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French "Forty and Eight" Railroad Car

DAYTON, Ohio -- "Forty and Eight" boxcar on display in the World War II Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

DAYTON, Ohio -- "Forty and Eight" boxcar on display in the World War II Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

DAYTON, Ohio -- "Forty and Eight" boxcar on display in the World War II Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

DAYTON, Ohio -- "Forty and Eight" boxcar on display in the World War II Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

DAYTON, Ohio -- "Forty and Eight" boxcar on display in the World War II Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

DAYTON, Ohio -- "Forty and Eight" boxcar on display in the World War II Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

DAYTON, Ohio -- "Forty and Eight" boxcar on display in the World War II Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

DAYTON, Ohio -- "Forty and Eight" boxcar on display in the World War II Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

By the end of the 19th century, railroads made it possible to transport people and goods quickly over long distances, and this transportation revolution soon affected military operations. Armies became reliant upon railroads for supplies, and during World War I, men and supplies flowed to the trenches in railroad cars. A familiar sight to American "Doughboys" was the French "forty and eight" railroad cars, which carried them to the front. These cars received their names because they could carry 40 men or eight horses, as was clearly painted on each boxcar.

During World War II, the little-changed "forty and eight" boxcars still transported supplies and troops to the front, but 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. Boxcars such as the one on display carried 168 Allied POWs from Paris to the Buchenwald concentration camp in August 1944. Many POWs endured harsh conditions during their trips to POW camps, which sometimes included attacks from Allied aircraft. 

Constructed in France in 1943, this "forty and eight" railroad car operated in occupied France during WWII, and it most likely transported human cargoes from France to Germany. Withdrawn from service in the 1980s, the French Railroad Company (SNCF) used this railcar to store equipment at a railroad maintenance facility in Dijon, France. SNCF personnel painstakingly restored it to a near-original condition in honor of those American POWs transferred by "forty and eights." Assisted by the French military, the U.S. Air Force airlifted the 13-ton railcar from Istres Air Base, France, to the museum in late July 2001.

Click here to return to the WWII Prisoners of War Overview.

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