robert Meacher, who spoke on the historic importance of the day and the honor it was to be a part of it, followed by an invitation to Portola’s Madam Mayor, Pat Morton, who gave a special proclamation.
In a voice filled with emotion, Morton said, “Let it be proclaimed that we, the Portola City Council, hereby proclaim September 9th as Charles O. Sweetwood Day in the city of Portola, and by this action let it be known that the city of Portola, California, recognizes the contributions of the Western Pacific Railroad to this community, and honor the men and women who fought and fell during the Korean War.”
The proclamation was met with applause and then Feather River Rail Society Vice President Greg Elems took the stage, with a bit more history about the Western Pacific and how it “always seemed to be a family railroad.”
Elems described the WP’s excitement to kick-start the blood-collection efforts during the time of the Korean War, with Red Cross representatives of the time so excited at the prospect of the rolling blood bank that they began working with the Western Pacific before the national office had even given its blessing. “The result lived up to the WP’s slogan, ‘The Willing People,’” Elems said. “The WP family came together to make this idea a reality, dedicated it to the memory of one of their own, and made sure that their life-saving cargo kept rolling.”
In quick succession, Shane Starr, representing Doug LaMalfa of District 1, presented a proclamation from the U.S. House of Representatives, saying, “Congressman LaMalfa gives his regards from Washington, D.C.”
This proclamation was followed up by a proclamation by Bill Cardoza, district coordinator for California State Senator Ted Gaines, who said, “Congratulations to WPRM on this celebration, there is a rich ancestry here and a long tradition of WPRM and California history.”
Bruso then presented a dedication on behalf of Mayor Chris Johnson of Elko, to Steve Habeck, president of the Feather River Rail Society, saying, “Charles grew up and lived in Elko, Nevada. This is also where he was buried after he gave his life saving others on the battlefield.”
The VFW Post 3758 Honor Guard presented a flag to the Sweetwood family in honor of Charles’ sacrifice, along with a replica of the plaque that was originally placed in the car in January of 1951, which will remain with the car in memory of Charles.
Closing remarks were made by Bruso on behalf of Feather River Rail Society director Eugene Vicknair, “This is an occasion of mixed feelings for me. At one hand, I am happy to have the opportunity to play some small part in the remarkable history of this railcar. But, as Julia reminded us when she first came to the museum several months ago, the backdrop and need for this car is a cause for sadness. That world conditions brought us to a point where such measures needed to be taken, where lives were laid down, that this program was needed, is sobering.”
Bruso continued, “However, I must admit, that in learning about the “Charles O. Sweetwood,” in studying about its travels and the young man who inspired it, I find something extraordinary. The purpose of the blood program, the goal of the men and women of the Western Pacific Railroad who conceived it, and the volunteers of the Red Cross who worked it, is quite powerful to think about. That goal was to bring as many people as possible together for a simple and profound reason: to help save lives …Together, they achieved something amazing. Together, we can remember that inspiration, restore it to life and share it with our country and her people once again, in a time when perhaps we need some reminding of what we can achieve when we come together and believe in the goodness in each other.”
Following these heartfelt words, the members of VFW Post 3758 played taps while giving a 21-gun salute in front of the museum, with many attendees saluting and more than a few wiping away rogue tears.
The VFW then presented the spent shells from the salute to the Sweetwood family in attendance.
Bruso closed the ceremony with these words, “In the original dedication ceremonies in 1951, there was an invocation given at the beginning of each event. We will instead close with an invocation and a moment of silence to remember the sacrifice of Sgt. Sweetwood and all those who gave their lives in the Korean War. I share with you these words: ‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’”