The 40 and 8 - La Société des Quarante Hommes et Huit Chevau
100 Years of Tradition Still Alive
by Bill Betten, Co-Director of the California WW1 Centennial Task Force
The Doughboy and the Boxcar
In 1917 when the first U.S. soldiers left for France they travelled in a variety of conveyances. Trains in the U.S. ranged in style from flatcars (that hitch-hikers were ejected from,) to Pullmans with drawing rooms, and fancy private coaches. But, all that changed when they arrived in France.
Everyone in France traveling by train rode in boxcars (voiture in French ,) whether they were animal or human. Each boxcar had the same capacity throughout France, so they all looked similar.
Upon loading into one, many a Doughboy would wonder at the same French words and same numbers that were painted on the exterior of each car.
“Wonder what that means?” a fellow from the rolling hills of the San Gabriel Valley might ask as he climbed in.
His Los Angelino buddy he had met at camp chuckled, “Must mean what the locals have to pay to ride. Good thing its free for us. I don’t even have a chevaux.”
“Here,” laughed another fellow from another little southern California town called Monte Vista (which would eventually be renamed Montclair,) “have one of mine,” and he pulled out a penny and tossed it to him.
From under the brim of his Montana Peak hat, a fourth Californian already sitting on the floor interrupted the fun saying, “Well I doubt that you could fit a chevaux in your pocket.”
“How do you know?” the insulted Monte Vistan snapped.
Raising his head, the Doughboy pointedly replied, “My Granddad was a gold-miner who came straight from Paris in 1849. He taught me to read French. You jokers got it all wrong. 40 Hommes/8 Chevaux means forty men and eight horses. I doubt you could hide a horse in your pocket.”
Without a doubt, it is certain that every infantryman in the A.E.F. (American Expeditionary Force) rode a 40 and 8 boxcar at least once. It was a well-appreciated mode of transport because the alternative meant sore feet, and wearing out a pair of shoes too soon since trucks and automobiles were uncommon. Thus, the Doughboys grew fond of the little boxcars.
Upon returning to the states in 1919, the soldiers of the United States founded the American Legion, and in the following year, an exclusive level of the new organization was formed consisting of officers of the new fraternity of ex-soldiers. It was named La Société des Quarante Hommes et Huit Chevaux (The Society of Forty Men and Eight Horses).
Its members were called Voyageurs Militaire (military travelers) and candidates for membership were called Prisonniers de Guerre (Prisoners of War). The cargo capacity sign “40 Hommes/8 Chevaux” emblazoned on each French boxcar that carried American doughboys to the front, and the "French Army horizon blue" color, became symbols of the new society. An initiation ceremony was developed based on the common wartime experiences of American soldiers, sailors and marines, incorporating fun-making with patriotic bonding. [See http://www.fortyandeight.org/history-of-the-408/ ]
The Celebrated 40 and 8 Boxcar of California
On October 11, 1947, the idea of The Friendship Train first appeared in U.S. newspaper columns and broadcasts of American radio when Drew Pearson, noted columnist, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee saw that “the Communists” were being lauded and 'thanked' for supplying a few carloads of grain to Europeans after WW2.
Expecting that Americans could easily exceed the meager Russian generosity to the despairing and starving victims of the war, Pearson used his radio broadcasts and newspaper columns to urge Americans to donate food to send. Immediately town, cities, and states instantly responded by developing plans to urge their citizens to give food from kitchens and gardens, and the well-regarded idea soon became a competition across the nation. All desired to be credited as the preeminent contributor.
Starting out in Los Angeles on November 7,1947, with a tremendous departure salute, to arrive in New York City at a second special commemoration, the Friendship Train only passed through eleven states, where each contributed more boxcars or trains. Others not on the planned track who persisted in donating forced the train to split into three separate strings, providing at the finish a grand accumulation of 270 fully loaded boxcars, with an estimated value of forty million in 1947’s dollar. It is important to remember that the Friendship Train had no connection to the Marshall Plan (a program proposed by U.S. secretary of state, General George C. Marshall, where the U.S. government gave large amounts of aid to European countries to assist in rebuilding after World War II.) The Friendship Train was sponsored by the people, not the government.
In 1949, in response to the American generosity, the French people organized the French Merci Train and sent back to the United States forty-nine French boxcars (likely cars ridden in during WW1) full of many hand-crafted pieces and treasures. They were the same style of car that conveyed troops, horses and equipment during World War I and were appropriately marked "40 Men or 8 Horses". Each of the 48 states were assigned to receive one of the “French Gratitude” boxcars, while Washington DC was to get one (soon shared with Hawaii.)
California’s boxcar’s contents were emptied and the car was placed in Fresno as a war memorial where Governor Earl Warren charged the 40/8 Society to care for it. First located at Roeding Park in Fresno, the California boxcar was eventually moved to the American Legion Fresno Federal Post #509, at 3509 N. First St. where it rests today.
Over the years of the 40 and 8 Society
Over its lifetime, the 40 and 8 has played a large range of rolls in the service of this country. Activities range from supporting Child Welfare Funds, and Emergency Relief, to effecting equitable treatment of war veterans and supporting youth and promoting Americanism.
Since the U.S. and its army were racially segregated during WW1 the society began its existence restrictive as well. Though the 40 and 8 struggled with the issue of racial prejudice, in 1973 the society amended its constitution to prohibit restricting its membership on the basis of race.
Today the 40 and 8 remains a national philanthropic organization, maintaining the goals of service to their communities initiated by their founders, the American soldiers of World War 1.
The 40 and 8 in California Today
On Saturday, February 17, 2018, Dennis Matarrese, Sous National Directeur Box Car and member in the 40 and 8 Voiture 257, introduced California WW1 Centennial Task Force Co-Director Bill Betten at the 40 and 8 Grand Cheminot held at American Legion Post 112 in Ontario, California. There the entire leadership and officers of the Grande du California heard Bill present the goals of the Task Force and the U.S. WW1 Centennial Commission. He also pointed to some of the successes of the Task Force, and even offered a suggestion as to how the 40 and 8 might find help in renovating and protecting the California 40 and 8 Memorial Boxcar located in Fresno.As can be seen in these accompanying photos this relic of our history needs attention and shelter if it is to survive.
This project is ongoing and has multiple goals, including a permanent protective cover for the boxcar (which is stored outdoors,) and having the set of memorial shields replaced. To contribute to this effort email Bill Betten or Dennis Matarrese at [email protected].
As a footnote, in February of 2018, 40 and 8 Sous National Directeur Box Car Dennis Matarrese, was added to the list of Co-Directors of the managing Board of the California WW1 Centennial Task Force.
A Great Centennial Honor & the Latest California Boxcar Information
This month, March 2019, marks the 99th anniversary of the formation of La Société des Quarante Hommes et Huit Chevaux (The Society of Forty Men and Eight Horses) and with it the California World War One Centennial Task Force are proud to announce that one of our own board members has been recognized by the Society as having had his design selected to represent the organization’s annual 40 and 8 pin for the year 2020.
Dennis Matarrese’s award-winning design was recently selected and is being prepared for production as we speak, so it was only right that we interviewed the proud design originator. Here California WW1 Centennial Task Force Co-Director Bill Betten asks Dennis questions about the selection of his design and the future of California State's historic 40 and 8 boxcar.
Bill: Dennis, I was thrilled when you called me with the news of your design’s selection. It must have been exciting to have learned that it won?
Dennis: Having been notified that my pin design for 2020 was selected is an honor.
Bill: So, for you, why is having your design selected for this year so important?
Dennis: The design also honors the World War I centennial.
Bill: What was your motivation and or inspiration for the design?
Dennis: I wanted the 2020 pin to show the 100th Anniversary of the 40 and 8 organization, and to honor our 40 and 8 comrades of WWI through which the organization was conceived.
Bill: Prior pin designs represented a character shape of state 40 and 8 boxcars, but you selected a different approach. Can you give us a verbal description of it and why the parts are significant?
Dennis: The design is different, returning to older pin profiles. It's shape is a circle with the 40 and 8 boxcar in the center. The wording “Honoring The World War 1 Centennial 1918-2018” encompasses the edge, while on top of the circle sits a scroll stating the dates of the 100th Anniversary, 1920-2020.
Bill: Speaking of the state 40 and 8 boxcars, what is the condition of California’s 40 and 8 boxcar?
Dennis: The original French 40 and 8 boxcar (a thank you gift from the people of France and presented to the generous people of the State of California) has been recently restored by California 40 and 8. A shelter/cover needs to be installed over the boxcar to help keep it in good condition.
Bill: So, it sounds like the boxcar itself is in the best condition it has seen in decades, but recent rumors on the future of the California 40 and 8 boxcar have us at the Task Force concerned. Can you shed some light on what is happening?
Dennis: The City of Fresno wants to keep the boxcar in Fresno, but had not followed through with keeping the boxcar from deteriorating. A shelter/cover has been requested from the City of Fresno for several years. California 40 and 8 had recently voted to have the boxcar relocated to the Palm Springs Air Museum where the box car will be located inside, on display and keep it protected.
Bill: It seems to me that it is the La Société des Quarante Hommes et Huit Chevaux that has traditionally safeguarded California’s Boxcar, and holds the greatest stake in its future. What does the Society think should happen to this singular and irreplaceable piece of our history?
Dennis: The boxcar needs to be located where its newly restored condition will be safeguarded and still be available to the citizens of the United States. There is currently a custody dispute over moving the boxcar.
[In April 2019 Bill and Dennis communicated again.]
Bill: What is the latest boxcar information?
Dennis: I was at a meeting last week where our new grand chef was talking about some old papers related to the box car. About five years ago a time capsule was
opened for city of Fresno. We were told that a letter was in there giving custody of the box car to 40 and 8. There does not seem to be anyone still around that can say for sure about the letter. Also, if we can come up with the money that Fresno is requiring for a shelter over the box car; I was told that 40 and 8 would leave the box car in Fresno. I have learned that a group in Fresno is trying to raise the funds to have the shelter built over the box car.
Bill: Does that mean the boxcar IS staying in Fresno?
Dennis: We can still keep the box car in Fresno if a shelter can be installed.
[On August 2, 2019, Bill again caught up with Dennis for another update.]
Bill: What is the status on the California 40&8 boxcar?
Dennis: Some good news. I believe that the city of Fresno is going to be helping with a fund raiser to get the dollar amount for the shelter to keep the box car. I had suggested that an event be held at the box car, in July at the state convention/promenade, for the 100th anniversary. It will include city officials, the French Alliance and the French Consul.
Bill: This all sounds promising.
Dennis: Not only that but, the next Grand Chef of the 40&8 will be from Fresno.
Bill: I hope your right about this all being good news. It sure would be super to know that this state and national treasure, the California 40&8 boxcar will be there for the WW1 Bicentennial.