Merci, America

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When the Magellan reached its destination, The New York Times reported “a welcoming din surpassing that accorded the maiden arrival here of an ocean passenger queen.” Greeted by a flotilla of small boats, the gaily beflagged freighter, emblazoned amidships with the huge inscription “Merci, America,” steamed into New York Harbor while waves of Air Force planes roared overhead and f ireboats sent columns of spray into the wintry sunlight.

The ship docked at Weehawken, New Jersey, and the following day unloaded through the voluntary services of local stevedoring companies. Normal customs procedures were waived: President Truman had signed into law a special resolution permitting the train and its cargo to enter the United States duty-free. Since their wheels were about eight inches wider than American rails, the Forty and Eights were hoisted onto flatcars for their overland journey. Trainmen then sorted them into three sections for shipment to the South, the West, and New England. In the meantime, the New York car was trundled up Broadway amid swirling ticker tape as two hundred thousand people roared a tumultuous “you’re welcome” to the people of France.

For the next several weeks, similar scenes were repeated throughout the nation.

Each state established committees to catalogue and distribute its share of the train’s cargo. In most cases the gifts went on statewide exhibition tours. Afterward, they were distributed in a variety of ways. In some states, the contents were sold at auction and the proceeds given to charities; elsewhere, selected items were turned over to veterans hospitals, schools, and churches. Articles suitable for permanent disolav generally went to museums and libraries.

 

Some of the gifts posed particular problems. For example, many of the cars contained young oak and beech trees intended to serve “as living reminders of the enduring friendship between the French and the Americans.” But Department of Agriculture experts, recalling Dutch elm disease and Japanese beetles, ordered the seedlings placed in state observation plots for at least two years.

The territory of Hawaii had no problem with the distribution of gifts. Its boxcar, which was to be shared with the District of Columbia, first stopped at the nation’s capital en route to the future island state. There, before moving on, the Forty and Eight was emptied of everything. Hawaii got a carload of packing straw.

As for the boxcars themselves, most were entrusted to veterans organizations, some were placed in museums; some were incorporated into memorials; others found homes in fairgrounds and city parks.

Nebraska’s car wasn’t so lucky. Shunted from place to place, it went first to the State Historical Society, then to the Nebraska Forty and Eight organization, and finally to the Lincoln Fairgrounds. In 1951 an attempt was made to return it to the Historical Society, which didn’t want it. So it was sold to an Omaha junkyard for forty-five dollars, its wheels and metal parts pounded into scrap and its body converted into a storage shed. Its humiliation finally ended in 1961, when the yard was relocated and the car demolished.

A calamitous fate also awaited the Connecticut car; it burned up at a Stamford veterans post.

Somewhere along the line the Mississippi car also was hit by fire, but fortunately the flames were confined to its interior and only the inside suffered darriage. For years it sat forlornly, stripped of its shields and markings, in a makeshift parking lot next to the capital building in Jackson. In 1976 George Cerles, a schoolteacher, decided to do something about it. With money raised from a bake sale, students from his ninth- and tenth-grade French classes bought paint and materials and set to work rehabilitating the old car. The efforts of the children shamed the Mississippi legislature into passing a bill permitting landscaping of the site.

Perhaps the Kentucky Forty and Eight had the most spectacular ups and downs. It originally was placed in Elizabethfown, where it sat unprotected, aging in sun and rain. In 1961 an army reserve railway-car-repair platoon restored it to its former glory, and personnel from Fort Knox moved it to Louisville’s Kentucky Railway Museum. But in 1964 it was caught in a flood and filled with water. Despite its trials, it rolls today as the museum’s tool car.

In all, no fewer than thirty-nine cars survive. Some are handsomely displayed; others stand neglected, plaques gone, paint peeling, weeds growing through their rotted floors. The gifts they held, scattered to a thousand places, are impossible to trace, and most of the young trees shipped in the train failed to survive the rigors of the North American climate. Scores of museums and libraries around the country still exhibit, or at least store, items sent in the train. But for the most part, time has blurred the connection between these articles and the splendid gesture which brought them to our shores almost a third of a century ago.