For young Americans of the World War II generation, the road to war usually began with a ride on a train. Sooner or later, whether heading to a training facility, or later when undertaking that thoughtful, uncertain journey to embarkation points on the east and west coasts and eventually the battle fields of Europe, the Islands of the Pacific, or the sea routes between, a steam-belching locomotive and a string of bare-bone passenger cars would become a never-to-be-forgotten interlude.
For the most part, these passengers would be made up of boys who had never even been away from home before, probably in their late teens and only recently acquainted with a shaving brush and razor. Almost every experience ahead of them would be a “first”, including the sense of loneliness and disconnect they would feel, even in the presence of surrounding companions in uniforms that didn’t fit too well and, who probably felt the same way. It was culture-shock times ten.
Less than two weeks after Pearl Harbor, the citizens of North Platte Nebraska got word that some of their own boys in Company D of the Nebraska National Guard would be coming through town on the tracks of the Union Pacific which ran right through downtown, on the south side of Front Street. Residents decided to meet the train and hand their sons refreshments and good wishes. The gathering was large, but it turned out to be a mistake: the passengers were Company D, but from the Kansas National Guard. The following day 26-year-old Rae Wilson a local store clerk wrote a letter to the editor of The Daily Bulletin suggesting that this effort had been so satisfying for both the givers and receivers that it shouldn’t end. “I say get back of our sons and other mothers’ sons 100 percent. Let’s do something and do it in a hurry! We can help this way when we can’t help any other way.”
That was the beginning of the “North Platte Canteen” where volunteers would meet every such train, with donuts, fruit, coffee, treats and warm “best wishes” for the boys in uniform coming through their remote corner of Nebraska prairie country. To begin with, it was two or three trains a day, but that soon increased to an average of 23, carrying from 3,000 to 5,000 troops each day. (By war’s end, it would reach 8,000 per day, with the canteen manned and supplied from 5:00 am in the morning to the last train of the night.)
In those days the population of North Platte numbered only 12,000, but somehow they managed – with some volunteers from other nearby communities – to operate their canteen throughout the war years serving more than six million servicemen on passing trains. And they did this without any official outside funding, unless you count the five dollar bill President Franklin Roosevelt sent them to show his support.
Among the thousands of side stories which could be told to illustrate the sheer logistics behind what was accomplished by this handful of dedicated Americans, consider the matter of coffee cups alone. This was in an era before paper plates and plastic cups. The train stops were limited to ten minutes, so the cups of hot coffee and cocoa were carried aboard by the departing G.I.s. The empty cups were dropped off at the next “whistle stop” to be returned to North Platte on a following train. No cup was ever lost from the vital circulating inventory!
If I had to explain to a visitor from abroad how it was that the United States was victorious in WW II to stand as a land of exceptionalism in so many ways, I would point to the Spirit of America which lived in every community of that era, and which was evidenced by the unmitigated patriotism of the people of North Platte. Theirs’ is – as one writer put it – “a love story between a country and its sons”.
Whether peeling hard-boiled eggs by the thousand, making up baskets of fruit, plying trays of hand-made sandwiches, or acting as “platform greeters”, mothers and daughters (with the behind-the-scene help of a lot of husbands and Dads) from 120 communities made sure that no troop train ever went “unmet” during their “whistle stop” in North Platte, Nebraska in the 1940s.
Photo Courtesy of Union Pacific
Al Cooper who writes the “Home Country” column crossed the continent by rail himself six times on wartime assignments in 1950-51, and has a special fondness for the porters on those trains who went out of their way for boys in uniform. (An article perhaps for another day.)
NOTE: For a heart-warming and in-depth look at North Platte’s “love story”, read Bob Greene’s “Once Upon a Town”