The North Platte Canteen
August 15, 2011
For years, I had an unread book in my bookcase titled, “Once Upon A Town,” written by author Bob Greene. The book was given to my late mother-in-law as a gift. I do not remember how I acquired it, but I was aware of the fact that the story was about the North Platte Canteen in Nebraska. I knew that she had volunteered there occasionally during World War II when her husband was overseas fighting.
Recently, I took the time to read the book from cover to cover. In doing so, I discovered a truly remarkable part of American history. Just out of curiosity, I asked several people from Kansas and Colorado what they knew about the North Platte Canteen. I never found one who was familiar with it. However, when I summarized the role it played during the war, they seemed very impressed.
Records show that volunteers from North Platte and 125 small, surrounding communities served an astounding 6 million soldiers. They were traveling through the Midwest on troop trains and got to experience a brief, 10-minute stop (or if they were lucky a few minutes longer) at the canteen. They were on their way to combat or returning from it. For many of them, it was a short, but very memorable stop. When asked to recall it decades later, they often broken down, overcome by emotion.
It all began quite by accident. Word spread that the Company D of the Nebraska National Guard would be coming through on a troop train. Relatives and sweethearts gathered at the depot and waited anxiously for them. When the soldiers arrived, they were from Company D of the Kansas National Guard. At first, the group of citizens was disappointed; but then they handed out the gifts that they had brought for their loved ones. The soldiers were very appreciative.
This ignited a spark in Rae Wilson, a young drugstore clerk, who had been at the depot to meet her brother. He was the captain of the Company D. She soon inspired others to join together and form a canteen. From Christmas Day, 1941 to April 1, 1946, every troop train that stopped in North Platte was greeted with plenty of smiles and well wishes by the volunteers. Platform workers directed the military personnel into the canteen. For those wounded and unable to come inside, they boarded the train and distributed fruit, candy bars, matches, etc. to them.
Since their stop was so short, the soldiers ran into the canteen for a “taste of home.” The Union Pacific Railroad supported the volunteers’ efforts by allowing them to use the large dining room in the depot. The uniformed men and women were literally showered with homemade food. There were sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, fried chicken, birthday cakes, plus much more to choose from. They also had coffee, iced tea or glass bottles of milk for them to drink. No soldier went away hungry.
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If a serviceman or woman needed a letter sent, a volunteer accepted the addressed envelope and assured him (her) that a stamp would be placed on it and mailed. There was even a piano in the corner of the canteen that sometimes got played and dancing just naturally followed. Magazines and decks of cards were also handed out. The organized group made every minute count – all at no expense to the military personnel. While they were boosting the morale of the soldiers, railroad workers were busy servicing the steam locomotive. All too quickly, the uniformed people knew the time had arrived, and they must run back out to catch the train before it left.
The canteen was a cooperative effort between housewives, girls, boys, farmers, ranchers and businessmen. There was plenty for everyone to do. The food had to be prepared and served, dishes washed and floors swept. The train depot was a busy place daily from 5 a.m. until the last troop train pulled out at night. Sometimes as many as 20 trains carrying around 8,000 people came through in a single day. When the canteen leaders were informed that a troop train would be arriving, they passed the following message onto the other volunteers, “The coffee pot’s on.” They then knew it was time to meet another trainload of U.S. soldiers.
A lot of the food that was served in the large lunchroom was raised on area farms. Some of it had to be bought from the store. Since the government had issued ration books at this time, those generously supporting the canteen were sharing a portion of what they had been allotted. Organizations and individuals found ways to raise the necessary money to keep the depot doors open. The troop trains kept coming and workers continued giving at the unique canteen in North Platte for as long as they were needed. What a wonderful story!
Their sacrifice did not go unnoticed by the military personnel, who were privileged to stop in North Platte. It was a very memorable 10 minutes for them. They did not forget the beautiful support they’d received there. Letters were delivered to the community, thanking them for their service. Long after the soldiers arrived overseas, they were still talking about the North Platte Canteen that had gone way beyond the “call of duty.”