Merci Train - South Carolina
Click on the image below to view full size
Photo taken in 2011
There is no knowledge of any existing gifts.
About Andy Dolak
May 29, 2000
Memorial Day Reflections About The Merci Box Cars
Right from the time that the Merci Train arrived from France in New York Harbor, American military veterans of both world wars have had a significant attachment to the "40 & 8" box cars, and they have attempted to pass that veneration on to later generations. Not all of the veterans immediately formed this attachment, however. Many didn't even hear of the 1949 arrival of the Merci Train until many years later. Such is the story of Andy Dolak.
In 1944, a young sergeant from South Carolina, Andy found himself serving in the U.S. Army under the command of Supreme Allied Commander, Dwight Eisenhower. After we met many years later, Andy related to me some of his experiences during that time. Especially of his being shuttled around Europe in what he called "those side door Pullmans", the little antique French box cars, that thousands of American veterans of WW1 and WW2 had memories of being crowded into, for some most uncomfortable rides.
Andy survived the war, came home, and soon joined the American Legion, which had its beginnings among Americans fighting in France during World War One. Exhibiting the same qualities that made him a good soldier, Andy was soon promoted into The Legion's "Honor Society", the "La Societie de Quarantie Hommes et Huit Cheveaux", or for short in English, "The Forty and Eight". The name had its origin in the little signs that each of the French box cars wore during the war. Those signs told military train masters that each car had a capacity of either 40 men (Hommes) or 8 horses (Cheveaux). In the early 1980s, Andy was elected to the highest state office of that organization, "Chef de Gare du South Carolina".
It was about this time that Andy first heard of the Merci Train and its 49 boxcars, and like me 15 years later, he wondered, "where are they all", and more specifically "where is South Carolina's box car and all the gifts that were in it?" To the best of my knowledge, Andy never located any of the South Carolina Merci gifts. His search for the boxcar proved to be more fruitful though. He found it in a Greenville park where it was being cared for by a women's garden club.
As soon as Andy saw the old boxcar, memories of his tour in Europe flooded back into his consciousness, and he vowed that he would give other South Carolina veterans an opportunity to be reminded of their experiences as well. The garden club allowed the Forty and Eight Society to take possession the car, and it was moved to Columbia where the men of their Voiture (the equivalent of the Legion's "Post") restored it to its 1949 condition. Since then, it has served as a symbol to the veterans of South Carolina of the sacrifices they and their fallen comrades made fighting for peace, not only in the world wars, but in all of the conflicts in which Americans fought during the 20th century. But this was only the beginning of Andy's involvement with the Merci boxcars.
Andy Dolak is certainly not the only WW2 veteran who has donated his time, energy, and finances to preserve the boxcars as symbols of their sacrifices. Others known to me are Ralph Walters of Hays, Kansas, and E.L. (Ike) Eickhoff of Coles Camp, Missouri. Both of these octogenarians have spent countless hours patching, painting, and redecorating their boxcars as symbols of their sacrifices. However, soon after Andy's boxcar was restored, he set out to write a book on the subject. Though he never found a publishing company to print the book, he sold copies to friends and acquaintances around the country. After reading the manuscript, some of those people became inspired to start restoration projects for their own Merci cars. Many of the boxcars that I have seen were restored during the mid 1980s, shortly after Andy's writings were circulated. And thus, Andy probably did more to promote the cause of the preservation of the Merci cars than any other single individual.
I found a copy of Andy's manuscript at the Oklahoma Historical Society's archives in 1996, and made a photocopy of it. Soon after, I wrote to him to tell him that I also hoped to write a book about the Merci Train, and I asked his permission to quote from his book. Andy and I became instant soul mates. Because of the geographic distances involved, we were forced to correspond by telephone and mail before finally being able to meet in person nearly two years later. Although Andy had not visited as many of the boxcar sites as I had, he did know many of the people that I met during my travels, and knew of their involvement with the boxcars.
During my visit with Andy in Lamar, South Carolina, in the Fall of 1998, I found that his home was a showplace for the many awards and mementos that he had collected during his involvement with the box cars and the Forty and Eight Society. In every room he showed me, I saw photos of famous people that Andy had met, and even a medal awarded by a French War Veteran's Group. The walls of his study were lined with file cabinets filled with documents and correspondence sent to him by other box car "aficionados" from around the country. He told me that he had been invited to speak at several rededication ceremonies for newly restored Merci cars, and at one of them, he met the former Company Commander of his old Army unit. The officer had remained in the service after the war, and risen to the rank of General. The General was so impressed with Andy's collection of Merci boxcar history that he asked him to donate it to the U.S. Army Archives at the Carlisle Barracks near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Andy told me that he had directed in his will for this to happen, and the collection should be an invaluable resource to future historians.
Since recently hearing the sad news that Andy passed away on March 31st of this year, I was unable to locate my copy of his manuscript. I had hoped to refresh my mind about some of his Merci activities and about Andy himself. Fortunately, I contacted the Oklahoma Historical Society and they graciously agreed to send me another copy.
Andy Dolak and many of his comrades are gone forever, and hundreds more pass away every month, as they are almost all past the age of 80. If you, the reader, are fortunate enough to know, or have in your family, one of those "Giants" who helped shape the Free World, please ask them to share with you some of their thoughts, feelings, and experiences as they fought for the freedom that we still enjoy today. Don't forget to thank them personally, but the act of telling your friends and acquaintances what you have learned will be the greatest thanks a veteran could imagine. It will let them know that their life was important to us, and we will remember them after they are gone.
I believe all of our lives will be enriched as a result.
Earl R Bennett Sr.