Simple exchange of thanks

SUN JOURNAL

Trains: Veterans groups honor the memory of boxcars filled with U.S. aid to France and French gifts to America.

November 11, 2003|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

MANCHESTER, N.H. — MANCHESTER, N.H.- It's easy to miss the gray boxcar. It sits in a plain brick pavilion on a dead-end street in this city's French Canadian neighborhood.

The simple heartfelt message on the building - "Merci" - also gets lost these days in trans-Atlantic taunts involving Freedom fries and wild-West foreign policy.

In the years after World War II, railroad cars such as this one represented a bond of friendship, a time when Americans and Frenchmen gladly reached across the ocean to each other.

And on this Veteran's Day around the country, American Legion members will gather at several of the wooden "Merci" boxcars to lay wreaths and read the names of comrades who have died this year.

"They're a piece of history," says Fred Teague, 77, a Navy veteran and retired cabinetmaker who maintains Manchester's boxcar. "There's not many of the boxcars left, but there's not too many of us left, either."

About 4.7 million American men and 33,000 women served in the military in World War I. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates fewer than 500 are alive. Of the 16.1 million Americans who served in World War II, slightly more than one-fourth remain.

With their deaths, the Merci boxcars have become part of the distant past, along with Kilroy, who was everywhere, and cartoonist Bill Mauldin's combat-weary Willie and Joe.

In 1947, with France still reeling from the effects of war, newspaper columnist Drew Pearson championed a relief drive. Americans responded, filling a 700-car "Friendship Train" with $40 million in food and clothing to help the French get back on their feet.

The French, led by Andre Picard, a veteran and railroad worker, responded with a train of their own, which rolled from province to province collecting gifts. Grateful residents filled 49 boxcars with items from their homes: paintings and sculptures, dolls and photographs, scrapbooks and satin wedding dresses.

Michele Paule says she was a schoolgirl in Lyon, France, when she gave a piggy bank to "le train de la reconnaissance." Her offering was placed in a boxcar bound for South Carolina.

The spontaneous nature of the gifts "was as the Merci Committee wanted it," says Earl Bennett, the unofficial boxcar historian. "They didn't want people to go out and buy things. They wanted gifts that meant something to the French people."

There was one car for each state at that time and a car to be shared by the District of Columbia and territory of Hawaii.

The outpouring of gratitude was so great that 9,000 presents had to be left at the dock in Le Havre when the freighter Magellan steamed for New York City.

The boxcars were relics of the world wars. Nine feet wide and 29 feet long, they had painted on their slats the stated capacity of "Quarante Hommes et Huit Chevaux," 40 men or eight horses. Doughboys and dog faces were carried to the front in the cramped cars dubbed "side-door Pullmans" by one G.I.

On Feb. 3, 1949, Magellan, with "Merci America" painted on its sides, arrived to the cheers of 200,000 New Yorkers.

The cars were sent on their way. In Rhode Island, the car was pulled from Woonsocket to Providence with the governor at the throttle. In Arkansas, about 10,000 people ignored the rain to view the car and a display of gifts set up in the North Little Rock High School auditorium. Manchester's car was stationed outside City Hall.

Local officials dispersed the 52,000 presents. Some went to individuals. Others were donated to historical societies, museums and colleges. In two states, the right to wear the wedding dresses was auctioned off to prospective brides.

The country moved on to the Cold War, and boxcars were soon forgotten, left on railroad sidings or in freight yards.

But New Hampshire Gov. Sherman Adams asked a branch of the American Legion, "Le Grande Voiture 40 & 8," to assume stewardship of the car.

On Veterans Day 1951, the "voyageurs" of the post dedicated the pavilion with a parade and ceremony, a practice that has continued, albeit earlier in the fall.

About 150 people gather each year. An American Legion band plays. Honor guards and the women's auxiliary march the six blocks from the William H. Jutras Post 43 to the boxcar.

"These people are keeping it a tradition in the best sense of the word," says Manchester Union Leader columnist John Clayton. "Maybe they don't keep in step the way they once did, but if it was important enough for their fathers and brothers to do it, it's important enough for them to continue."

Bennett, too, is keeping the tradition alive. The retired Air Force technician has spent a decade looking for forgotten cars and their artifacts, documenting them on his Web site, www.rypn.org.

He says the cars, built between 1872 and 1885, are in fragile condition and some have not survived the years. Massachusetts and Nebraska sold theirs for scrap. The New Jersey and Connecticut cars were destroyed in fires. The whereabouts of the Colorado and Illinois railcars are unknown, but they are presumed gone.

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