They’ve been doing this for nearly 70 years now, but as usual, there were curious looks and puzzled glances as the dignified men of the American Legion – members from Henry J. Sweeney Post and William H. Jutras Post and Hudson Post #48 – began mustering on Bremer Street on Manchester’s West Side yesterday.
The Merci Box Car.
Tucked away on a short, dead-end stretch of Reed Street, this extraordinary — some would say unusual – token of affection from the people of France is an often overlooked piece of history.
Overlooked, that is, by all but the remnants of the Le Grande Voiture 40 & 8, the veterans fraternal organization whose members long ago vowed to preserve the rail car, and its significance, for future generations. And so they convened again yesterday, as they do every fall, to remember their fallen comrades – “the Voyageurs” – who have passed away since last they gathered here outside the brick and glass pavilion that houses the box car.
But what is it about this old gray railroad car, now empty, that fills it with such significance? Why did men like the late Fred Teague and the late Donald Still invest so much time and energy toward its preservation?
To know that, one must go back to 1947, a time when the people of America came to the aid of France. Not as military allies, mind you, but as friends of the embattled French people.
Even two years after the end of World War II, food and clothing was in short supply throughout much of Europe, so the American people, with prodding from newspaper columnist Drew Pearson, responded by sending a 700-car “Friendship Train,” laden with relief supplies, to the people of France.
In return, the people of France responded with a symbolic train of their own, a “Thank You Train” hence the Merci Box Car. As the train traveled though the towns and villages and provinces of France, citizens were encouraged to fill the tiny cars with personal mementos and artwork and photographs and letters and other tokens of gratitude for the people of America.
The response? More than 250 tons of “gratitude” filled the train by the time it reached port at Le Havre, and an additional 9,000 gifts had to be left behind when the French cargo ship Magellan departed for New York Harbor.
When it docked on Feb. 3, 1949, the ship carried 49 box cars, one for each of the 48 states and one to be shared by the District of Columbia and the territory of Hawaii.
The odd-looking cars were not unfamiliar to American servicemen. Long before they became links in a gift to America, the 40 & 8 boxcars had a special place – for better or worse – in the hearts of American fighting men.
During World War I, most khaki-clad doughboys bound for France reached their American port of departure on roomy Pullman sleeper cars. Once in France, however, their journey to the front lines frequently came in the tiny 40 & 8 boxcars.
The origin of the name? It’s simple enough. It’s based upon the capacity of the box car itself. In transporting men and materiel to battle, the cars were capable of carrying 40 men or eight horses.
In French, that’s “Quarante Hommes et Huit Chevaux.”
Understandably, the Yanks were either amused or repulsed by their means of transit, and then there was the sergeant who, as they say, got lost in the translation. “I got all my 40 artillerymen in the box car,” he told his lieutenant, “but if you try to put eight of our horses in, somebody’s gonna be trampled to death.”
Experiences like that – for better or worse – formed the basis, in 1920, for the good-natured formation of the 40 & 8, the “fun” American Legion subsidiary known formally as “La Societe des Quarante Hommes et Huit Chevaux.”
And, some years down the line, who better to take responsibility for the box car than the 40 & 8, the organization that took it as its raison d’etre? In New Hampshire, it made perfect sense, and for those of us who care about such things, there could not have been a better choice.
As proof, consider the unfortunate outcome in other states, where the Merci Box Cars have been subjected to varying indignities down through the years.
In Idaho, for instance, the historic box car is situated at the Idaho Penitentiary in Boise, hardly a reminder of international friendship. In Nebraska, the gift from the French people was sold for scrap. Sale price? Forty-five bucks. In other states like Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Jersey the cars were destroyed by fire.
In still other states, the cars are dying from benign neglect, something the Grande Voiture of New Hampshire vowed would never happen here.
“I didn’t get to see it the day it arrived in New Hampshire, but I remember when it got here,” said Fred Teague once told me. For many years, the Navy veteran and retired carpenter served as volunteer caretaker for the box car and the pavilion in which it sits.
It’s a responsibility he took to heart.
“I feel it’s part of the heritage of this country,” he said, “and someone has to keep it up. I know a lot of people have forgotten why it came here in the first place, and I just wish we could make it so more people knew what it stood for.”
It’s hard to tell how many folks remember the day the box car first arrived in Manchester. It was Feb. 10, 1949. Thousands gathered at Elm and Market streets outside City Hall to see the car, adorned as it was and still is with the colorful coats-of-arms of the 20 French provinces.
Its treasures, in accordance with the wishes of the French people, have since been scattered amongst the schools and libraries and veterans organizations of the state. All that remains in the box car itself is a single bronze vase, a gift from one Monsieur Lavertu from “le Bibliotheque, Ville de Cherbourg.”
The greatest treasure? That’s still the box car itself. That, and the members of Le Grande Voiture 40 & 8 who, true to their word, have kept it for all to see.
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