Merci, America

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They arrived in America chocked and chained, deep in the hold of a French merchant ship early in February of 1949. During two wars they had served France as dual-purpose railroad boxcars hauling the military cargoes stenciled on their sides: “ Hommes 40—Chevaux 8 .” But now the cars held neither men nor horses. All had been repaired, freshly painted, and decorated with plaques bearing the coats of arms of the forty provinces of France. Across their sides, upon tricolored bands, was printed the name of the enterprise for which they stood—on one side “ Train de la Reconnaissance Française ” and on the other “Gratitude Train.”

The train was an expression of thanks from the citizens of France to the people of America for aid rendered during and after World War II, which had been delivered in a particularly compelling way in 1947 when the American Friendship Train carried some $40,000,000 in relief supplies to France and Italy. Initiated by the Washington newspaper columnist Drew Pearson, this project, which resulted in the distribution of over seven hundred carloads of food, fuel, and clothing, was not an official government program; it was a grass-roots effort that carried personal contributions from individuals in every part of America.

The American Friendship Train inspired a rail worker and war veteran named André Picard to suggest that France reciprocate. His original idea was to present the United States with a decorated Forty and Eight boxcar loaded with gifts representative of his country—wines from Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, and the Loire Valley; white lace headdresses from the Brittany-Normandy hills; perfumes and chic hats from Paris; clay figures from Provence. A local veterans organization adopted the proposal, and a small committee was established to solicit gifts.

As press and radio spread the story, however, the project gained national momentum. The government announced its official approval; the French Academy issued an endorsement; and hundreds of professional, social, and fraternal organizations asked to participate. Clearly a single boxcar would not be enough. Superseding the local committee, the National Headquarters of the French War Veterans Association took control and decided to fill forty-nine cars with gifts. One would go to each of the forty-eight states, and the forty-ninth would be shared by the District of Columbia and the territory of Hawaii. During the summer of 1948, trainmen scoured rail yards, sidings, and depots for Forty and Eights.

These superannuated boxcars were a particularly appropriate choice of conveyance. During World War I, millions of Yanks, carried by steel Pullman sleepers to Atlantic ports, landed in France to find awaiting them rickety wooden cars, twenty feet long and nine feet wide, which had been built between 1872 and 1885. The Americans were alternately enchanted and disgusted by the little dual-purpose cars, and sometimes they were just plain confused. Laurence Stallings tells of one sergeant who reported to his leader: “I got all my forty artillerymen in the boxcar, lieutenant. But if you try to put eight of our horses in, somebody’s gonna be trampled to death.” A generation later, American soldiers again were annoyed and intrigued by these durable relics, and many came home to join the Forty and Eight veterans organizations founded by their doughboy forebears.

While the trainmen assembled the seventy-year-old cars, gifts began to come in to collection centers throughout France. Although many in that war-ravaged country had little but sentiment to offer, over 6,000,000 families gave up something of value to help fill the cars. The 52,000 carefully packaged and crated gifts included childish drawings on rough, yellowed paper; puzzles mounted on cardboard frames; ashtrays made of broken mirrors; worn-down wooden shoes; hand-crocheted doilies; battered toys; the original bust of Benjamin Franklin by the great French sculptor, Jean Antoine Houdon; a jeweled Legion d’Honneur once presented to Napoleon; the bugle which signaled the Armistice signing at Compiègne in 1918; fifty rare paintings; the first motorcycle ever built; and a Louis XV carriage. The Society of Parisian Couturiers contributed an exquisite set of forty-nine little mannequins dressed in fashions from 1706 to 1906. The President of France donated an equal number of delicate Sèvres vases. One of the Marquis de Lafayette’s descendants presented his ancestor’s walking stick. A disabled veteran offered a wooden gavel he had carved from a tree in Belleau Wood. There were new bicycles and old bicycles and bicycle wheels. A church in La Courtene surrendered its bell; the city of Lyon provided dozens of silk wedding dresses; and an anonymous donor chipped in a set of black lingerie intended “for a beautiful blonde.”

By the end of 1948 the boxcars were filled to capacity. The train, carrying over two hundred and fifty tons of gratitude, was assembled at Paris and pulled to the port of Le Havre for shipment to America. Even as the Forty and Eights were being loaded aboard the Magellan , more presents poured in. Over nine thousand gifts had to be left behind on the docks.