Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The 40 & 8

(News-Herald, August 2003) In my continuing research of bands in Venango County, I could not possibly have avoided the great American Legion Band of Oil City, a band that attained national stature in the forties and fifties. The 40 and 8 band won almost ten straight national championships in a row, taking Oil City’s fame across the country. Imagine that.

This was a band that drew enormous crowds locally and carried the fame of Oil City to every corner of the United States. Oil City returned the favor by twice creating a suitable performance spot to showcase the band: the Rickards Bandshell right near the library, and the stage in Hasson Park.

In the process of researching, I began to wonder what the significance of the 40 and 8 designation was, particularly when I encountered a news item that the Legion was considering censure or disbarment to rein in the 40 and 8, considered the rowdier branch of the Legion.

Once again, the internet came through. I learned the story of the 40 and 8, and it’s a story worth sharing.

The origin takes us back to Word War I. When the American forces arrived in France, they discovered that their transportation to the front would be by way of “Voiture” boxcars. These traveled on the French narrow-gauge railroad and were small compared to American boxcars. They were generally twenty and a half feet long by eight and a half feet wide, and on the outside there was often a plaque marking the capacity of the cars: 40 hommes et 8 chevaux. That’s forty men or eight horses.

The cars were rickety, drafty, unheated and often crowded, but in 1920 a special fraternity of veterans within the American Legion was formed: Le Societe des Quarante Hommes et Huit Chevaux in mock-fancy French, or the Forty and Eight in nice short American.

During World War II, the French again used 40 and 8’s to transport troops to the front, and in 1945, these old cars brought many US soldiers, including POW’s, back from Germany to be shipped home. For many soldiers it was a memorable experience as they spent long winter days traveling across France in the rickety cars (reportedly they sometimes built fires in the cars to help ward off the cold).

So with a new generation of veterans, the 40 and 8 grew. But that’s not the end of the story.

Some of you will remember columnist Drew Pearson. In 1947, Pearson made a pitch for food and clothing to help the people of France, whose country was still a thoroughly shambalized mess. This led to a $40 million relief mission that sent the 700-car American Friendship Train to Europe. Tons of relief items were sent from the people of the US to the people of Europe.

But that’s not the end of the story, either.

In France, Andre Picard was a railroad worker who had served in WWI. He suggested that the French send a boxcar of gifts back to America as a form of thank-you. So many thousands of French citizens chipped in that one boxcar wouldn’t do it. The French War Veterans Association joined in and the decision was made to send fifty cars to the US—one for each state with the fiftieth to be shared by Washington DC and the US territory of Hawaii.

52,000 gifts were collected. The list defies description—children’s drawings, a Louis XVI carriage, toys, trinkets, household items, and even tree seedlings. The gifts were packed into Forty and Eight type boxcars painted with the coats of arms of all the French provinces. The Gratitude (“Merci” in French) Train sailed into New York harbor in February of 1949 on a ship draped with a giant “Thank You, America” sign.

Longshoremen brought the boxcars ashore for free and Congress waived all duty. The narrow-gauge cars had to be delivered by flatcar to the various state capitals, where they were accepted with various displays of pomp and circumstance, their contents dispersed through charity auctions and donations to worthy institutions.

The majority of the boxcars are still on display (thirty-nine, according to one website, are still accounted for). Pennsylvania’s boxcar is reported to be at the Fort Indiantown Gap National Guard post at Annville, PA, near I-81. The last known location for the Ohio boxcar was near Port Clinton, Ohio.

Few visit the boxcars and few look after them these days. For most of us, they’re a forgotten chapter from a time when France and the US actually got along. Imagine that.

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