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What is the French 'Gratitude Train' of 1949?

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In the aftermath of World War II, America was widely regarded by its government officials as a "leader of the free peoples of the world" and felt obligated to make "the rights and liberties this nation enjoys ever more universal". In an effort to fight against perceived Communist aggression confronting Americans and continue setting the example of freedom to the world, the federal government and national civic organizations sponsored many programs that were enthusiastically embraced by its citizens. One such patriotic program was the 'Friendship Train' that crossed America, collecting boxcars full of donated food and clothing for the starving people of Europe, especially France and Italy. The Friendship Train was the brainchild of Drew Pearson (1897 – 1969), one of the best-known American syndicated columnist of his day and nominee for the 1949 Nobel Peace Prize. The idea stemmed from his 1947 tour of Europe, when he noticed that the Communists were being highly praised for their food donations to Western European countries. Considering that President Truman's 1947 food conservation program for the domestic market met with mixed success, Pearson took a different approach by proposing a voluntary program whereby people would donate, collect and transport food supplies directly to those in need. Pearson announced his plan to form a 'Friendship Train' on 11 October 1947 and worked with with Charles Luckman, head of the Citizens Food Committee to organize the program. During the month of November 1947, boxcars travelled from Los Angeles to New York to collect donated food and supplies from all forty-eight states. While they expected to collect eighty train cars, by the end of the program, over seven hundred boxcars carrying $40 million in relief supplies headed on ships for Europe. The SS 'American Leader' carried the first shipment of materials to Le Havre, France in late 1947.

With the arrival of the winter months, most Europeans (non-communists) were grateful to receive the generous contributions. This spirit of generosity continued when André Picard, a French railroad worker and war veteran, suggested that France give in return. Appreciative French citizens began bringing items for the French 'Gratitude Train', the 'Train de la Reconnaissance Française'. In 1949, over 250 tons of gifts and mementos (over 52,000 items) were donated and packed into forty-nine boxcars and sent to America as an expression of thanks from thousands of French citizens of every age and class to the people of America. The small boxcars were known as 'Hommes 40 et Chevaux 8' (or 40&8) because of their capacity to hold either forty men or eight horses. These wooden cars transported U.S. troops to and from French battlefields during the two World Wars. The ship named 'Magellan', with a banner attached on it's side that read 'Merci America', transported the Gratitude Train to the United States and arrived in New York City, on 3 February 1949. A fireboat in New York Harbor shooting water into the air welcomed them along with more than 25,000 onlookers that were in attendance. The Gratitude Train's boxcars were readied on flatbed rail cars for delivery to every state. Attached to the exterior of each boxcar were forty shields that represented the French provinces in 1949. The Atchison, Topeka and Sante Fe Railway Company transported the boxcars free of charge. The boxcar containing 1,700 gifts allotted to the State of Arizona arrived in Phoenix on 17 February 1949. The next day it was transported to the Capitol grounds accompanied by French and American dignitaries. On 15 March 1949, Governor Dan E. Garvey wrote a letter to the French citizens "...to express to you our deep and sincere thanks for this expression of friendship which has existed so many years between our two countries." Over the years, the train has become known as the 'Merci' Train; 'Merci' is French for thank you. For years, Arizona's Forty and Eight boxcar was forgotten in the desert north of Phoenix. The boxcar was eventually restored and is currently on loan to the McCormick-Stillman Railway Park in Scottsdale. Shown in the photograph is a Merci Train model that was created in the 1990s and donated by La Société de Quarante Hommes et Huit Chevaux local post 35.

On this day, 3 February 2018, we commemorate the 69th anniversary since the arrival of the French Gratitude Train in New York City and "the Merci Train boxcars now stand as a tribute to the sacrifices and bravery of American veterans who served in France in two World Wars and as a symbol of friendship and gratitude between the people of the United States of America and the citizens of France."

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