It’s Valentine’s day, and one of the largest and most enduring valentines ever received in the United States happened this week, some 63 year ago, in 1949. And you may not know it, but a piece of that once famous valentine resides in Northwest Ohio. It was called the “Gratitude Train”, or the Merci Train. A 49 box car train of thank you’s extended to the citizens of the United States from the citizens of France. Each of the cars filled with hundreds of gifts, artifacts and treasures, large and small, from the French people, as a heartfelt expression of gratitude for the American’s outpouring of love in the form of the famous “Friendship Train” of 1947.
This was the train that Americans sent to help French families get back on their feet after enduring the ravages of World War Two. The Friendship Train, first proposed by columnist Drew Pearson inspired some 20 million Americans to donate enough items of food, clothing, medicine, money, toys and books to fill 700 boxcars that traveled the nation’s breadth on its way to New York where it was shipped to France.
Overwhelmed by the generosity of the Americans, the French citizens in February of 1949 reciprocated, sending their own Merci Train to the Americans. It arrived in New York Harbor by ship on February 2nd, 1949 and each state was designated to receive one of the boxcars. The gifts in the 49th car were to be divided between Washington D.C. and the territory of Hawaii.
In Ohio, the small four wheeled World War I era boxcar, known as a Voiture, or a 40 and 8 car because it could either carry 40 men or eight horses , arrived in Cleveland on the 10th of February. Thousands of residents of that city, along with a host of public officials flocked to visit the special wooden boxcar and to view the gifts packed inside. From Cleveland, the car would make several stops in other cities around the state, including Toledo, where Mayor Michael V. Disalle (who would later become Governor), and a welcoming committee turned out on a cold February day at Union Station to feel the warmth of the grateful French nation. Inside the Ohio boxcar was a collection of items that included art, wine, cheeses, toys, books, clothing, needlework , French family heirlooms, war medals, and letters from individuals who personally offered their thanks for all the Americans had done.
So whatever happened to that boxcar? Well, it’s right here in Northwest Ohio, proudly displayed at Camp Perry near Port Clinton. In fact, it has been at the Camp since 1950, where it was taken after the Ohio tour in 1949. The gray wooden boxcar was parked on the grounds of the military post in Ottawa County and then largely forgotten over the years. But in 1986, a group of local volunteers and historians, brought the car and its meaning back to life with a restoration effort. In November of that year, the freshly renewed piece of history was dedicated and opened to visitors at Camp Perry. And over the past 25 years it has been restored two more times. In 1998, after suffering tornado damage and again in 2006, when it got a new coat of paint and a display of plaques from the various French Provinces where the train had first traveled in France. The “voiture” is currently parked under a partial canopy, amid a larger display of other military artifacts of tanks, guns, and aircraft and is available to visitors to behold, however, only the exterior of the boxcar. The interior of the car is empty. Removed of its precious payload some 60 years ago, the whereabouts of those items are mostly lost. The Ohio State Historical Society has about a half- dozen of the items, and even they are no longer on display, but in “storage” in Columbus. The photos of the items, however, can be viewed on their website. They include a bust of General Lafayette, a wedding dress, a copper kettle and an antique French doll.
So while the proud old “voiture” boxcar that rests at Camp Perry may now be empty, its significance is not. For those who can appreciate what this meant to the American and French alike, it is filled with memories of how the citizens themselves of two nations can indeed forge common bonds of friendship and can reach across the ocean to make a real difference. Drew Pearson, the newspaper columnist, would observe later that the exchanges between the two countries had prompted millions of American and French children to begin pen pal relationships, predicting that many of these young Trans-Atlantic friendships might endure for decades in the future. I wonder if they have? But also wonder why this Valentine’s Day story is so seldom told or taught in history books of World War Two. The story of not how war is waged, but how peace is waged.
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