Robert Doisneau, The Christmas shop window, Paris, 1947 © Atelier Robert Doisneau https://www.pinterest.fr/pin/619807967442788811/
OTD: December 20, 1947 – December 20, 2017
Happy Holidays Everyone!
Dear members of the MDFDE, dear Friends worldwide,
TWAS five days before Christmas, when all through Paris no creature was stirring, not even an Aristocat. Spirits in Paris and throughout France had been low for such a long time…
The War against Nazi Germany might have been over for two years but France and Europe were still struggling, still trying to recover from devastation… Worst, they were now facing a new kind of threat, a Communist rival coming right out of Russia (sounds familiar?), trying to divide the allies by creating economic chaos, provoking multiple strikes in many cities…
PARIS, the City of Light, the legendary fashion and “joie de vivre” capital of the world, was discouraged, very discouraged. It was now Christmas time and most Parisians were in no mood to party. Too much to worry about.
Indeed most ladies and gals could not afford a “new look,” new clothes, let alone new styles… Besides, they would rather buy bread. The cost of food had reached new heights. Before the war 10,000 francs were worth $400. Now, at the legal rate, the 10,000 francs was worth only $85… For butter sold for $5 a pound—when you could get it.
Oh, you could still eat well in Paris—if you were rich. If you ventured by Maxim’s swank restaurant on the rue Royale and took a peek, you could see sleek businessmen and dowagers stuffing themselves daily… That’s what gave Communists so much ammunition…
In the daytime, tired, hungry people trudged through the cold, empty streets, the color of their faces matching the gray of the buildings. At night—the price of coal being so high—they were staying in bed just to keep warm…
But today was Saturday and Paris was waiting for a miracle. A Christmas miracle, that is! For the past few days, all around France rumors had been circulating about… a certain “SS American Leader,” a cargo re-christened the “Friendship ship” before it left New York, carrying 4,000 tons of food (2,000 tons of flour and 2,000 tons of baby food, powder milk, sugar, pasta, rice, dried fruits etc…)—the very first load of the Friendship Train merchandise donated by the people of the United States—safely docked in Le Havre since Dec. 17…
The latest word on the streets was that, yes, Children of France, there was definitively a Santa: Better yet… This year, he was coming for them all the way from Washington D.C., and didn’t come to Paris alone: Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus were coming to town… Cheer up everybody!
While all SNCF officials and dedicated railmen were on deck, eagerly organizing the enormous logistics, 10 trains to schedule to different parts of France in coordination with American Aid to France, headed by Robert H. Blake in Paris, and other relief agencies involved in the food distribution… And another special train to transport the American and French personalities and all the media who will be traveling for the next three days from Paris to Marseille on board the “Train de l’Amitié.”
French President Vincent Auriol and everyone at the Elysée Palace, at Paris City Hall, the American Embassy and the Prefecture de Police along with the members of the welcome Committee had been very busy, planning the official arrival in Paris of the first 50 trucks of food as well as all the receptions and security.
To make it even more special, 2,500 lucky Paris school children and their teachers had been invited to attend the public festivities. And now the BIG DAY had arrive: the entire City of Paris was ready to celebrate the Friendship Train!
At about 9:50 AM, the first Friendship Food Train from Le Havre steamed into the Gare Saint-Lazare, all decorated with French and American flags, with a band playing and flares burning in the fog. U.S. Ambassador to France, Jefferson CAFFERY, led a crowd of thousands with lots of children, some of them looking a little hungry, welcoming the train to the station.
Among the guests was my friend Gabrielle GRISWOLD: “That morning, I too was in attendance, packed in among those at the station to greet the Train as it steamed into town. Pearson and his wife were of course present, as were American ambassador Jefferson Caffrey, editor of the international Herald Tribune Geoffrey Parsons, and a large number of other notables. There was, I recall, a huge crush of people at the station, and a photograph shows me squeezed in between Blake and Pearson, looking solemn and rather squashed.”
3:30 P.M. Time for the Friendship Train Parade.
What a magnificent sight it was! As the 50 carloads of food from the “Friendship Train” rolled down from the Gare des Batignolles, on to Place de l’Étoile, up the Avenue des Champs Elysées, past Place de la Concorde, Rue Royale, Boulevard de la Madeleine, Place de l’Opéra, Avenue de l’Opéra, Rue de Rivoli, and finally Paris City Hall via Avenue Victoria…
All along the route, thousands of grateful, noisy Parisians were standing in the rain and cold, cheering and cheering some more; beaming school children waving their little French and American flags, seeing with their own eyes dozens and dozens of big trucks driving up. They could not believe all the gifts of food inside from the Friendship Train were sent just for them. No one could stop the Parisians from expressing their happy feelings after so much privation: They had (finally) entered into the spirit of the Friendship train with the same gusto as the American people who had loaded it in November.
The first truck in the parade of those 50 French trucks bore this sign in French:
“It would take 2,000 trucks like this one to carry all the gifts from the Friendship train.”
As Drew Pearson later recalled: “This (first) truck happened to have been given to France by the American field service in 1939. It went through some of the heaviest bombardments, from Normandy to the Rhine… The run from the Friendship train to the orphanages of Paris was its last trip.”
This was also the first time in the peacetime history of France that trucks had been allowed on the Champs Elysées and around the Arc de Triomphe. French officials had just thought that since it had been done in war it should now be done in peace—in the name of Friendship.
The Place de l’Hôtel de Ville was all decorated with French and American flags and big posters in French saying: “To our French Friends From the Bottom of Our Hearts.”
Now, please close your eyes. Imagine this next amazing, magic Christmas scene. As all those French school children were standing, impatient, in front of Paris City Hall, not sure about what to expect next… Here came the président du conseil, Pierre de Gaulle, chief of the Paris mayors, yes, Pierre de Gaulle—the General de Gaulle’s younger brother—also a very active member of the French Résistance during the war, now standing right in front of them on the steps of City Hall… And so the immense crowd roared in delight, acclaimed him again and again like a hero he was…
After expressing his gratitude to U. S. Ambassador Jefferson Caffery, Pierre de Gaulle had this to say to his young, enthusiastic audience which could still not believe what they were witnessing, what they were hearing over the microphone…
“My dear children,” Mayor de Gaulle said: “I am going to tell you a beautiful Christmas story.” So they all settled down, listened closely to Pierre de Gaulle as he told them the story of “how there was once a man who had an idea about a train to take food to the hungry peoples of Europe.”
And there he was, that man, Drew Pearson, now a French Chevalier, standing humbly in front of them all as he was introduced. “Aaahhh,” they all exclaimed in one breath. U N B E L I E V A B L E!
“There was a big train that traveled all across the United States,” Mayor de Gaulle continued. He went on to explain to the Children of Paris how all the Children in the United States, kids of all ages they had never met, cared so much about them. He pointed out to them how the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts of America and other youth organizations brought their own school lunches or the money just for them… How they even brought in some of their own clothes and put them on the Friendship Train for the French children.
And so, after sharing the real story of the Friendship Train, Mayor de Gaulle asked the children to tell U.S. Ambassador Caffery, Drew and Luvie Pearson, the beautiful mother of my friend and co-Chair Tyler Abell, and the other Americans who were there what they thought of this Christmas story they had just heard.
Again, the children cheered and shouted even more wildly than before. “Merci, merci et Joyeux Noël aux Américains,” (Thank you, thank you and Merry Christmas to all Americans) they said to express their love and gratitude to all Americans. All the movie camera men and photographers from France, the United States, Italy and other european countries flashed so many flashlight bulbs it seemed like fireworks… Like Paris was, “Paris est une fête” as it has always been for the legendary author Ernest Hemingway. Then the band played The Star Spangled Banner and The Marseillaise. Children and teachers could now go home, their hearts filled with pure Christmas joy and… hope.
The Paris Conseil Municipal added their official welcome to the Americans by hosting a magnificent reception inside City Hall. Paris was beaming that night! Paris was back on track!
And so here is some of this extraordinary French-American Christmas story of the Friendship Train that took place in Paris 70 years ago today: a heck of an Anniversary! If there is ONE thing we can all learn from it, it’s from Drew and Luvie Pearson’ self determination:
When There’s a Will There’s a Way!
So Come on America! Chin up America! Take a bow on behalf of your parents and grand parents, everyone from every corner of the United States who so generously contributed to the Friendship Train… This is a part of our rich, forgotten History the MDFDE is proudly reviving via our most exciting project to date: #MDFDEFriendshipMerciTrain70 (2017-2019).
Wishing you and your loved ones some great holidays!
HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO ALL, AND TO ALL A GOOD-NIGHT!
P.S. Never underestimate the power of one “ordinary” man, one “super” woman in helping his/her fellow men…
© The Official French-American Project entirely conceived by Ms. Elisabeth JENSSEN to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the Friendship Train and the Merci Train (2017- 2019). All rights reserved.
Chair, Elisabeth Jenssen Co-Chair, Tyler Abell
Honorary President: The Comte Gilbert de Pusy La Fayette
NOTE TO FRENCH PRESIDENT
By DREW PEARSON
(Editor’s note: Drew Pearson is now in Paris and his column today takes the form of a report he is making to President Vincent Auriol of France on the food collected by the Friendship train.)
Dear Mr. President:
I have come to France because I felt I owed it to the millions of Americans who contributed to the Friendship Train to report on how this food was collected and the motives behind it. I am merely acting as spokesman for many others who would like to be here but can’t.
This is a difficult report to make, difficult because it is almost impossible to translate into words the feeling in men’s hearts.
To begin at the beginning, the idea of the Friendship Train took root about two months ago when many Americans were pertubed that our Congress was slow and niggardly about helping our friends in Europe. So it was proposed that a train be started in California with perhaps one boxcar and, letting the plain people of the country contribute food, pick up other boxcars of food as the train moved across the continent to the Atlantic.
A committee was formed, headed by Harry Warner and including representatives of farmers, labors unions, businessmen and service clubs. The railroads say they would be glad to haul the train free and that was how the Friendship Train started. It was just an idea-but an idea founded on international friendship.
AMERICAN WILL TO GIVE
But, Mr. President, although I pride myself on being an accurate newspaperman, I confess that I had underestimated the American will to give. Instead of one train, we ended up with seven different sections. Instead of five railroads cooperating, a total of 12 demanded the right to help, and the railroad unions were equally anxious to aid their friends in Europe. Not only did most of the railroad trainmen haul the train without salary but many railroad workers not on the line of the train mailed me checks saying they wanted to contribute, too.
Both labor and business filled up these Friendships trains. The Teamsters’ Union helped to load the cars; the Steel-Workers union contributed money to buy carloads of canned milk; the Farmers’ union contributed flour.
Most of this food came from very humble people. In Hawaii, the people contributed a total of eight cents apiece but their contribution totaled two carloads of sugar which is six European boxcars. In Wichita, Kansas, the school children ran errands and saved their lunch money until they were able to purchase one carload of wheat. In Wyoming, a dentist toured most of that very montainous and sparsely settled state until, with the help of many others, Wyoming had collected almost as much as some of the richer farm states.
The state of Nebraska is supposed to be against cooperation with Europe. At least, that’s how most of its representatives vote in congress. But we never had more enthusiastic, more generous crowds out to meet the train than those in Nebraska. In Iowa—another farm state—a group of farmers who had been to Europe traveled with the train, refuting Congressman John Taber, who said food was not needed in Europe.
Some people in France, I understand, had thought that this Friendship train was really inspired by the American government. However, I can tell you that about the only city that did almost nothing to help was Washington, D.C., and it was only at the last minute that the Lions club of Brightwood, Maryland, a little town on the edge of Washington, gave a carload of flour—thus saving the nation’s capital from the ignominy of not participating.
I can also report that the people of Philadelphia were a little hurt that President Truman, who was in their city for a football game, did not remain the next day to see the Friend ship, which arrived in Le Havre this week, sail from Philadelphia with its first cargo of food. However, this was for the best because this food is by and from the American people. It is from the people of America to their needy friends in Europe.
It is also important to note that President Truman’s home town, Kansas City, did contribute in a big way with 14 cars of food and one of the first telegrams I received was from Mr. Truman’s county saying that they refused to be left out. In the end, we had to send a special train through Kansas City where President Truman’s neighbors had specially stamped their bags of flour with this message: “From Jackson county, Missouri, in the heart of America, this bag of flour comes to you with greetings and best wishes, whatever your race or nationality. May this flour be received in the same spirit in which it is sent—the brotherhood of all mankind. As the great Teacher of world brotherhood, Jesus of Nazareth, commanded: ‘Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you do ye unto them’.”
BLESSINGS OF DEMOCRACY
Jackson county, Missouri, is a typical American county. It is the home of our President, Harry S. Truman. There, as in nearly all American counties, are descendants of all races of Europe living together in peace and freedom. This brotherhood is among the blessings of our democracy. This free-will offering to help relieve your need is due to our comparative plenty and our feeling of friendship for you.
There were, of course, a few communities where we encountered opposition but in the end this usually helped the Friendship train. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, for instance, when the newspapers critized the train, Mayor George Welsh, who had recently been to France, urged his people to contribute—with the result that they sent three large boxcars to the train. That was the spirit of American generosity, Mr. President.
Hundreds of towns not on the line of the train telegraphed in, wanting to load up boxcars: Ventura, Burbank, Long Beach, California; Monroe, Michigan; Louisville and Hazard, Kentucky; Atlantic City, New Jersey; Pottsville, Allentown and Bellefonte in Pennsylvania, a dozen cities in distant Texas and so on—it is impossible to call the roll.
It is impossible, too, to describe to you the faces of the people who met the train at the stations along the way and, while this food is only a token and will not last France long, it is a token which has behind it the good will of millions who feel very deeply and who want to make their own small contribution toward friendship, especially at this season. They feel that Christmas is not just a day on which to exchange gifts between families and neighbors but between nations and all mankind.
So in this spirit of friendship, the American people have collected from their fields this token of food and brought it to your firesides in the hope it may tide you over until your own fields are again rich and aboundant with crops. (Copyright, Bell Syndicate, Inc., 1947)