The Merci Train, Laying the Tracks of French-American Friendship

A granite plaque used to be set into Broadway’s Canyon of Heroes, a former testament to its passage down this avenue. But who still remembers the “Merci Train,” sent by France to the United States 75 years ago? Between World War II and the Cold War, this convoy of symbolic gifts renewed cultural diplomacy between our two countries.
The French Gratitude Train as illustrated in the children’s book Merci Train (2021). © Silvia Pertile/Lirabelle

The foghorn on the Magellan sounded in New York Bay. When the cargo ship finally emerged from the mist, 25,000 spectators exploded in cheers. Gathered in Battery Park despite the cold, they offered the warmest of welcomes to the vessel, which bore a message of friendship on its hull: “Merci America.” France-Amérique witnessed the scene on February 3, 1949. “The French are speaking to the Americans,” wrote our editor in chief. “And they have chosen as their spokesmen the 49 cars of the Gratitude Train, true ambassadors of transatlantic fraternity.”

Following on from the U.S. Friendship Train, loaded with supplies and shipped to Europe to help the ravaged continent in the wake of World War II, it was now France’s turn to master the art of railroad diplomacy. However, the French Gratitude Train (also known as the “Merci Train”) crossing the Atlantic was not loaded with food, but with cultural treasures. According to the instructions of the National Organizing Committee, these gifts “must above all have a typically French character [and] evoke, so much as possible, the thinking, traditions, charm, and tastes of our country.”

The freighter Magellan, with the 49 cars of the Gratitude Train on board, in New York City, February 2, 1949.

A Train Celebrating Transatlantic Ties

Back in October 1947, the war had been over for more than two years, but the French were still struggling to feed themselves. To make matters worse, the country had just suffered an exceptional bout of cold weather, and crops were dying in the fields. Observing from Marseille, U.S. journalist Drew Pearson was worried about the Communist threat, and reported that shipments of Soviet wheat were greeted with “street parades and a national holiday,” while American aid was unloaded in silence. Secretary of State George Marshall did announce an economic assistance program for Europe, but there was so much to be done. In the early days of the Cold War, America was struggling on the propaganda front.

Drew Pearson decided to take matters into his own hands. On his radio show, he suggested chartering a train to collect supplies for France and Italy. He claimed that it would be an opportunity “to demonstrate the American way of keeping democracy alive.” In early November, eight carloads of food left Los Angeles. Others joined the convoy, carrying milk, biscuits, coal, money, and nearly six tons of vitamins eastward! French ambassador Henri Bonnet met the locomotive in Omaha, Nebraska. “This train,” he announced to the attending donors, “is a handshake across the ocean from the people of the United States to the people of France.”

American journalist Drew Pearson, who suggested the idea of the Friendship Train in 1947. © Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library
Ceremony in New York City in honor of the Friendship Train, loaded with food and medicine bound for France and Italy, November 18, 1947. © Associated Press

A few days later, the 700 boxcars of the Friendship Train rolled down Broadway. “America has always had a thing for France, that’s just a fact,” said Pierre Lazareff, director of the France-Soir newspaper. “The success of this initiative, which far exceeded even the most optimistic forecasts, enshrines this deep-seated feeling of the American people.” On Thanksgiving Day, New York longshoremen gave up their holiday to load the 24,324 packages – valued at the equivalent of 550 million dollars today – into the holds of the aptly named American Leader cargo ship. French daily Paris-Presse wrote, amusedly: “The Americans, who adore puns, took the opportunity to make a magnificent and touching one, renaming the vessel Friendship.”

On December 18, 1947, the American freighter docked at Le Havre. The press enthusiastically reported on the journey of the “American Santa Claus and his train,” which “lost its cars in exchange for thank-yous” as it made its way across the country. Each package and every donation was accompanied by a message in French: “In a democratic and Christian spirit of goodwill toward men, we, the American people, have worked together to bring this food to your door.” A month after the ticker-tape parade in New York City, the Parisian car arrived at Saint-Lazare Station, before being led down the Champs-Elysées. Drew Pearson received the Légion d’Honneur amid a flurry of French and American flags.

Gratitude from France

Drew Pearson’s idea struck the right chord. “The Friendship Train was the plebiscite of the American people,” concluded the French press. In the wake of this private-led initiative, in December 1947, President Harry Truman signed the Foreign Aid Act, the forerunner of the Marshall Plan. This incensed French Communists. On Christmas Eve, left-wing newspaper L’Humanité headlined: “Food donated by American workers promotes Marshall propaganda.” In Le Libertaire, a newspaper founded by Louise Michel, an editorialist decried America’s heavy-handed charity. “It will be a rare thing”, he wrote, “if, along with all the candy, General Santa Claus doesn’t bring a little atomic bomb.” On the other side of the Atlantic, France-Amérique quipped: “The best way to fight Pearson’s idea would have been to send a Comrade Train from Moscow. But we might be waiting a long time for that!”

Dejected by this controversy tarnishing the transatlantic friendship, a French railroad worker and former Resistance fighter also decided to take matters into his own hands. “We found ourselves unable to respond in the same way that you helped us,” wrote André Picard to the American people. “But we wanted to send you memories that will last forever.” This was the starting signal for the French Gratitude Train: 49 boxcars loaded with gifts, destined for the 48 states of the Union at the time, plus one for the federal capital and the territory of Hawaii, which had sent France 72 tons of sugar. France-Amérique enthusiastically reported on this new project, writing: “No European country has yet thought to respond to the American Friendship Train with an expedition of gratitude! The idea, like the precious cargo of this convoy, is authentically French.”

Sorting French gifts at Orsay Station in Paris before the departure of the Gratitude Train, ca. 1948-1949. © Library of Congress

It grew to become one of the largest popular movements in post-war France. President of the Council Robert Schuman urged his fellow citizens to “part with an object, a souvenir, a relic,” and they responded en masse. People donated wines, spirits, perfumes, embroidery, lace, pottery, glassware, and crockery, as well as church bells, stained glass windows, paintings, medals, toys, drawings, and letters. Lyon craftsmen made white silk wedding dresses for 49 young women, and Parisian couturiers outfitted as many plaster dolls to represent the evolution of “French elegance” from 1706 to 1906. Despite shortages and rationing, more than 52,000 objects were collected – weighing 250 tons! To say “thank you,” the poorest of the French simply applied their hands on the fresh paint of the cars. In the words of newspaper La Croix, “the Gratitude Train will show America the true face of France, which has remained, despite its trials, noble, dignified, and sensitive.”

The message was even more poignant as the train was composed of “40 & 8” boxcars. Built to carry forty soldiers and eight horses, according to France-Amérique, “they will conjure up glorious memories for the many Americans who took part in the two world wars, from Saint-Mihiel in 1918 to the Bulge in 1944.” In the summer of 1948, teams of volunteers scoured railway depots and sidings to collect enough of them. Each car was decorated with the coats of arms of the French provinces and a specially designed logo featuring a cornflower, a daisy, and a poppy – a tricolor allegory of the fields of northeastern France, where so many doughboys had lost their lives. A bilingual inscription completed the design: “Gratitude Train, Train de la reconnaissance française.” André Picard, who chaired the National Organizing Committee, was pleased with the result: “The wagons that once carried weary men of war now carry gifts of peace.”

Forty-Nine Museums on Wheels

Against the backdrop of the Cold War, the publicly-led initiative took on a political dimension. President Vincent Auriol, who personally donated 49 Sèvres porcelain vases, declared: “With the Gratitude Train, France is demonstrating the strength of the ties that forever bind it to America, the bastion of global democracy.” In daily newspaper L’Aube, French readers discovered that the cars were destined to become “little museums on wheels, emissaries of France sent to the land of democracy.” And thanks to a special White House resolution, the convoy and its cargo, showcases of French soft power and friendship between our two countries, was exempt from customs duties!

While the people donated typically French objects, local and national authorities chose more tangible symbols of French-American history. Saint-Dié, in the Vosges département, donated the deed of gift for the Statue of Liberty signed by former prime minister Jules Ferry, who was born in the town, along with 49 copies of the 1507 map by a local cartographer that first mentioned the word “America.” A descendant of the Marquis de Lafayette donated his ancestor’s walking stick. A life-size statue of George Washington by Pierre Taveau and a bust of Benjamin Franklin by Jean-Antoine Houdon were sent to the U.S. capital. Indiana received the bugle that sounded the ceasefire at Compiègne on November 11, 1918, and Kansas was given a gavel carved from a tree in Belleau Wood after the eponymous World War I battle. The city of Verdun offered its flag to President Truman, a veteran of the Great War. Meanwhile, the French capital parted with the pennant of General Leclerc’s 2nd Armored Division and the tricolor flag that flew over the Eiffel Tower when the war ended on May 8, 1945.

Michèle Rennou, 9, held by French national railroad president Marcel Flouret, signaling the departure of the Gratitude Train at Montparnasse Station in Paris, January 6, 1949. © Associated Press
Opening ceremony of a boxcar from the Gratitude Train in Washington D.C., February 6, 1949. © Abbie Rowe/National Park Service/Harry S. Truman Library & Museum

In January 1949, the train left Montparnasse Station bound for Le Havre. “Our convoy is full to overflowing, like the hearts of the French,” read a headline in Combat. The Resistance-era daily, taken over by Albert Camus after the Liberation, compared the Gratitude Train to a “second Statue of Liberty.” When the freighter Magellan, carrying the convoy, entered New York harbor on February 3, the city’s fireboats sailed into action, shooting streams of water into the sky while U.S. Air Force jets flew overhead in welcome. “La Marseillaise” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” rang out, interspersed with whoops and cries of “You’re welcome!”

Like the Friendship Train 14 months earlier, the Merci Train was given its own parade along Broadway. Covered with confetti and encouraged by the cheers of over 200,000 spectators, each car was then hoisted onto an American-standard chassis to be transported on the local railroad network. The one destined for Washington D.C. carried a last-minute gift: a torch lit in Paris at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, to be united with the eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery. The train was gradually divided and its carriages sent to their final destinations – 49 cities decked out in French and American colors.

Next Stop: A Heritage Forgotten?

“The Merci Train will have a profound influence on the reciprocal feelings of our two nations in the future,” predicted Eleanor Roosevelt as the Magellan arrived. And the former First Lady was right. For 75 years, the Gratitude Train has enthralled Francophile Americans and served as a gauge of transatlantic relations. In the 1960s, France’s withdrawal from NATO distanced America from its longstanding ally. Despite receiving a rapturous reception, these once-popular French showcases were gradually forgotten following the anti-American policies introduced by President Charles de Gaulle. Despite the efforts of the Forty and Eight Society, a U.S. veterans group, the cars sent to Massachusetts, Nebraska, and New Jersey were scrapped. The Connecticut car was destroyed in a fire. As for the Colorado car, it simply disappeared.

With the end of the Cold War, the United States and France grew closer again to face a new world order. This heralded a period of renewed interest in the Gratitude Train. To mark its 40th anniversary, the French national railroad company, the SNCF, graciously transported a replica of the original convoy car to replace the one in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which had deteriorated over time. France-Amérique excitedly recounted the adventure of these “armistice wagons in the American West,” and observed: “Whether sent in 1949 or 1989, these seemingly empty vehicles remain loaded with symbolism.”

Opening of the Pennsylvania crates in Harrisburg, February 1949. © Associated Press

In 2003, France’s refusal to take part in the war in Iraq alongside the U.S. Army renewed tensions between our two countries. In the era of French bashing, the boxcars of gratitude that were still around began to disappear from the collective imagination. In North Smithfield, Rhode Island, however, a Frenchman decided to restore his state’s car and use it to open a museum devoted to the two world wars. Interviewed by France-Amérique, Jacques Staelen said that he wanted to transform it into “both an instrument and a symbol of understanding and solidarity between peoples.”

Today, Nevada is one of the few states to have preserved its “museum on wheels” as it was in 1949, complete with its precious cargo. The car, restored in 2002 by the Forty and Eight Society with financial help from local residents, is currently on display at the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Boulder City. Adam Michalski oversees its conservation and welcomes enthusiasts tracking down the relics of the Gratitude Train across the country. To France-Amérique, he explained that “the Merci Train brings French-American history and friendship into the present, enriching our country and our people.” Further north, in Carson City, the Nevada State Museum houses the gifts given by France 75 years ago, including a bust of Voltaire, two woven French and American flags, and a letter from a woman from Nancy who was taken prisoner during the war and freed by Allied troops. “Dear friends of U.S.A.,” she wrote in hesitant English, “we send to you a little thing that will prove to you how very thankful we are to you for all that the U.S.A. make for France […]. My family and I wish very great happiness to you and to U.S.A.”

Article published in the February 2024 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.