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The North Platte Canteen (also known as the Service Men’s Canteen in the Union Pacific Railroad station at North Platte) was a railroad stop manned by local citizens of North Platte, Nebraska, United States that operated from Christmas Day 1941 to April 1, 1946. Its purpose was to provide refreshments and hospitality to soldiers who were traveling through the area on the way to war during their ten to fifteen minute stopovers. It was located along the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad.
The history of the canteen can first be traced back to December 17, 1941. Just ten days after the Attack on Pearl Harbor, men of the 134th Infantry Regiment of the Nebraska Army National Guard were on their way from Camp Joseph T. Robinson near Little Rock, Arkansas to an unknown destination. Rumor had it that the train would arrive at 11, but by noon it hadn't shown up. After another false alarm, the train finally rolled in around 4:30. By this time, at least five hundred relatives and friends of local servicemen showed up at the depot.
Eventually the train arrived and the crowd cheered, but they weren't members of the 134th. The crowd gave the soldiers the gifts and food that was originally meant for their own sons and wished them off.
The reason that the train stopped in North Platte was because the town was a designated tender point for steam trains. Stopping the train allowed for the train crews to relubricate the wheels, top off the water levels in the tanks, and other things for maintenance of the locomotive. This practice continued until the Union Pacific Railroad switched to diesel locomotives.
Of the group of people that were originally at the depot on the seventeenth, twenty-six-year-old Rae Wilson, a drugstore sales girl witnessed the hospitality. Her brother supposedly was to be on the troop train as a company commander. As she walked away from the train that evening, she had an idea to meet all the trains that went through North Platte and give the soldiers the same type of sendoff. The next day she suggested that the meeting of soldiers become a permanent occurrence. She even wrote a letter to The Daily Bulletin:
Editor, The Daily Bulletin:
- I don't know just how many people went to meet the trains when the troops went thru our city Wednesday, but those who didn't should have.
- To see the spirits and the high morale among those soldiers should certainly put some of us on our feet and make us realize we are really at war. We should help keep this soldiers morale at its highest peak. We can do our part.
- During World War I the army and navy mothers, or should I say the war mothers, had canteens at our own depot. Why can't we, the people of North Platte and other towns surrounding our community, start a fund and open a Canteen now? I would be more than willing to give my time without charge and run this canteen.
- We who met this troop train which arrived about 5 o'clock were expecting Nebraska boys. Naturally we had candy, cigarettes, etc., but we very willingly gave these 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.
The next day she began work on the canteen. Calls to merchants came with requests for cigarettes and tobacco, while housewives were asked to contribute cake and cookies, with attempts to get the younger women to hand out the gifts and keep conversation up with the soldiers. The first meeting was held on December 22 for the canteen committee. Three days later, on Christmas day, the next train pulled into the city, surprising the young men who were expecting just another boring stop. At first, the women worked out of the nearby Cody Hotel. They were later allowed to move into a shack by the side of the tracks by the railroad company when a woman became friendly with the president of the Union Pacific. Eventually the movement grew and people from multiple organizations in surrounding communities began to contribute.
After a while, the women began to serve a thousand men a day, with those who were celebrating a birthday getting their own cake and a singing of "Happy Birthday". Once a serviceman lied about his birthday but gave his cake to a boy suffering from polio after becoming grief-stricken.
The goodness of random strangers helped to keep up the canteen. Donations include a coffee importer who sent a twenty five pound can of coffee, a woman who consumed food and later sent a check for two hundred dollars, and others. Even a fall scrap drive donated two thirds of its income to the canteen. Even the priest of the local Roman Catholic church, after donating twelve turkeys and hearing that they were consumed, personally transported his turkey over to the canteen. Average expenses for the canteen averaged about two hundred and twenty five dollars a week.
Over one hundred and twenty five communities donated their time to work at the canteen. Some people travelled as far as two hundred miles to take turns on regularly appointed days. The groups also took responsibility in supplying food for the day. If a group was too small, multiple ones would band together and help fulfill the daily requirements. Benefit dances, pie socials, and other activities were held to also help raise money for the canteen. Even the youth contributed to the workload, cleaning floors and raising money in all ways possible to support the troops. One girl remembers writing their addresses onto the packaging of popcorn balls so that the troops would have someone to write to. One twelve-year-old boy even sold his pets, toys, and the shirt off his back and donated the money to the cause. Even the railroad got into the giving by donating a dishwasher and coffee urns.
The women at the canteen went to great lengths for the servicemen. Those who worked at the desk would write cards and letters as well as send telegrams for servicemen who wouldn't otherwise have time to do so. They even wired for flowers and sent gifts on special occasions. When a service member would call home and confuse the operator because of the hurry that they were in, a woman would help step in and clear up the confusion.
Women also were working on the platform, distributing the basics of fruit, matches, and candy bars for those who were unable to go inside. One of their most important jobs were to answer questions, including those surrounding the canteen and the basics of the North Platte and Nebraska. Another important job was to tend to those on the hospital trains who were unable to enter the building. The men on the trains were naturally treated the same as those who went inside. Magazines, religious literature, and decks of cards were also distributed to the servicemen on the trains. If they were unable to disembark from the cars, women would walk up and down the aisles distributing goods or hand up materials from the ground to the windows.
At the end of the war, the canteen continued to operate as men were returning home. Eventually it closed on April 1, 1946 having served over six million servicemen and women. Sixteen trains were scheduled on the final day and regular Monday workers were in charge along with Lutheran Church women from North Platte, and Gothenburg, Nebraska. They would work from five in the morning until midnight, as they wouldn't know when the troop trains would come through as it was secret. Food was also donated during a time of rationing so that the soldiers could experience a taste of home of sorts.
Finances raised over the four and a half years totalled $137,884.72. In 1942, they raised $10,429.83. The following year, they more than doubled that figure, raising $23,417.45. The year after that almost doubled the previous year's figure and more than quadrupling 1942's figure with $42,931.20. The final year of operation included $51,565.35.
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