Forty and Eight Boxcar By: Sue Eckhoff, Grundy County Heritage Museum
September 21, 2012
“Forty and Eight” draws its origin from World War I when the United States had young American troops in France to fight “The War to End All Wars”. About the first thing they ran into was the boxcar. Because of the narrow gauge railroads of France, the box cars only carried a little more than half the capacity of American box cars, and these were used to transport the soldiers to and from the fighting fronts. The box cars were only 20.5 long and 8.5 feet wide, and each carried either 40 men or 8 horses. They gained the name Forty and Eight for that reason. By World War II, the forty and eight boxcars had changed little. They still transported supplies to the front, but unfortunately they also returned to Germany with new cargoes. Many Allied prisoners of war rode to German POW camps in these boxcars, sometimes with as many as 90 men forced into each boxcar. Millions of Holocaust victims were herded into similar boxcars on their way to concentration camps. In 1945, many American troops were transported from Germany to France for return to the United States in a rough-riding 40 and 8. Veteran’s memories of travel in these rickety unheated cars are pretty vivid, and included having to build fires inside to keep warm on the long slow trips in November and December. Although the memories of the boxcars were not always fond, the cars gave their name to a fraternity formed after the first world war within the American Legion, the Forty and Eight. The 40 and 8 Organization was formed in 1920 by members of the American Legion as an honor society and is still active today. Membership is by invitation for members of the American Legion who have shown exemplary service. The Forty and Eights title and symbol reflect the WW I boxcars. Each was stenciled with a “40/8”, denoting its capacity, either 40 men or 8 horses. “40/8” became a light hearted symbol of the deeper service, sacrifice, and unspoken horrors of war.
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