U.S. Air Force veteran Ken Newman, who served from 1974 to 1980, is proud of his unique connection to La Société des Quarante Hommes et Huit Chevaux, a lesser-known national veterans organization that was originally part of the American Legion.
The organization’s history dates back to WWI (July 1914 – November 1918) when either 40 allied troops or eight horses were transported in cramped, wooden boxcars from around Europe to the front in France. The French boxcars measured just 29 feet long by nine feet wide.
The society takes its French name from those boxcars. The English translation is “the Society of Forty Men and Eight Horses,” and its members, who join by invitation only, call it simply “the Forty & Eight.”
The Forty & Eight vocabulary is sprinkled with French words. A member is a voyageur (traveler). A local unit is a voiture (boxcar). San Tomas Voiture 365, with close to 90 members, serves Silicon Valley and meets at American Legion Post 564 in Santa Clara. It is one of 32 voitures in California and one of only 10 with its own operable locomotive.
The locomotive, modeled after Rio Grande Railroad locomotive steam engine #119, was built by a team of nine WWII veterans, all now deceased. Newman’s father, Army Air Corps veteran Bill Newman, was part of that team.
Veteran Sil Moyan, with experience in car restoration, was the designer and straw boss of the project, which was begun in 1993 and completed the next year. The veterans transformed a 1967 blue school bus, purchased using Forty & Eight bingo game proceeds, into a locomotive that seats 12 passengers, plus the engineer and fireman.
The San Tomas Voiture 365 locomotive has been in the Mountain View spring parade annually since its completion in 1994. It is also in the San Jose Veterans Day parade and December holiday parades in Los Altos and Los Gatos. It chugs around Santa Clara giving free rides every June at the American Legion Post 419 classic car show.
“I enjoy explaining the history and what the locomotive represents to all the families and children we meet giving rides at different events,” said locomotive/ boxcar chair Newman, a Mountain View resident.
The boxcar also figures in history after WWI. In 1947, at the end of WWII, Americans filled U.S. trains with $40 million in relief supplies for Europe. The trains traveled across the country to New York, where the supplies were offloaded and shipped to France and Italy.
Then in 1949, as a thank you to America, France shipped 49 of its original WWI Forty & Eight boxcars to the United States, one for each state, with Washington, D.C. , and Hawaii sharing one. The boxcars were filled with gifts given by the French people to show their appreciation to Americans for war relief.
These French boxcars were called Merci Trains–gratitude trains. (“Merci” means thank you in French.) Each was decorated with the coats of arms of the 40 provinces of France. American Legion Post 509 in Fresno is home to California’s original Merci Train.
The Forty & Eight as an American veterans organization goes back almost 100 years to 1920 when veterans of the war in France met in Philadelphia and established the Forty & Eight as an elite level of American Legion membership. In 1960, the Forty & Eight became an independent organization. Women were not admitted until 2006. In 2008, American Legion membership was eliminated as a Forty & Eight membership prerequisite.
“I’m proud to continue the tradition of what my father and the other vets started,” said Forty & Eight member Ken Newman, helping to keep alive the history of WWI.
For Forty & Eight society information, visit the national website (www.fortyandeight.org) and the California website (cafortyandeight.org). For further boxcar history, visit www.themetrains.com/merci-train-boxcar-california.htm.