Railroad gave us a lasting ad from war

"The Kid in Upper 4" is still one of the most compelling World War II-era images. It ranks at the top with those that asked, "Is This Trip Necessary?" which later became a celebrated wartime quip of battlefield-bound troops.

"Zip Your Lip. Save A Ship," "V for Victory," "Rosie the Riveter," "Guard the Supply Lines. Railroad Men. Alert! Head Clear. Eyes Open. Mouth Shut," "Buy War Bonds," or the image of a sinking ship with the caption, "Someone Talked," are other wartime classics.


On the home front, they helped define and shape a national patriotic purpose and the morale that was needed to defeat the Axis powers and win the war.

In the early war years, the Office of War Information in Washington was headed by noted poet Archibald MacLeish.


He was in charge of the wartime propaganda effort which in artwork and film reminded Americans to save gas and rubber tires, discouraged unnecessary travel and supported scrap metal drives. The ads also discouraged Americans from spreading rumors or casually talking about wartime shipping or troop movements.

"The principal battleground of this war is not the South Pacific. It is American opinion," said MacLeish.

Just as the nation went to a war footing overnight after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, so did the advertising industry. It went from the mass selling of products to suddenly explaining why there were wartime shortages and rationing.

Most Americans and manufactured goods still traveled by railroad in those years, and the coming of the war meant that every piece of railroad equipment was needed to move thousands of troops and materials to ports bound for foreign battlefields.

The Office of Defense Transportation in Washington coordinated the effort among the railroads, yet it was inevitable that there would be staggering civilian consequences.

Special trains to racetracks and sporting events, for instance, were canceled as were extra trains to summer and winter resorts. Dining cars and Pullmans were eliminated and replaced on some trains by work-a-day commuter coaches. Anything that could roll or pull a train, did.

Trains were often late and passengers had to stand in the aisles. Pullman space or a meal in a dining car became a vanished pleasure, another casualty of the war. Railroads were naturally bombarded with complaints from unhappy passengers.

Nelson C. Metcalf Jr. was a young copywriter in a Boston advertising agency during the early war years. His agency's biggest account was the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, and like other railroads, it was not immune from public criticism of its service.


Asked to write a seven-column newspaper ad for the New Haven on "troop transportation," Metcalf created one of the most moving ads of World War II.

"I vowed to write an ad that would make everybody who read it feel ashamed to complain about train service," said Metcalf in "The 100 Greatest Advertisements," published in 1949.

"In 1942, Madison Avenue almost ignored the deep, gnawing worries on people's minds - the mounting casualty lists, the haunting fear of losing a friend or loved one in the war," wrote Metcalf in a 1991 Advertising Age article explaining the genesis of the ad.

"But an ad on troop transportation opened the door to pay tribute to the most important person in many people's lives ... the man who was going to war. His thoughts, his feelings. What it was like to be leaving the USA for war. And why railroads must put his interest first, even at the expense of civilian passengers," he wrote.

Metcalf's setting for "The Kid in Upper 4" is a darkened Pullman car late at night with a soldier awake in an upper berth, thinking about leaving home, his family and girlfriend, and where he's going. His headline came naturally, he said.

"There's a lump in his throat. And maybe - a tear fills his eye. It doesn't matter, kid. Nobody will see ... it's too dark," the ad reads.


"I liked the word 'kid' because it is people talk. And I was impressed by the youth of the inductees," he wrote.

"Opening with the night scene on a troop train, the copy almost wrote itself, in stream-of-consciousness style, describing the feelings of any American kid at 18 leaving the USA on his way to war. And ending it with a plea to passengers to accept discomforts willingly, for the sake of the serviceman. Never once did the copy mention the New Haven Railroad, except for the logo across the bottom of the ad," wrote Metcalf.

Its publication caused a sensation with the head of the Office of War Information, asking that it be run nationally. It appeared in Time and Newsweek and other major magazines. MGM even made a short film that was shown in theaters.

Metcalf recalled the phone ringing wildly in his office the day after publication.

"By Tuesday we began getting congratulations by phone, letters and telegrams from grateful parents, servicemen - even from other railroads. The hate mail stopped. Suddenly, the New Haven was out of the doghouse. It received thousands of requests for reprints."

The ad concludes memorably:


"A couple of thousand miles away, where he's going, they don't know him very well.

"But people all over the world are waiting, praying for him to come.

"And he will come, this kid in Upper 4. With new hope, peace and freedom for a tired bleeding world.

"Next time you are on the train, remember the kid in Upper 4.

"If you have to stand en route - it is so he may have a seat.

"If there is no berth for you - it is so that he may sleep.


"If you have to wait for a seat in the diner - it is so he ... and thousands like him ... may have a meal they won't forget in the days to come.

"For to treat him as our most honored guest is the least we can do to pay a mighty debt of gratitude."