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A Brief History of the Friendship Train

". . . we, the  American people, have worked together to bring this food to your doorsteps . .  ."

The  Friendship Train

Probably you  have never heard of the Friendship train.  Very few people know about this small but fascinating piece of American history.

The train is  unheralded in American history books and virtually unknown to the citizens of  the United States.  It is never  mentioned to elementary school children and never referred to in advanced  history books, neither secondary nor collegial.

What is the Friendship  train?  Where did it come from?  Why did it exist?

Had it not  been for the Friendship train, the more well-known Merci train, albeit not that  well known either, never would have existed. These trains,  which originated after World War II, created a unique historical link between  the United States and France and Italy.


The vision of the Friendship train appeared in American thought and history on October 11, 1947, in the columns and broadcasts of Drew Pearson.  This noted columnist, journalist, and nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize conceived the idea of the train when in Europe.  While there he noticed that the Communists were being lauded and ‘thanked’ for their contributions of a few carloads of grain delivered to Europeans.  The great fanfare celebrating these meager gifts rankled Pearson.

The columnist loathed the thought of Communism in Europe.  He believed that the United States could surpass the Communists in sending food to the desperate, hungry Europeans.  Announcing his idea of sending food across the Atlantic in his broadcasts and columns on October 11, 1947, Pearson asked Americans to donate food from their homes, kitchens, gardens, and fields.

His plea was fantastically successful.  Immediately town, cities, and states formed plans to collect food and send it to the Friendship train.  This train was such an exciting and popular idea that competition among the communities, counties, and states for having sent the largest contribution was part of the work and also part of the fun.  Actually, there was no reward, but everyone wanted to be the top contributor.

Five weeks after Pearson’s announcement, in November 7, 1947, the Friendship train began its unprecedented odyssey across our country.  Beginning in Los Angeles, where there was a terrific send-off, and ending in New York City with another extraordinary celebration.  Although the train traveled through only eleven states, every state met its contribution by sending their trains to meet the Friendship train at a junction or by sending trucks to the train.

Many communities not on the original route insisted on giving, thereby causing delays all along the journey.  In fact, the enormity of the donations plus the mountainous terrain in the West caused the train to divide, and at its end, there were three trains totally 270 boxcars. The estimated worth was forty million dollars.

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 free.

(It should be noted that the Friendship train was not the Marshall plan.  Although the goals were identical and contemporaneous, to helpEuropeans, each was a completely different effort.)

Americans could look themselves in the eye and say, “We did an outstanding job.”

Post Script:

     Every package had this label:

“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 yourdoorsteps, hoping that it will tide you over until your own fields areagain rich and abundant with crops.”

Also on every label were these words, “This gift is sent to you by . . . ."   These words were followed by the 'first and last name and address of donor'.   This message was written in Italian and French and printed beside theAmerican flag.

(It should be noted that the Friendship train had absolutely no connection with the Marshall Plan.  The former was sponsered by thepeople, not the government.)


Distribution of the Food in Europe


What would happen to the food when it reached its destination?

Pearson wanted to be certain that the Europeans knew unequivocally the source of the food.   In order to accomplish that objective, the Friendship trains also carried tacks, hammers, tapes, and nails so that they could display the banner of the cities and states which had donated a particular boxcar even though many of the cars already had them.  He wanted absolutely no doubt that when the French and Italian trains and trucks transported the gift-laden boxcars, the source was the United States of America.  Also, in keeping with his objective, European movie theaters ran newsreels taken in America which showed the Friendship train’s cargo being loaded in numerous cities. Additionally, Pearson had sent a team of men in advance of the train so that they could foil Communist interruptions of the distributions.  Reducing black market activity as much as possible was also their goal.

American agencies, primarily church groups, distributed the food. Some of the organizations were the American Baptist Relief, American Friends Service Committee, Brethren World Service, Church World Service, National Catholic Welfare Conference, Congregational Service Committee.  France gave 90% of its food allotment to children and orphans and the remaining 10% to the elderly in distress.  Italy distributed 75% of its allocation to children and orphans and 25% to widows of veterans, and to blind and disabled veterans.

France ran ten trains throughout the country. (In both Italy and France the trains were called Friendship trains). These trains stopped in Paris, Le Havre and Rouen, Lillie and the northern ports, Metz and the southeast cities, Lyon, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Brest and Lorient.  Local ceremonies were held wherever the train stopped.

In Paris about 50 trucks laden with the foodstuffs drove down the Champs Elysees past the Arc de Triomphe--the first occasion in peace time when trucks were permitted on this famous thoroughfare--then down Rue de Rivoli to City Hall. The Mayor of Paris Pierre De Gaulle, brother of the General, greeted Pearson and his committee. After both spoke briefly to the large crowd, the Mayor provided a sumptuous repast for the American benefactors. They received another honorable reception when President Auriole greeted them and invited them to lunch. Pearson stated that the President spoke eloquently in appreciation of the Friendship train.

Pearson stated that although the Italians were at first not as familiar with the Friendship train as the French, at the end of the experience they were probably even more exuberant than the French. In Rome 150 trucks drove from the railroad station past the Palazzio Venezia and the Coliseum to the Campidoglio. Four Friendship trains went through Italy: from Rome to Milan to the Yugoslave border at Gorizia; and from Genoa to Venice, and south from Naples through southern Italy; and from Palermo to Sicily.

Pearson traveled on the train going to Rome.  Upon arrival in the Eternal City, Pearson officially presented the train to the Mayor who spoke briefly to the crowd.  Pearson also granted a marathon of interviews, speaking with the Italian press for three hours. In Florence and Bologna he received thrilling receptions, finding very excited people in every town.

However, the best receptions, Pearson declares, were in the smaller towns they entered after leaving Milan. The enthusiasm was so high that he ordered the engineer to stop at every station where there were people, regardless of whether the stop had been planned. This order required the train to stop almost every 15 minutes, and even though these towns had not yet received any food, the people were really happy to see Pearson and the committee. In Gorizia 10,000 greeted the train. At Udine the crowd was so large that Pearson had to go to the town square to speak.

The day after Pearson had spoken in Rome, every newspaper in Italy, except for the Communist papers, told the story of the Friendship train. One week later the train was still front-page news.   American newsmen and Embassy officials told Pearson that the reception he and the train received was incredible. They had seen nothing like it since the end of the war.  One can imagine the sense of accomplishment and success Pearson must have felt. His original thought had been that he could win friends for the United States through food and American generosity. He had not been wrong   Other European countries, those known to date are Greece, Germany, and Austria, received a small amount of the foodstuffs.  American good will envoys traveled through Germany and Austria when food was delivered.  A Mormon church in Kaysville, UY raised a carload of special wheat for Greece.  The Mormon Church in Kaysville, UY raised one carload of special seed wheat for Greece.

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