The vintage boxcar at Camp Perry in Port Clinton is not a destination point. Not enough visual appeal. Besides, you can only view it from the outside. Its contents are housed in Columbus at the Ohio Historical Society. But, the story behind the boxcar is worth retelling because it speaks of the generosity of the American people and the gratitude of those who suffered the devastation of war.
Two years after World War II the allies were in the process of rebuilding Europe and a newspaper columnist from Los Angeles, Drew Pearson, thought the communists were getting too much credit for their meager contributions. He wanted to show the world the generosity of the American people. In his columns and broadcasts, he asked individuals to contribute food from their gardens, homes and farm fields. These contributions would be loaded onto a train that made its way across the country from Los Angeles to New York.
Pearson’s idea sparked an outpouring of good will across the country, writes Dorothy R. Scheele on the website The Friendship Train of 1947. As the train moved eastward it was met by trucks full of food coming from the north and the south.
|Above, Ohio's boxcar from The Gratitude Train that can now be found at Camp Perry.
Left, the bust of French soldier, General Marquis de Lafayette, the most impressice gift on the boxcar. (Lafayette photo courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society).
Toledo’s goal was to fill five freight cars with wheat, flour, condensed milk and dried vegetables, according to an article in the Toledo Blade on November 13. A cartoon show was held at the Paramount Theatre with admission being one can of evaporated milk.
The nation was so enamored by Pearson’s idea that one train could not pull the load over mountainous terrain. By the time the train reached New York for departure to France and Italy, there were three trains pulling 270 boxcars and more than $40 million worth of food, fuel and clothing.
Scheele writes every package had a label that read: “All races and creeds make up the vast melting pot of America, and in a democratic and Christian spirit of good will toward men, we, the American people, have worked together to bring this food to your doorsteps, hoping that it will tide you over until your own fields are again rich and abundant with crops.”
The contributions were in addition to the efforts of the federal government via the Marshall Plan. Everything on the Friendship Train was donated—the food, the fuel, the transportation and the labor.
When the train made its way through France and Italy it was met with exuberant crowds. In one small Italian town, 10,000 came out to show their appreciation.
The French people, so moved by this gesture of friendship, reciprocated. According to the website themetrains.com, Andre Picard, a French veteran and railroad worker, led an initiative to send us a train full of gifts. The train was called The Merci Train, sometimes called The Gratitude Train. Just like the Friendship Train, it wended its way across France collecting thank-you gifts from tens of thousands of French citizens. Many of the items were personal, like hand-made toys and crafts. The most impressive gift in the Ohio boxcar was a bust of General Marquis de Lafayette, the French soldier who fought for our country during the Revolutionary War. Other items included a doll, a copper kettle, a bonnet and essays and drawings from school children.
The Merci Train consisted of 49 boxcars, one for each state and one to be shared by Washington D.C. and the Territory of Hawaii, according to the website mercitrain.org. The boxcars would have meaning for the millions of American soldiers who fought in World War I and World War II as they were used to move troops in both wars. The cars were built between 1872 and 1885 and each could transport 40 men or eight horses. The quarters were so cramped that the men barely had enough room to sit and they had to sleep in rows.
Each boxcar was emblazoned with a plaque depicting the front of a steam engine and flowers representing Flanders Field, the final resting place for many American soldiers from both wars. They were also adorned with plaques depicting the coat-of-arms from each French province.
The Merci Train arrived in New York Feb. 3, 1949 on a ship called Magellan. According to the website metrains.com, the ship was met by “waves of aircraft and a flotilla of boats.” The box cars were loaded onto flat cars and transported to each state, where they were welcomed by dignitaries and veterans and their families.
Today, most are forgotten. Ohio’s boxcar is at Camp Perry. Georgia’s is at The Southern Museum of Locomotive and Civil War History in Kennesaw. Others are at parks, railroad museums and Veteran posts. A few can no longer be found, but as the last of the World War II veterans take their final ride, these symbols of friendship between the citizens of two allied nations remind us of both the sacrifices made by American soldiers and the gratitude shown in return.