Washington D. C., February 6, 1949: With Drew PEARSON, master of ceremonies of the Official “Merci Train” Welcoming Committe in D.C., his hometown, standing on his right, Vice-president Alben W. BARKLEY (left hand on podium), a Democrat from Kentucky, speaks to a huge crowd including the French delegation led by M. Henri BONNET, the French Ambassador to the United States, U.S. veterans, Army and Navy high officials, bands, Boy and Girl Scout troops respectfully gathered around the then D.C. “Merci Train” boxcar. Behind (to the left) V.P. BARKLEY is M. Salvind OLSON in light colored jacket (the D.C. chairman of the Merci Train Distributing Committee). The gentleman with a hat standing in front (next to the loudspeakers) is M. Tom C. CLARK, a Democrat from Dallas, Texas, U.S. Attorney General (1945-1949), U.S. Supreme Court Justice (1949-1967). Credit: Rowe, Abbie National Park Service, Harry S. Truman Library & Museum.

The « Train de la Reconnaissance Française » aka « Merci Train » (1949).





© The Official French-American Project entirely conceived by Ms. Elisabeth JENSSEN to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the “Merci Train” (1949-2024/2025). All rights reserved.

Chair, Elisabeth Jenssen

Honorary President: The Comte Gilbert de Pusy La Fayette

Contact: elisabeth.jenssen@francaisdeletranger.org

OTD: February 6, 1949 – February 6, 2024


Dear MDFDE Friends of the “Merci Train,”


SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO TODAY, ON FEBRUARY 6, 1949, WASHINGTON D.C., the Federal District of the United States, hosted a spectacular event now mostly forgotten except for us all, the devoted Friends of the “Merci Train:” Today was THE Official Day the SNCF “Train de la Reconnaissance Française au Peuple Américain,” “the “French Gratitude Train,” better known nowdays in the United States and abroad as the “Merci Train,” made it from Paris, France, to our Capital City. Today was THE DAY the “Merci Train” went to Washington!

And so, before I tell you more about the DC/Hawaii Merci Train boxcar: The “Untold Story,” which is the subject I chose to discuss today for some very specific reasons, and give you a short introduction on how the “Merci Train” campaign came all about, please let me start by telling you that, as a French-American citizen and leading Friendship Train and “Merci Train” researcher, whose maternal grandfather was himself a “cheminot” (a French railwayman), a veteran of WWI, who lost his wedding ring at the legendary Chemin des Dames (the Second Battle of the Aisne 16 April – mid-May 1917), and member of the Federation of French Railroad War Veterans, I’m sure you will understand how telling the REAL STORY of the Friendship Train and “the Merci Train,” committing to its preservation for future generations, personally matters to me.

The amount of work involved in conducting such an extensive bilingual research on the Friendship Train and the “Merci Train,” as it has never been done before, collecting nothing but the facts, all duly documented, is simply colossal. Eight long years in and while still at it on a few more things I’m looking for, I must say how thrilled I am today with the results as I already discovered, uncovered so many new, surprising things, stories, data, archives, gifts, pictures, thousands of documents never seen by the public, let alone published before, from which I can connect the dots and draw from to better honor the memories of all the American and the French people responsible for the unmatched success of the Friendship Train and the “Merci Train.” 

As some of you might already know, the MDFDE has been actively involved since October 2016 and since 2017 in cooperation with the SNCF, France’s national state-owned railway company founded two years before the beginning of WWII, in 1938, which gave the United States the 49 “Merci Train” boxcars 75 years ago, in promoting the story of the Friendship Train and the “Merci Train” via our on-going educational and cultural French-American project #MDFDEFriendshipMerciTrain75. And our #MDFDEFriendshipMerciTrain70, which celebrated in 2019 the then 70th Anniversary of the “Merci Train” via “49 Days of Gratitude,” a wonderful event held by the people of North Carolina with the participation of our very own Brigitte HELZER, who 75 years ago + 3 days, on February 3, 1949, wearing a French costume from her native Alsace, proudly marched on Broadway with other French and Italian children dressed in French and Italian costumes, in an “all out” reception complete with banquets and a Ticker Tape Parade New York City gave so generously to welcome the”Merci Train” and its official French Delegation.

MDFDE/France-USA: 49 Days of Gratitude: ‘MERCI’ NORTH CAROLINA! #MDFDEFriendshipMerciTrain70

Who conceived and organized the French “Merci Train” and how? 

The “Merci Train” was the people-to-people French Train, their concrete response to Drew PEARSON’s Friendship Train, the people-to-people American Train carrying emergency food, clothing, medicine and gasoline worth $40 million (about $552 million in today’s currency), which had reached Le Havre, France, thirteen months earlier, on December 17, 1947 — made of 49 “40 and 8” iconic World War I boxcars filled to the top with 250 tons of precious French gifts for the American people — safely resting in the holds of the French freighter SS MAGELLAN commanded by Georges ICART.

The idea of organizing a “Merci Train” campaign came from two French WWI veterans. These two outstanding French patriots were: 

André PICARD (1897  1981), a WWI veteran who first came up with the idea of organizing the “Train de la Reconnaissance Française pour les Américains,” the French Gratitude Train, in November 1947, was Divisional super-intendent at the SNCF, Secretary General of the Gratitude Train Committee and Representative at Large of the Federation of French Railroad War Veterans. 

Commander Guy de la VASSELAIS (1902-1976), a WWI veteran (then only 15-year-old), decorated with the Croix de Guerre (1914-1918) and chair of the “Ligue des Mille,” the French “Legion of a Thousand” which brought together the thousand youngest volunteer fighters of WWI; a WWII veteran as French liaison officer to General Patton and his glorious Third Army; counselor of the Union Française, father and Secretary General of the “Voie de la Liberté,” The Liberty Road, then mayor of Saint-Symphorien (Eure-et-Loir), General Commissioner of the French Gratitude Train Committee. 

MDFDE/France: WWII: Here’s to You, Guy de LA VASSELAIS & Gabriel HOCQUART! #MDFDEFriendshipMerciTrain70

Indeed, on December 12, 1947, five days before the “Friend Ship” aka the SS American Leader had even reached Le Havre with his much-needed cargo, both the National Federation of French War Veterans and the Union Française, eager to thank the people of the United States for their continuous help, showing spontaneous sympathy towards the French people via so many donations from the U.N.R.A., the American Red Cross, CARE packages, the American Aid to France (AATF) and other relief organizations, U.S. cities and institutions, chambers of commerce, schools, civic groups and churches of all denominations during and post two World Wars — and now truly overwhelmed with forever gratitude for this giant American Friendship Train which could never be surpassed — “had already decided to organize THE FRENCH GRATITUDE TRAIN TO THE AMERICAN PEOPLE as a mark of appreciation of the French nation toward a country that never wavered in its sympathies and understandings for France.” 

At that time, no one in the United States expected to receive anything in return of the Friendship Train. No one, including Drew PEARSON, the most feared and fearless investigative reporter of his generation, who lived for the scoops, spent three consecutive days (Dec. 22 to Dec. 24, 1947) riding a special “Train de l’Amitié” so he could see for himself and tell his readers how their aid was distributed from Paris all the way to Marseille, knew that the French Railway Workers Veterans Association, some of whom driving the very train he was on, truly inspired by his leadership and by the great work the American Railroads (AAR), the Brotherhoods and the executives, had done in such record time while handling the Friendship Train across the United States, had a “thank you” plan of action — a plan already in motion. 

On December 17, 1947, in a letter co-signed by MM. Louis CAST, president of the French Gratitude Train National Committee, and André PICARD, the National Federation of War Veterans of the French Railroads and the Union Française informed the Minister of Public Works, Christian PINEAU, of its intentions. The “Merci Train” still had to wait for 1948… 

When the “Merci Train” campaign was actually launched in Paris in May 1948, the French naturally turned to Drew Pearson to serve as Secretary of the National Friendship Train Committee to Welcome the French Train of Gratitude (yes, it’s a long title but it was the official one) — in other words he and his staff, on top of their day job, were coordinating the “Merci Train” welcoming ceremonies and other events in cooperation with each State and the District of Columbia, along with making travel arrangements for themselves and their Committee and each member of the official French delegation, making press and radio statements, resolving problems along the way etc… 

Who covered the cost of the French delegation’s traveling expenses in the United States? 

Drew PEARSON and French Ambassador Henri BONNET (via the French Government so via the French taxpayers) shared the (significant) cost of the total bill for the visiting French delegation.  

Once upon a time the SNCF P.L.M J 58220 aka the D.C. “Merci Train” boxcar that sailed across the Pacific Ocean to become the DC/Hawaii Boxcar…


How did Washington D.C., District of Columbia, get a “40 and 8” “Merci Train” boxcar in the first place?  

Hard to believe it took 75 years to finally answer these two very significant questions but here we go… As you might know, the original 1947 French plan for the “Merci Train” called for exactly 48 SNCF “40 and 8” (“Hommes 40, Chevaux (en long) 8”) WWI boxcars — one for each State of the Union — a very difficult task to accomplish for the SNCF since the boxcars were so scarce in France especially by the late 1940s. Prior to July 1948 (see data below), there was never any mention, any intention within the French Merci Train Committee of sending a 49th boxcar for Washington D.C.  

June 1948: As the French donors started preparing the send-off of their gifts to the “Merci Train,” whose main reception center was headquartered at the then Gare d’Orsay (today the Musée d’Orsay) in Paris, the U.S. Embassy, kept well informed of the project by the French, must have triggered some reflection because by July, the U.S. Ambassador Jefferson CAFFERY in France realizing that D.C. was missing from the equation, quickly stepped in to make sure a 49th wagon for the District of Columbia was added to the “Merci Train” list.  

Why and how did the D.C. “Merci Train” boxcar ended up in Hawaii? 

One name: Drew PEARSON, Father of the Friendship Train (1947-1948) and Secretary of the National Friendship Train Committee to Welcome the French Train of Gratitude (1948-1949). 

To establish a clear connection between D.C. and Hawaii, one must really know the complete History of the Friendship Train.

In any case, here is what happened.

October 11, 1947: This was the day Drew PEARSON using his famous Washington Merry-Go-Round syndicated column, read every morning by millions of Americans, suggested setting up a Friendship Train collecting food via an open letter to Charles Luckman, the 38-year old wonder boy of U.S. Sales promotion, head of Lever Brothers Soap Co., appointed chair of the Citizen’s Food Committee by President Harry Truman just a month earlier, who was assigned to design a food conservation program to help feed the starving people in post-War Europe.

November 7, 1947: While every State of the Union was starting to collect basic foods and money as their contribution to Drew PEARSON’s Friendship Train, while Washington D.C. didn’t bother to help the cause until the very last minute, the then Territory of Hawaii under Gov. Ingram STAINBACK (1883-1961), without even being asked by the Mainland, did the impossible by raising money used to buy not one, its original goal, but two American carloads of sugar for the Friendship Train.

In December 1947, while touring France promoting the Friendship Train as told above in this post, Drew PEARSON surely didn’t forget who were the real winners and losers when it came to reaching out a helping hand to the people of France and Italy. In an open letter written in the form of a report to French President Vincent AURIOL, also carried in his column Washington Merry-Go-Round, he said:

“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.” 

Having stressed that all of the American States had contributed to the loading of the Friendship Train, he  concluded, in particular: 

(…) “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.

(…) “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 flourthus saving the nation’s capital from the ignominy of not participating.”

Fast forward… January 12, 1949: In a 4-page report sent to the French Thank You Train Committees nationwide, having already decided how to handle the Washington D.C. “Merci Train” boxcar upon arrival, concluded:

(…) “As you know, 48 of the boxcars go to the 48 states. The 49th boxcar will be divided between the District of Columbia and the Territory of Hawaii, the latter having been one of the first to contribute to the Friendship Train.”

And that’s, Friends of the “Merci Train,” how Drew Pearson didn’t just send half of the “Merci Train” gifts (alas still missing today) to Honolulu, Hawaii, in March 1949, but also the “40 and 8” boxcar itself which, due to a longshoremen strike delayed the cars arrival until November 9, 1949. Guessing Hawaii could still say “Merci” to Washington D.C. for their past performance?So nice for the people of Hawaii to have Drew PEARSON, Secretary of the National Friendship Train Committee to Welcome the French Train of Gratitude on their side in 1949!

Which bring us to the Hawaiian Railway Society (HRS), proud keeper of the said boxcar currently in full renovation thanks to the late Glen HOULTON, Director of Restoration at HRS for so many years, who sadly passed away almost two years ago, on March 10, 2022.

Luckily, thanks to Jeff LIVINGSTON, Glen’s friend for thirty years, who took over the direction of the renovation in April 2022, Glen’s dream of completing the entire restoration of the “Hawaii/DC Merci Boxcar,” as he called it himself, who had also purchased  all the necessary decoration still on hand with his own funds, is now only a year away.

The “American” side of the DC/Hawaii “Merci Train” boxcar at HRS. Photo courtesy of Jeff Livingston.

Jeff’s new goal is to have the “American” side of the car, both ends and the roof complete for the 75th Anniversary of the cars arrival in Honolulu Harbor which, due to a longshoremen strike, delayed the cars arrival until November 9, 1949, and re-dedicate the car on 11 November 2024 which marks the 75th anniversary of the cars being turned over to the American Legion. The “French” side will be completed after the 75th Anniversary and the boxcar then moved to a more prominent and permanent position for display.

Update: the initial November 2024 re-dedication of the French boxcar having been moved to February 2025, the MDFDE – Friends of the Merci Train FRANCE-USA looks forward to being there for a huge official French-American celebration.

For more info. on the on-going car restoration, please check HRS latest newsletters below.



All the best,

Elisabeth Jenssen

Related Posts: MDFDE/USA: All Aboard the Friendship & Merci Trains! (1947-2019): Here comes the MAGELLAN, New York City! #MDFDEFriendshipMerciTrain70 francaisdeletranger.org

MDFDE/FRANCE-USA: ‘MERCI’ NEW YORK CITY! ‘MERCI’ NEW YORK STATE! #MDFDEFriendshipMerciTrain70 francaisdeletranger.org

MDFDE/FRANCE-USA: Hooray for Lady Liberty, U.S. Immigration and the Great Drew Pearson! #MDFDEFriendshipMerciTrain70 francaisdeletranger.org

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