This canteen is a great example of how Americans came together during World War II to give our GI’s touch of home before heading off to war.
Love and food for all.
A great nation is defined by its ability to pull together in times of need, by the willingness of the people to rally in support of those who put their own lives on the line, whether in war or a natural disaster. The women of North Platte, Nebraska, and many other towns in the area, stood as a shining beacon of that greatness during World War II.
On December 17, 1941, shortly after the nation’s entry into the war, a group of locals went to the North Platte railroad station with gifts and food. They had heard news that the 134th Infantry Regiment of the Nebraska Army National Guard would be travelling through toward an unknown destination. Those present had friends, husbands, brothers and sons in the regiment and they wanted to give them one last gift before they shipped off to the war.
The train was supposed to arrive at 11 a.m., but only showed up at 4:30 in the afternoon. Even then the soldiers onboard weren’t the ones expected. Rather than Nebraskans, the boys on the train were from Kansas. After a few moments of confusion, the locals decided they weren’t going to take their food home. These men, too, were somebody’s sons and they too deserved a show of love and support on their way to the war.
26-year-old Rae Wilson worked at a local drugstore and went to the station in hopes of seeing her brother. She was so moved by what transpired that she wrote a letter to The Daily Bulletin the next day, suggesting that North Platte should extend the same welcome to all soldiers traveling through. The idea was taken enthusiastically up by area residents, leading to the creation of the Canteen.
The project was fully supported by volunteers and donations, except for a single 5-dollar bill sent by President Roosevelt. The baskets of food were originally prepared at a hotel across the street and passed to soldiers through the doors and windows of trains. However, the president of Union Pacific, who was also a local resident, soon allowed the initiative to use the depot’s vacant lunchroom. 55,000 volunteers from 125 communities, some as far as 200 miles away, chipped in. Vouchers were saved up and used to buy ingredients like sugar, butter and coffee. Gas vouchers were pooled so farmers could take their produce or fried chicken to the canteen. Shortages forced people to get creative: duck and turkey eggs were substituted for chicken eggs and molasses was used in lieu of sugar and syrup for popcorn balls.
With war industry kicking in, trains started arriving at a rate of 24 or more a day and the Canteen volunteers worked in groups from 5 a.m. till past midnight. Soldiers had 10 minutes to get off the train and rush into the canteen, where they’d be plied with pheasant, turkey and beef salad sandwiches, deviled eggs, cookies, doughnuts, coffee and cigarettes. Soldiers who happened to have their birthdays were given angel food cakes.
Meanwhile, other volunteers helped hurried soldiers write quick letters, send telegrams and place long-distance phone calls to their families. “Platform girls,” teenagers 16 or older, stayed at the platform and gave popcorn balls and other snacks to soldiers who couldn’t get off their train. Many of them wrote their names and addresses on the paper the balls were in so a lonely soldier could write them letters from abroad. The seeds of at least two marriages were planted this way.
In one particular month of 1945, the following food items were recorded:
30,679 hard-boiled eggs
6,939 cup, loaf and birthday cakes
2,845 pounds of sandwich meat
The Canteen served over 6 million service personnel during the war. For many, who had never traveled before, the quick stop was an unexpected relief on a tense, fearful voyage towards danger. Uncountable soldiers in North Africa, Italy, France or the Pacific would take a moment during a lull in battle to fondly reminisce with his comrades about the food they were served in North Platte.
The Canteen’s activities also meant a lot to Nebraskans, though in a different way. Between the First World War and World War II, the rural Midwest was generally considered an isolated rustic area with no interest in affairs of the rest of the nation. The Canteen, however, along with other acts of war support such as a Nebraska-wide scrap metal drive, proved the Midwest’s patriotism and generosity, helping create what became the Heartland’s cultural identity in the 1950s.
After the war, the North Platte Canteen continued to serve soldiers on the way home for another half a year, until it was closed down on April 1, 1946. The following day the last of the volunteers were clearing out the depot a final time, when a train full of returning soldiers pulled into station. The locals had nothing but their own coffee but there was no doubt in their minds about what to do: they shared it with the boys in uniform.