The year was 1947. The people of the world were still recovering from the ravages of WWII. Europe was hit especially hard. People were hungry. Families were struggling for basic needs and spirits were very low. Drew Pearson, a popular American journalist had just returned home after touring the war-torn Europe, his heart heavy from what he had seen. He felt a deep desire to do something to help the people of Europe in their desperate time of need. That desire led to an idea and on October 11, 1947, Drew Pearson opened his famous radio show with his vision of a “Friendship Train.”
Pearson proposed starting a freight train of eight empty boxcars in California and sending it across country to New York, stopping at multiple stations along the way, adding additional cars as it progressed eastward, filling the cars at each stop with voluntary donations of food contributed by individuals, businesses and organizations. The train would then be shipped overseas as a Christmas present to the people of France and Italy. Pearson sent out the call asking Americans to donate food from their homes, kitchens, gardens, and fields. And they delivered.
Pearson’s plea to the American people was fantastically successful. The initiative was to be a spontaneous grassroots gesture of sympathy and friendship from the American people, and Americans responded generously. Immediately towns, cities, and states formed plans to collect food and send it to the Friendship Train. An enormous amount of excitement surrounded the idea of the friendship train. There were even competitions between communities, counties and states to see who could make the largest contribution. There was no reward for being the top contributor but every state aimed for it and every community wanted to pitch in.
Five weeks after Pearson’s announcement, on November 7, 1947, the Friendship Train began its unprecedented journey across our country. Hollywood actors and producers gathered with the people of California in a grand parade and spectacular send-off in Los Angeles. Though the train traveled through only eleven states, every state contributed; sending its boxcars, trains, or trucks full of goods to meet the Friendship Train at junctions along the way. Many communities not on the original route insisted on giving, causing delays all along the journey. All along the route ordinary Americans brought bags of flour from their homes, vegetables from their gardens, canned goods from their storehouses. It was an amazing sight. Eleven days after leaving Los Angeles the Friendship Train arrived in New York City to great fanfare, receiving a City welcome and a ticker-tape parade on Broadway. Drew Pearson, there to greet the train, never could have imagined what he saw.
The expectation was that, by the time the train reached New York, it might have made some forty stops and accumulated as many as eighty cars. The final results of the goodwill and compassion of ordinary American citizens far exceeded those estimates. The enormity of the donations (along with the mountainous terrain in the West) caused the train to divide, and at its end, there were three trains totaling 270 boxcars filled with merchandise worth forty million dollars!
Every package on the train was labeled with the same vibrant message: “All races and creeds make up the vast melting pot of America, and in a democratic and Christian spirit of good will toward men, we, the American people, have worked together to bring this food to your doorsteps, hoping that it will tide you over until your own fields are again rich and abundant with crops.”
Contrary to some misguided claims, the Friendship Train had absolutely nothing to do with the Marshall Plan which was officially sponsored by the American government working directly with European governments. The Marshall Plan was subject to restrictions and begun six months after the Friendship Train landed in Europe. The Marshall Plan was government to government. The Friendship Train was people to people.
In all aspects of the train’s travel, no money was ever spent: the food, the transportation by rail and truck, the loading of the boxcars and trucks, the loading of the ship by the stevedores and the use of the ships was donated for the cause. It was a warm-hearted, entirely voluntary hands-across-the-sea gift outright from one people to another, with no strings attached. And when that show of friendship and brotherly kindness arrived in Europe just before Christmas, the people of those war torn countries rejoiced.
European Countries receiving food from the Friendship Train included France, Greece, Germany, Norway, and Austria. The people of France were so overcome with gratitude for this gift from their brothers and sisters across the sea that they decided to do something to show their gratitude. It was a French rail worker and war veteran named Andre Picard, who would initiate the project which became known as the “Merci’ Train.” The Train has such appeal that the project, which began with one boxcar, ended with a train of forty-nine boxcars; one for each of the forty-eight states. The forty-ninth was to be shared by the District of Columbia and the Territory of Hawaii.
Even though many French families had very little left after the war, over six million families contributed something to fill the cars. The 52,000 gifts included children’s drawings, ashtrays made of broken mirrors, worn shoes, hand crocheted doilies, a jeweled Legion d’Honneur once presented to Napoleon, the bugle which signaled the Armistice signing at Compiegne in 1918, fifty rare paintings, the first motorcycle ever built, and a Louis XV carriage. The President of France contributed forty-nine delicate Sevres vases and the city of Lyon provided dozens of silk wedding dresses. By 1948 the boxcars were filled to capacity. When the Magellan sailed from LeHavre, nine thousand gifts had to be left on the docks because there wasn’t room enough for them.
The French people had so little but what they gave was a precious piece of their lives—a part of themselves. Each gift had an official label with the emblem of the French Gratitude Train project. Those who gave signed their name and address to each label. Many wrote personal notes to accompany their gift. When the train arrived in New York Harbor it was greeted by waves of Air Force planes, fireboats with columns of spraying water, and a flotilla of small boats. The ship Magellan, loaded with gifts from France displayed the message on its hull, Merci, America! President Truman had signed into law a special resolution permitting the train and its cargo to enter the United States duty free. Since the wheels on the French train were eight inches wider than American rails, the box cars were transported on flatcars for their journey across the United States. In the next several weeks, each state held parades and ceremonies welcoming a French representative and their designated boxcar. Many of the states who received these beautiful gifts of gratitude still have their box car and the items with them on display.
We may never know the individual stories of the people on both sides of the ocean who were touched by this magnificent gesture that sprang spontaneously from the heart of one nation for the benefit of another. We may never know the lives that were changed, the hearts that were softened, the burdens that were lifted. What we do know is the Friendship Train was evidence of a spirit and a people whose generosity was recognized around the world. And the Merci’ train was powerful evidence of the spirit and sacrifice of a people whose gratitude is still remembered in state capitals across the United States of America.
This is the story of a man, whose love for his fellowmen led to uniting a nation to support their brothers and sisters across the ocean just at the time when they needed it most. And in turn, those families across the sea, overwhelmed with gratitude, found purpose as they shared a part of their own lives, their own stories, with those who had given to them. And those who gave were filled with gratitude as their hearts turned to their brothers and sisters across the ocean and found purpose in something bigger than themselves.
The story of these trains is a symbol of God’s children coming together in the ultimate measure of humanity, a symbol of true brother love. The kind of story that inspires individuals, touches hearts, unites people and shapes nations. That is the power of a story!
Will you climb aboard the Story Train and give the gift of your story with the world?