The Kid in Upper 4 had a profound impact on travelers inconvenienced by the crowded, unreliable trains that carried passengers during World War II.
He was an 18-year-old soldier and, unlike civilian passengers, he had a place to sleep — in Upper Berth 4. He was on his way to a ship that would take him to a faraway battlefield.
Everyone talked about him, including radio stars. He was made into a song and a movie short. People pinned his story to thousands of bulletin boards, read it from pulpits, published it in prisons and told it in leading magazines and newspapers.
The Kid in Upper 4 wasn’t a real person. He came from the imagination of a 29-year-old copywriter named Nelson Metcalf.
During World War II, railroads had to move enormous amounts of troops and war materiel, while transporting their normal load of passengers and freight. They were often late, always crowded and without amenities as dining cars and Pullman cars went to other uses.
“Railroaders were working on man-killing schedules — and still their offices were besieged by angry passengers,” wrote Metcalf.
Boys lined up to enlist, and the train stations were crowded with families sending them off. and the family always went with the member of their family who was going in the service and that railroad station was wall to wall people, people crying, people saying good bye to their…you know, it was a very sad time and that’s when you realized…
The Horrors of Train Travel
Roberta Ellison was attending Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vt., during the war. Trips to visit her family in Connecticut were discouraged. During the few times she got permission to go home, she remembered, the trains,
…were always packed with servicemen. We girls would sit on our suitcases in the aisles. The guys had the seats and they also had the luggage racks, and many of them slept in the luggage racks. And sometimes you’d have a tired serviceman slumped over on your shoulder. We would all talk and move around. The guys were very courteous. They were often too tired to do a lot of visiting.
For a young mother with a baby, train travel was a harrowing ordeal. Marie Boucher took her infant daughter on a five-day train trip from New Haven to San Diego to be with her serviceman husband.
The trains were so full of servicemen, servicemen and families like us, going back … We didn’t have any sleeping arrangements, we slept in the same seats that we sat in all day and would get up every once in a while when the train would pull into the station so we could stretch our legs a little bit and get some fresh air. Food was not very plentiful…. Babies would be crying all night and children would be running up and down the aisles.
The Kid in Upper 4
Complaints poured into the headquarters of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. So the railroad asked its Boston advertising agency to explain why things were so bad.
Metcalf first tried an ad that described the amount of war freight the trains were moving. It was called “Right of Way for Fighting Might.”
People still complained.
Then Metcalf wrote an ad called “Thunder along the Lines,” which told the story of the hell the railroads were going through. Three weeks after the ad ran, the typographer who set the ad took the train to Boston. He met Metcalf soon after he arrived, and praised the “Thunder” ad — then complained about the train service.
Metcalf vowed to write an ad that would make everybody who read it feel ashamed to complain about the trains.
He came up with the following classic:
It is 3:42 a.m. on a troop train.
Men wrapped in blankets are breathing heavily.
Two in every lower berth. One in every upper.
This is no ordinary trip. It may be their last in the U.S.A. till the end of the war. Tomorrow they will be on the high seas.
One is wide awake … listening … staring into the blackness.
It is the kid in Upper 4.
Tonight, he knows, he is leaving behind a lot of little things – and big ones.
The taste of hamburgers and pop … the feel of driving a roadster over a six-lane highway … a dog named Shucks, or Spot, or Barnacle Bill.
The pretty girl who writes so often … that gray-haired man, so proud and awkward at the station … the mother who knit the socks he’ll wear soon.
Tonight he’s thinking them over.
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.
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 enroute – it is so he may have a seat.
If there is no berth for you – it is so that he may sleep.
And finally, Metcalf concluded:
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.
It’s been called “the most famous single advertisement of the war and one of the most effective of all time.” It’s been included in a list of the 100 best advertisements of all time – and one of 20 “that shook the world.”
Nelson C. Metcalf, Jr., had plenty of job offers to choose from, but he waited until after the war. He walked into McCann-Erickson cold and asked for a job, saying he wanted more variety and a better chance to learn.
This story was updated in 2022.
Images: Color images from the film Lifeline of the Nation.