Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - November 6, 2015

Merci for the "Friendship"

Sixty-eight years ago tomorrow, something began that captured our country's imagination, yet few Americans today have ever heard of it.

In the spring of 1947, Washington columnist Drew Pearson was in France, assessing the damage from World War II. An ardent anti-Communist, he was angered how much fuss was being made by France's hungry citizens over the small shipments of grain they had received from the Soviet Union. Few Frenchmen knew their government had actually paid for the food.

In October, Pearson suggested in his syndicated column that America put together a "Friendship Train" that would start in California and end in New York, picking up donations of food from average Americans along the way. The food would then be shipped to France and some to Italy. It was to be clear this was not a government foreign-relations program, but a people-to-people effort. The goal was 80 boxcars.

The response, particularly in the Midwest, was overwhelming. Soon there were multiple trains and more than triple the 80-car goal. My home county of Marion provided at least one carload of wheat. A farmer in Ford County, Kansas donated $20,000 worth of grain - a great amount in 1947 dollars. A Wichita newspaper published the names of most Kansas donors. Large crowds came out in Wichita, Newton, Emporia, Topeka and Lawrence to see the Kansas portion of the Friendship Train.

The first train arrived in New York on Nov. 15. Others terminated in Philadelphia. The ship "American Leader," renamed "Friendship," was loaded at both ports by volunteer labor while bands played. Three more ships followed. Friendship docked in Le Havre, France on Dec. 17 and trains then spread out across the country, greeted by huge crowds at each stop.

While a good story, it is only half of this tale.

On Feb. 2, 1949, the steamship "Magellan" pulled into New York from Le Havre. It came bearing gifts from the French people, passing another French gift - the Statue of Liberty. Along the hull were the words "Merci, America" - "Thank you, America."

On board were 49 40-and-8 boxcars - one for every state and another to be shared by Washington, D.C. and the then-territory of Hawaii. All the gifts were distinctly French items. They included great works of art, children's toys, letters and drawings from school children, and the flag flown from the Eiffel Tower when Gen. George Patton's Third Army liberated Paris - 100,000 items in all. The boxcars were the idea of French soldier and railway worker Andre Picard. He knew the 40-and-8s - they could hold 40 men or eight horses - would have been known by U.S. soldiers from the world wars because they had ridden in them to the front.

The 40-and-8s - each with the name of a state - were then loaded on railroad flatcars and distributed. The Kansas car first went to Wichita, the primary organizer of this state's Friendship Train effort. It was met by a large crowd. The car then toured Kansas - 120 stops in 140 days.

Some states auctioned objects and used the money for public purposes. Others distributed items to schools and museums. Some decided to keep the gifts as a collection, while others allowed them to pass into private hands.

A vase from French President Vincent Auriol was a gift to Kansas Gov. Frank Carlson. It was later donated to the state historical society in Topeka, along with a few other items, including two dolls and an album. The album contains commercial phonograph records and letters, paintings and drawings by French school children.

Last Friday, husband Art and I visited the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka. Wearing white cotton gloves, we carefully went through the album's pages, marveling at the children's art and the beauty of their handwriting. We wished we spoke French and wondered aloud whether we could find any of those children, now in their late 70s and 80s.

The fate of the Merci Train boxcars is equally varied. Some were carefully protected while others were allowed to weather to destruction. The Kansas car ended its journey on Nov. 11, 1949 in Hays, so chosen due to the influence of an officer of the state American Legion who was from there. For years, the car stood on the grounds of Fort Hays State University, but now it belongs to La Societe des Quarante Hommes et Huit Chevaux (The Society of 40 Men and 8 Horses) and sits next to the legion building.

Ed Holzmeister, "Grand Directeur" of the Kansas Merci Boxcar, met with us last Saturday. He explained the history of the "voiture" - boxcar - which was restored at a cost of $12,000. He said the reassembly had to be done according to specifications, but members weren't sure what those were. They found someone in France who sent blueprints. They were in French so someone had to be found to translate them.

Once inside the car, Ed showed us photographs, flags, helmets, uniforms, magazines and other items honoring veterans of World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

Ed is dedicated to maintaining and preserving the boxcar's history. He's given tours to people from Kansas communities as well as from Missouri, Oklahoma, Colorado, Wyoming, Oregon, Georgia, Iowa and other states and even France.

This past summer, a sign with the car's history was placed next to it so even when no one is available, visitors can still discover its story.

Sixty-eight years ago on Nov. 7 the Friendship Train began its journey across the United States. On Nov. 11, Veterans Day, France's Kansas voiture ended its journey in Hays. So perhaps this year when we remember our veterans, we might also think of these people-to-people acts of good will that were born of the sacrifices of some of those soldiers.

(Dorothy R. Scheele has been researching the trains since about 2000. Some information was drawn from her website www.thefriendshiptrain1947.org)

(1) Left: Marcellus M. Murdock, publisher of the Wichita Eagle, speaks to the crowd before the southwest portion of the Friendship Train departs Wichita on Nov. 20, 1947. Note boxcar at rear; (2) top-center-left: Magellan arrives in New York, passing the Statue of Liberty; (3) top-center-right: a gift to Kansans of a painting by a French student of his school; (4) top-right: vase given to Kansas Gov. Carlson; (5) bottom-center: Gloria in front of the Kansas boxcar; (6) bottom-right: Ed Holzmeister. Photo credit - 1: kansasmemory.org website, 2: uim.marine.free.fr website, 3 and 4: photos by Gloria Freeland of objects at Kansas Museum of History, 5 and 6: Gloria Freeland.

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