During both World War I and II, one of the main modes of transportation in France and much of the rest of Europe was a narrow gauge boxcar called a Forty and Eight.
They were called Forty and Eights because they were big enough carry 40 men or eight horses. They moved troops, hauled supplies, evacuated wounded and, in their darkest use, transported Jews and other victims of the Holocaust to concentration camps.
They were so iconic of the conflicts that in 1949, four years after the the end of World War II, 49 ceremonial boxcars were shipped in a “gratitude train” by France to the United States, one to each of the then-48 states and the District of Columbia, filled with gifts as thanks for America’s participation in the war and the country’s aid afterward.
Today, many of those boxcars are on display in memorial parks, state museums and other public places in each state. But South Carolina’s is in the parking lot of the American Legion Post 6 on Pickens Street in Columbia, largely unknown and unnoticed.
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“It’s really sad that more people don’t know about it,” said Jerry Anderson of Goose Creek, who is head of the La Societe Des 40 Hommes et 8 Chevaux, or Forty and Eight, organization within the South Carolina American Legion. “We’re trying to find a home for it.”
The American Legion was formed in 1919, after World War I. The Forty and Eight subset of the legion was made up of Legion officers who served in France, but the subset later opened up to anyone who was invited. It was the Forty and Eight group that appointed caretakers of the “gratitude train” box cars.
The boxcars were given to the United States not only for America’s participation in the two wars, but for a spontaneous and stunning act of kindness from the American people, according to Cayce’s Darlene Walton, secretary of the state’s Forty and Eight group.
France was leveled during the war. So in 1947, a group in Los Angeles filled up eight boxcars with donated food, clothing and other supplies to be shipped to France. Word got out, and by the time the “freedom train” reached New York, there were 700 boxcars filled with $40 million in donations.
“It was an overwhelming amount of stuff that got shipped over there, and it was done in a seven-day period.,” Walton said.
The gratitude train of Forty and Eight boxcars from France was a response to that as well as to thank France’s American allies. Each boxcar was filled with 52,000 gifts, from food to artwork to toys.
South Carolina’s boxcar was displayed in Greenville’s Cleveland Park for more than 30 years before being moved to the post in Columbia in the early 1980s. The fate of the gifts is unknown.
Officials at the S.C. Military Museum in Columbia, operated by volunteers through the S.C. National Guard, said they don’t have the money to move the car or the space to display it.
And officials at the S.C. State Museum said they have met with representative of the Forty and Eights group, but no decision has been made.
“We have been contacted about the boxcar and are trying to work with the American Legion Post 6 to find a solution,” spokesman Jared Glover said. “But no decision has been made.”
For Walton, the boxcar is a significant piece of the state’s history.
“We need to make sure, because of its age, that it’s taken care of and seen,” she said.