I was in the British Library on Friday, trying to remember the exact day that the Merci Train had pulled into New York City harbour. Scanning over my notes I quickly found that it was on 3 February 1949 ; but rather than return to the application I was working on, I thought I’d slip up to the Newsroom and see if The New York Times had had anything to say about it at the time. The Merci Train is not mentioned in any historiography I have so far encountered, but I did know that it had received attention in the press. Perhaps a small article in the paper would help me elucidate some details?
Imagine my surprise when, scrolling down the microfilm looking for the 3 February issue, I realised my Merci Train had made front page news. The only image on that page, it showed the Magellan ship covered in painted letters reading ‘MERCI AMERICA’. You can spot small flags – bunting – adorning the ship, too. In fact, the whole article – which was, to my delight, continued on page 7 – emphasised the extent of the celebrations welcoming this gift from France. ‘A flotilla of small boats descended on the gayly beflagged Magellan at her anchorage off Quarantine in the wintry, early morning sunlight and made the Narrows resound with blasting sirens and whistles.‘ wrote Joseph J. Ryan, the journalist covering the story. An ‘aerial salute‘ of ‘bombers and fighter jets‘ accompanied the celebrations, as well as ‘four city fire boats‘ which, surrounding the Statue of Liberty, ‘turned their powerful nozzles skyward and sent towering streams of spray into the morning sunlight.’
Waiting on the harbour to welcome the Merci Train was Grover Whalen, who expressed ‘the official greeting of the city … on behalf of Mayor O’Dwyer.’ Who was this ‘Whalen’, and why had the mayor not bothered to come down himself? Was this ceremony not deemed important enough? Whalen, it turns out, was also ‘Mr New York’ (literally the title of his autobiography ), a key political, business and social figure known to everyone. And if O’Dwyer was not their to greet the ship at the harbour, it’s because he was waiting at the Town Hall, where the New York Merci Train Car, once off-loaded from the ship, would make its way in a parade from Battery to 43rd Street.
I can almost hear the harbour vibrating with the sounds of planes, water guns and cheers. They seem loud, celebratory, eager to welcome ‘(t)hese gifts, made at great sacrifice’ which, according to Whalen, were ‘a further assurance of the friendship of the French people for the people of the United States.’ Aside from a friendly gesture, though, this gift – with its 49 boxcars, 52,000 objects and countless notes and letters – was also a strong reminder of America’s own generosity. ‘New York remembers with great pleasure the opportunity of participating in the Friendship Train’, Ryan commented, referring to the humanitarian donation of food made in 1948 from ordinary Americans to the French people. Likewise, America’s participation in the world wars had apparently inspired French railwaymen to scour the country in search of ’40 x 8 rail cars so familiar to American veterans of World War I’. By welcoming this gift in such a grandiose way, were the Americans really celebrating a narrative of war, generosity and sacrifice? Did these gifts serve as mirrors reflecting their own heroism? After all, the French president’s name was misspelled in the article – Vincent Auriel instead of Vincent Auriol – suggesting, in my view, a certain disinterest in the French origins of the gift. No, this gift originated in American generosity dating back to the First World War. How the Merci Train and its 52,000 objects served as a tool to build a narrative of the world wars is, indeed, one of the most fascinating things about it ; it is perhaps for this reason that the story made the front page of The New York Times.