- Historic Sites
How a Whole Nation Said Thank You
October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
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.
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.