New York City Harbor, February 2, 1949: Pennants streaming, the Tricolor of France and American Flag flying at her mast, the French freighter SS Magellan — with “MERCI AMERICA” painted in huge letters on each side of her hull — carrying in her hold the French Gratitude Train aka “Merci Train,” is passing the Statue of Liberty. Photo UIM – Marine http://uim.marine.free.fr/hisnav/archives/navires_uim/op-com/magellan-train.htm
New York City Harbor, February 2, 1949: PhotoUS4. Guerre. Train de la Reconnaissance française. 2 fév. 1949. Revue “Le rail et la route” (1946-1954). Clive Lamming Collection.
OTD: February 3 , 1949 – February 3, 2019
Dear New Yorkers, Dear New York State Friends,
Seventy years ago today in America… As the Marshall Plan, the enormous European Recovery Program signed by the U.S. Congress just ten months earlier, on April 3, 1948, was continuing to strengthen Western Europe, forcing the Russians surviving under Stalin’s ruthless regime to feel the pinch of economic isolation even more…
On Bedloe’s Island (today Liberty Island), Lady Liberty, standing taller than ever in the cold but glittering sunshine rising above New York Harbor, was ready for day two of her rioutous New York City’s reception for the symbolic “Merci Train,” a priceless convoy made of 49 antique SNCF 40 & 8 boxcars filled to the top with over 52,000 gifts sent over by the People of France to the most generous people of the United States.
Sixty-three years after donating the said iconic Statue of Liberty to the United States in the name of the heroic and generous Marquis de Lafayette, this was France’s latest genuine gesture of gratitude to tell the American people: “We did not forget! From the bottom of our hearts… Thank you America! Thank you for your human sacrifices! Thank you for your brave veterans who liberated France in two World Wars! Thank you for sending us the $40,000,000 Friendship Train filled with food when we were still in dire need, starving and freezing to death in 1947!”
Indeed, New York Harbor display of America’s welcome to her oldest Allies, who had fought side by side for Liberty in the American Revolution, had begun in the early hours of Feb. 2nd with the much-anticipated arrival of the French freighter SS MAGELLAN, under the command of French Captain Georges ICART, which had left the port of Le Havre on January 14.
And what a magnificent scene it was for the cheering crowd of over 25,000 standing at the docks as the SS MAGELLAN, sheperded by police launches and a dozen welcoming smaller crafts, passed the Statue of Lady Liberty.
Ship whistles blared, formations of Air Force F-80 and F-82 jet planes dipping in salute roared overhead, and the big hoses of four city fireboats surrounding the Statue of Liberty sent “towering streams of spray into the morning sunlight, a welcoming din surpassing that accorded the maiden arrival here of an ocean passenger queen,” boasted the front page of the New York Times.
Before reaching her Weehawken, N. J., berth, across the Hudson River from Manhattan, where huge derricks would lift each of the 49 boxcars of the train onto rail flatcars for delivery — one for each of the 48 States, the District of Columbia and the Territory of Hawaii — the SS MAGELLAN was first boarded at quarantine by the New York State Welcoming Committee.
Led by its suave chairman, Grover WHALEN, New York City’s official greeter, and Lt. Col. Albert S. CALLAN, chairman of the New York State Committee, in a joyous brouhaha soon Captain Georges ICART warmly greeted on board his ship the journalist Drew PEARSON, proud father of the Friendship Train, Ludovic CHANCEL, the French Consul General in New York and fifty members of the media swarming around the deck to record the historical event.
New York “ALL-OUT” Reception For the French “Merci Train.”
William O’Dwyer was the 100th Mayor of New York City (1946-1950).
“They (the French People) are saying it in that typically gracious way of theirs, the way in which they were inspired to present us with the great statue that stands in our harbor, the statue that since 1886 has lifted the torch of welcome to the homeless of the world.”
Mayor William O’Dwyer, Addressing the French Delegation led by French Ambassador Henri Bonnet during the New York City Hall reception for the French Gratitude Train, 3 February 1949.
New York City, February 3, 1949: Ticker Tape Parade up Brodway welcomes the arrival of the French 40 & 8 SNCF Boxcar filled with precious gifts for the people of New York State. PhotoUS4. Guerre. Train de la Reconnaissance française. 2 fév. 1949. Clive Lamming Collection (2).
Noon time: Proceeding up Broadway to City Hall Plaza
The second day of the elaborate New York City’s reception for the French “Merci Train” organized by the New York Mayor’s Welcoming Committee began at noon with its famous Ticker-tape parade, a hero’s welcome made even more extraordinary as it was the first Broadway parade ever to pay public honor to a SNCF freight car — an historic, freshly painted WWI vintage“40 and 8” open boxcar — thus marked to indicate that it had space for transporting 40 soldiers or eight horses.
And what a huge, moving New York City Ticker Tape Parade it was! As the motorcade, escorted by 150 mounted New York City policemen and marching bands from the Army, Marine Corps, Police and Fire Departments, including also a special honor guard from Ft. Jay, several hundred French war veterans, groups of French Boy Scouts and French men and women, along with brightly colored floats, decorated with the names of American Legion 40 & 8 units from the Greater New York area pulled by chugging American Legion locomotives, left the Battery…
All along the route toward the official welcome at City Hall, 200,000 New Yorkers lining up the sidewalks, including thousands of school children let out by the the Board of Education for the festive occasion, waving flags and tossing confetti, cheered and shouted for joy as they proudly watched the New York car of France’s Gratitude Train — their “Merci Train” boxcar filled to the top with precious gifts soon to be distributed to all New York State communities — warmly decorated with the French tricolor and forty shields of the ancient provinces of France, slowly making its own “début” on Broadway.
As the first auto, carrying chairman Grover WHALEN, Henri BONNET, French Ambassador to the United States, Ludovic CHANCEL, French Consul General in New York and Drew PEARSON, and the rest of the calvacade reached Wall Street, the blissful blizzard of ticker tape and shredded paper from Manhattan’s skyscrapers showered down on them made everyone laugh and feel so welcomed in New York City. What a happy sight it was!
Among the French and Italian groups present in the Parade — the women and children dressed in their provincial costumes proudly marching right behind the New York State “Merci Train” boxcar mounted on a heavy 20-ton truck-trailer (see photo above) — was 7-year-old Brigitte HELZER (née KIBLER) wearing her traditional Alsatian costume. Brigitte and her family had left their native Alsace for a better life in the United States just a few weeks earlier.
Here is how Brigitte HELZER, Executive Director MDFDE/New England who today lives in Vermont, recalls the 70-year old event:
“As a new 7-year-old immigrant, having arrived with my parents from France in Dec. 1948, I was in New York at the time of the Merci Train arrival in February of 1949.
When the city of New York decided to have a parade to welcome and receive the NY boxcar, I was ‘volunteered’ by the local Alsatian organization (1) to be in the parade with my French costume.
I don’t remember much about the parade. I think I was mostly in the celebration at City Hall Plaza where the picture was taken.
The boy that was with me was the son of friends of the family and did not speak French. His mother may have been French.”
At City Hall, French ambassador Henri Bonnet officially presented the Merci Train boxcar to the Mayor William O´Dwyer in presence of Mrs. Eleonor Roosevelt, honorary chair of the National French Gratitude Train Welcoming Committee.
“I can personally testify to the heartfelt sincerity with which the French people responded to the Friendship Train,” Ambassador Bonnet said.
Highlights of the special reception held in the mayor’s chambers were an exchange of greetings via short wave radio between a high school student in Paris and a high school student from Queens, New York; and Mayor O’Dwyer presenting to Drew Pearson the city’s certificate for “distinguished and exceptional service” for originating the idea of the Friendship Train.
Afterwards, Mayor William O’Dwyer’ special committee gave a luncheon for French ambassador Henri Bonnet, the French and Italian delegations and the American officials at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
As our work, coverage and official celebration of the Friendship Train and the Merci Train stories (2016-2022) continue via our French-American-Italian projects #MDFDEFriendshipMerciTrain70 and #MDFDEFriendshipMerciTrain75…
Please stay tuned NEW YORK for more very exciting MDFDE events happening in your State!
Meanwhile… Thank you, MERCI NEW YORK! Thank you to all our NEW YORKERS friends and associates already on board and working with us to celebrate the best of Humanity starting right in New York City and across NEW YORK STATE!
With my kindest regards,
(1) Ms. Brigitte Helzer was representing The Union Alsacienne of New York (UnAl), one of New York’s oldest cultural associations (1871). http://www.facebook.com/alsace.nyc/
The « Train de la Reconnaissance Française » aka « Merci Train » (1949).
© The Official French-American Project entirely conceived by Ms. Elisabeth JENSSEN to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the Merci Train (2019-2020) and the 75th Anniversary of the Friendship Train (2022). All rights reserved.
Chair, Elisabeth Jenssen
Honorary President: The Comte Gilbert de Pusy La Fayette