Q. Why is there a Train Box Car on our lawn?
A. Because there is a unique relationship between a special organization called the "Forty & Eight", the Box Car, and the American Legion
Q. First, what is the "Forty & Eight"?
A. "The Forty & Eight" originated in March of 1920, by Joseph W. Breen, a member of the newly formed American Legion and an officer of Breen-McCracken Legion Post 297. He met in Philadelphia with fifteen other prominent Legionnaires where they envisioned a new and different level of elite membership and camaraderie for leaders of the American Legion.
The box car of the French Railways, so familiar to American ground troops of the First World War, was chosen as the symbolic heart of the new organization.
In World War I (28 July 1914 to11 November 1918), American servicemen in France were transported to the battle front on narrow gauge French railroads (Chemin de Fer) inside boxcars (Voitures) that were half the size of American boxcars. It was a miserable, stench filled, noisy ride to the trenches at the front. As a side note, 100's of 1000's of WWII US soldiers also rode in these boxcars, some even as prisoners of war in cars captured by the Germans!
Each French boxcar was stenciled with a “40/8”, denoting its capacity to hold either forty men or eight horses. This cramped and uncomfortable mode of transportation was familiar to all who traveled from the coast to the trenches; a common small misery among American soldiers who thereafter found “40/8” a lighthearted symbol of the deeper service, sacrifice and unspoken horrors of war that truly bind those who have borne the battle. The French Railroad theme was applied to officer titles and organizational functions.
Thus, "The Forty & Eight" became an organization of veterans of the US Armed Forces and still is to this day. They picked a French phrase as its official name of "La Société des Quarante Hommes et Huit Chevaux," which translates as "The Society of Forty Men and Eight Horses."
Its members are called Voyageurs Militaire (military travelers) and candidates for membership are called Prisonniers de Guerre (Prisoners of War). The “40/8” cargo capacity sign emblazoned on each French boxcar that had carried American doughboys to the front became the symbol of the new society. You can still see the the "40 and 8" stencil on our Box Car.
The first statewide "Forty & Eight Promenade" (or meeting) was held in June, 1920, following the 2nd Annual Convention of the American Legion’s Department of Pennsylvania. Several prominent Legionnaires were wrecked (initiated) and Joseph W. Breen was unanimously elected Chef de Chemin de Fer (President of the Railroad).
The new "Forty & Eight" organization agreed to send a delegation to the Legion’s national convention in Cleveland, Ohio, with as much fanfare as possible in order to introduce the "Forty & Eight" to the nation and to other Legionnaires.
A railroad box car was rented and in it the "Forty & Eight" delegation rode the rails to the Cleveland Legion convention. This publicity stunt gained substantial news coverage for the energetic new elite organization. In Cleveland more than 700 Legionnaires became members of the "Forty & Eight".
40 & 8 National's Offical Emblem
Q. So, how does the the Box Car on our property come into the story?
A. This Box Car is an amazing part of US & French history. Our Box Car was part of the French "Gratitude Train of 1948" from France to the U.S.
But, the "Gratitude Train of 1948" was preceeded by an earlier train from the United States to France called the "The Friendship Train of 1947".
Q. Ok, what was the "The Friendship Train of 1947"?
A."The Friendship Train of 1947" was a unique and fascinating event in American history. It traveled across the United States from Los Angeles to New York in November 1947. The purpose of the train was to collect food from every household, city, county, and state in the United States to give to the starving people in France and Italy.
The idea for the "Friendship Train" was created by Drew Pearson, a noted columnist and broadcaster. He was outraged that the Communists in Europe were getting credit for sending a few boxcars of food to the French people. So the citizens of our country, the good ole U.S. of A., stepped up to meet the challange. At its end, there were three trains totalling 270 boxcars! The estimated worth was forty million dollars!
Q. What was the "French Gratitude Train of 1948" (aka Merci Train) and how was the "Forty & Eight" involved?
A. The "French Gratitude Train of 1948" was sent by the French people to the US. They sent a railroad boxcar for each American state, filled with 10's of 1000's of gifts from the French people who wished to say “merci or thank you” for America freeing the French from Nazi tyranny, as well as the tons of food from the earlier "Friendship Train". Six million French families added gifts. Each box car held 5 tons of gifts!
The "Forty & Eight", being an elite corps of American veterans with its symbol being the WWI French boxcar, was instrumental in welcoming these WWI vintage boxcars. Voyageurs in each state participated in ceremonies, and in many states took responsibility for maintaining the boxcar in museum or display settings. The Texas car wound up at Camp Mabry first, and then later moved to Post 76's lawn. The Texas "Forty & Eight" still maintain responsibility.
Q. What happend to the Shields?
A. The Shields were mounted on the boxcar when it arrived. Many were lost and had to be re-created. They represent the Coats of Arms of the 40 provinces of France that contributed gifts to each boxcar. The shields are stored away to preserve them and displayed on the boxcar during the Society of Forty Men and Eight Horses Grand du Texas Winter Cheminot and Merci Boxcar Pilgimage. This usually takes place early in the morning on the 3rd or 4th Sunday in February commemorating the date when the boxcar arrived in Texas. Sometimes they are brought out and hung on the boxcar on other special occasions.
Q. What happened to the Gifts?
A. The Gifts are mostly in the Texas Memorial Museum though some have disappeared without record. One gift that was inside our box car is now displayed along side the car. It is a stone memorial with a French inscription roughly translated meaning "In Testimony of Recognition".
Links of Interest:
Research collected by Legionairre Steve Dawson