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USA : The Merci Train : Misunderstandings



"The Merci Train" - "The Gratitude Train" - "Train de la Reconnaissance Francaise"

Table of Contents :

Small stories :

David C. White - Farmer in Kansas Ruth Nathanson - High school senior from New York City


Individual states :
Bold = new content. (G) = can be seen on Google Streetview.

Arizona - Alabama - Arkansas (G) - California (G) - Colorado - Connecticut - Delaware (G) - Florida (G) - Georgia - Hawaii - Illinois - Indiana - Iowa (G) - Kansas - Kentucky - Louisiana (G) - Maine - Maryland - Massachusetts - Michigan - Minnesota - Mississippi - Missouri - Montana - Nebraska - Nevada - New Jersey - New Hampshire (G) - New Mexico - New York - North Carolina - North Dakota - Ohio - Oklahoma - Oregon (G) - Pennsylvania (G) - Rhode Island - South Carolina (G) - South Dakota (G) - Tennessee (G) - Texas - Utah (G) - Vermont - Virginia - Washington (G) - Washington DC - West Virginia (G) - Wisconsin - Wyoming (G).



In various newspapers from 1948 / 1949 and on various web-sites there are inaccurate or incorrect information regarding the "Merci Train".

I will try to set the record straight on this page :
  1. The French sent 48 boxcars to the USA
  2. The French boxcars were transported in the USA on US-flatcars
    because the French gauge was too narrow to run on US-tracks
  3. The original color of the boxcars was light-grey
  4. The French boxcar could carry 40 men AND 8 horses
  5. The French gifts were sold on charity auctions
  6. The empty 49th boxcar was sent to Hawaii, while Washington DC kept all the gifts.


1. The French sent 48 boxcars to the USA

This is not correct.

From the beginning the French wanted to send a thank you to the American people who had donated to the Friendship Train.

The idea of putting the gifts into a boxcar evolved into giving each state a boxcar full of gifts.

In 1948 there were 48 states in the USA.

The Territory of Alaska became the 49th U.S. state on January 03, 1959.
The Territory of Hawaii became the 50th U.S. state on August 21, 1959.
Washington DC - District of Columbia - was - and is - not a state, but a district - the seat of the Capitol, and as such state-neutral.

The French decided that a 49th boxcar should be divided between Washington DC and Hawaii. Hawaii, because they contributed much to the Friendship Train.

Washington DC must be seen as a political message. Both the "Friendship Train" and the "Merci Train" were not official goverment-run initiatives, but it was the US-government in Washington DC that at the same time initiated the Marshall-help.


2. The French boxcars were transported in the USA on US-flatcars because the French gauge was too narrow to run on US-tracks

This is not correct.

The French boxcars had exactly the same gauge as US-boxcars ( 1435 mm ) and would therefore have been able to run on American tracks.

There might have been a problem with the size / depth of the "flange", but it seems unlikely.

The actual reason why the French box-cars didn't roll on US-tracks by themselves was because the French / European coupler ( buffer-and-chain ) was incompatible with the US-style-coupler ( Knuckle - Janney ).

On top of that the French and the US brake-hoses also were incompatible.

Interestingly enough the total height of the US-flatcar and the French boxcar made the planning of the 3 "Merci Train" routes difficult, because the clearance of various bridges and tunnels had to be considered.


3. The original color of the boxcars was light-grey

This is not correct.

It is correct that many boxcars TODAY have been painted in a "light grey" or "light slate grey" :



Some, i.e. in Delaware and Michigan, have, for some strange reason, been painted red.

The newspapers reported in 1948 / 1949 that the French boxcars were "slate grey" or "steel grey".

When you see the Maryland boxcar - one boxcar that still have its original color - it is clear that the original color is "dark slate grey" :



I presume that, since the newspaper photo's were mostly B/W, the people behind the various restorings and repaintings of the boxcars have read about the "slate grey" and have chosen the lighter slate grey.

Why states like Delaware and Michigan have chosen a red color is anyone's guess.

There are at least three color photos of a boxcar from around 1949 :

the Kansas boxcar - from 1952

Kansas gratitude merci boxcar 1952
© vintagenational.tumblr.com/page/29
[ picture : vintagenational.tumblr.com/image/53730188117 ➚ ]
the Illinois boxcar from May 10, 1949 :

illinois boxcar 1949 illinois boxcar 1949
© Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection
Indiana University Archives / Digital Library Program

that shows basically the same color as the Maryland boxcar.


4. The French boxcar could carry 40 men AND 8 horses

This is incorrect.

The French boxcars were originally labelled :
HOMMES _____ 40
CHEVAUX (en long) 8
meaning "40 men" "8 horses - length-wise".

The American 40-et-8 Society chose its name after this designation, but used the name "40-et-8" giving the appearance that it was "AND".

In fact the French description meant "OR", so that the French boxcar could carry 40 men OR 8 horses.

I've found these drawings on how the French military envisioned that the "40-8" boxcars should be used :

harrisburg merci gratitude boxcar harrisburg merci gratitude boxcar harrisburg merci gratitude boxcar

From a French website : Archives du chemin de fer ➚ where an article from 1916 "L'effort gigantesque des compagnies de chemins de fer depuis le debut des hostilites" by a H. Barthelemy has been scanned.

But there is no doubt that some of the American soldiers who were transported in these boxcars during WW1 felt that there was so little room in these cars that a "40 AND 8" description was more fitting.


5. The French gifts were sold on charity auctions

This is NOT correct.

In late 1948 - January 1949 there WERE stories in the US-newspapers about upcoming charity-auctions where the French gifts would be sold.

When the French organizers heard about this, they made it very clear to i.e. Drew Pearson that auctioning off, even for charity, the French gifts was not what the French wanted.

The French wanted every part of the USA to have a gift from France, a souvenir, that would be kept locally so people all over the USA in the future would be reminded of how gratefull France was for the Friendship Train.

This doesnt mean that a charity auction NEVER took place, and sadly many of the gifts are long gone - especially books have over the years been sold / thrown out by the various libraries that received them in 1949.


6. The empty 49th boxcar was sent to Hawaii, while Washington DC kept all the gifts.

Several pages on the internet say something like
"DC kept all the gifts loaded in the boxcar, Hawaii got the empty car"

This is NOT correct.

Hawaii did get some of the gifts - it is not known how the gifts were divided and by whom.

On April 1, 1949, there was a display of the gifts to Hawaii in Honolulu.










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2014 -
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