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In 1947, Friendship Train crossed U.S. gathering food for hungry Europe

The Friendship Train crosses the Hudson River. The train was loaded with food from the United States and intended for Europe.
The Friendship Train crosses the Hudson River. The train was loaded with food from the United States and intended for Europe. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Your column on the Freedom Train brought back memories of the day the entire enrollment of my one-room school in Iowa — 12 students — was taken to our county seat of Boone to tour it.

Incidentally, the Freedom Train was not the only train to start a nationwide tour in 1947. Not many weeks later we were again taken to Boone to witness the arrival of the Friendship Train. The Marshall Plan was beginning to provide assistance to the European countries still recovering from World War II, but someone got the idea of sending a Friendship Train around the country so people could donate food and thus feel a personal involvement in the recovery efforts.

We were there to deliver food collected by our school, mostly food “canned” (actually sealed in Mason jars) from produce raised in our gardens and orchards. I have often wondered how many of those glass jars survived the trip to Europe.

Roger Burkhart, Gaithersburg

It was a newspaper columnist who came up with the idea to enlist U.S. citizens in a food drive. Drew Pearson, who penned the nationally syndicated “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column, had learned that a Soviet ship offloading wheat from the U.S.S.R. in Marseille, France, was greeted with parades and brass bands. Meanwhile, a much larger shipment of food aid from the United States had been unloaded in Le Havre without so much as a kazoo.

Pearson feared the Reds were winning the battle of public perception in a Europe that was tilting toward Russia. In a column on Oct. 11, 1947, he suggested that a “friendship train” be run “straight through the heart of America, collecting food as it goes.” Wrote Pearson: “This visible gesture of the generosity of America would more than offset the cooked-up fanfare of communist leaders of Europe . . . ”

The idea quickly came to fruition. Film producer Harry M. Warner was named chair of the Friendship Train Committee and on Nov. 7, 1947, a train left Hollywood, headed east. By Nov. 12 it had reached Wyoming and grown to 42 cars.

By then, organizers had established some rules: Flour would be accepted only in lots that weighed at least 100 pounds; macaroni and spaghetti in 24-package cartons; evaporated milk in 24-tin cartons; and dried peas and beans in minimum 100-pound sacks. (Answer Man has his doubts about those Iowa preserves.)

The train was not a single string of cars, but several trains traveling through different parts of the country, collecting donations and moving toward New York City. The reach of Pearson’s column — it appeared in more than 700 newspapers — ensured the effort was well-publicized.

In Sedgwick County, Kan., schoolchildren collected waste paper, ran errands and saved money to buy one boxcar load of wheat. In Grand Island, Neb., the Teamsters volunteered to load the train. Farmers in Secaucus, N.J., sold pigs to raise money for a cash contribution: $2,800.

In a nice bit of synchronicity, the two themed trains — Friendship and Freedom — intersected, meeting in Harrisburg, Pa., on Nov. 17.

On Dec. 7, 1947, the SS American Leader sailed from New York to France, loaded with 8 million pounds of food. The following week, the SS Exiria left for Italy. Remaining supplies followed on two more steamships. On the European end, Friendship Trains were run in reverse: giving out food rather than collecting it.

In a report to French President Vincent Auriol, Pearson wrote, “the American people have collected from their fields this token of food and brought it to your firesides in the hope that it may tide you over until your own fields are again rich and abundant with crops.”

Pearson was awarded the French Legion of Honor and Italy’s Star of Solidarity.

For the ship’s arrival in Naples on Dec. 28, 3,000 Italian orphans gathered, each clutching a paper U.S. or Italian flag. The captain said the last time he’d been in the Italian port was in November 1943, when he delivered Sherman tanks for the Allied push up the peninsula.

There was grumbling in some French newspapers that the United States expected fawning coverage of the gifts. And in Italy, some Communist mayors downplayed the contributions. But on the whole, the gifts were received with gratitude, though some Italians may have been perplexed by the donation sent by the citizens of Charleston, W.Va.: 30 tons of something called “breakfast syrup” to pour on something called “pancakes.”

Missed train

Readers George Bromley of Falls Church and Peter Vliet of McLean both pointed out that last week’s photo of the Freedom Train was not taken at Union Station. They put it at a railroad siding next to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing Annex at 14th Street SW.

Wrote George: “Franklin Roosevelt boarded trains there during World War II, primarily for security reasons.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.

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