The North Platte Canteen
Imagine that it’s between 1942 and 1945, and you have enlisted in one of the armed forces – Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Army Air Corps, Coast Guard. You are traveling cross country on a troop train, perhaps headed to boot camp – maybe never been away from home before. Since you boarded, you have been sleeping in your seat, had no showers, and had only K-rations to eat. As you approach North Platte (pop. 12,000) in west central Nebraska, you are told that at the next stop, you’re not only allowed to get off for 10-15 minutes, but encouraged to do so while the train takes on water and fuel. You see the sign CANTEEN above the depot entrance as the train approaches the station.
When you enter the Canteen, you see ladies serving at tables crammed with food – (from among) sandwiches, apples, small bottles of cold milk, coffee, cakes & pies, cookies & donuts, hard boiled eggs, sometimes even fried chicken. Women of all ages are serving, and the youngest ones are carrying baskets of cigarettes and candies out on the railway platform. One inside table has complimentary magazines (“Free to Service Men”) – Life, Look, Liberty, Saturday Evening Post, Readers Digest, comics, movie magazines.
You eat as much as you can in the allotted ten minutes – you are allowed take your coffee or milk on the train, as the cups and bottles will be collected by the conductor and returned to the Canteen. Before you leave, though, one of the ladies gives you a hug, and wishes you well on wherever your journey may take you.
What was the motivation of the North Platte population? (Of the hundreds of small towns along the troop trains’ route, this was the only one we know of to perform this service.) Shortly after Pearl Harbor, as Uncle Sam was entering the war, folks in North Platte heard a rumor that Nebraska National Guard’s Company D would be coming through North Platte on a west-headed troop train. Friends and family of the men, to the tune of 500 citizens, had come to the station with gifts for “the boys.”
As it turned out, it was the Kansas National Guard’s Company D, not Nebraska’s. After an uncomfortable minute or so, one young woman, Rae Wilson, said essentially – “Well, I’m not taking my cookies home,” and offered them through the window to the Kansas boys. This same woman then wrote a moving letter to the editor of the The Daily Bulletin, which included these lines:
“We who met this troop train… were expecting Nebraska boys. Naturally we had candy, cigarettes, etc., but we very willingly gave those things to the Kansas boys… Smiles, tears and laughter followed. Appreciation showed on over 300 faces. An officer told me it was the first time anyone had met their train and that North Platte had helped the boys keep up their spirits.
I say get back of our sons and other mothers’ sons 100 per cent. Let’s do something and do it in a hurry! We can help this way when we can’t help any other way. “
Rae Wilson (who became the Founder of the Canteen)
Bob Greene writes in his book Once Upon a Town, “Most of the older women who worked in the Canteen had sons in the war. It was like a healing thing for them to work there.” (This book is also the source of Rae Wilson’s letter above.)
So it started as a small endeavor: fruit and sandwiches, cookies and cakes. Ultimately, 125 surrounding communities participated, and a total of 55,000 (mostly) women. They met every train for more than four years, sometimes as many as 32 trains a day. On, i.e., a hospital train where the men could not disembark, the women boarded the train with baskets of sandwiches, apples, milk. The Canteen was staffed by volunteers who gave their own rations for the baking ingredients. It probably helped that these were rural farming communities, where things like eggs, flour, even pheasant (in season, mostly) for sandwiches were sometimes readily available.
For more details, see this link for a fascinating six-minute recap . In the end, it is estimated that six million service men and women came through that Canteen.
When have you been the recipient of unexpected hospitality?