The North Platte Canteen Story

The following article appeared in the North Platte Telegraph Monday, September 17, 1973 and is reproduced here with their permission.

To 6 million troops, Canteen was a few fleeting moments of 'home'

There was hope, then disappointment, then genuine pleasure all in the space of a few hours on Dec. 17, 1941 in the hearts of hundreds of mothers, friends and sweethearts of the men of Nebraska’s 134 Infantry.

It all came about as a result of the “grapevine”. Early the morning of Dec. 17 the story got around that a troop train, taking soldiers of the 134th from Camp Robinson to an unknown destination, would pass through North Platte about 11 a.m.

A small group gathered at the Union Pacific station and waited. Shortly after noon, a train pulled in, but it wasn't that of the 134th Infantry. Word passed that the boys would surely arrive at 3 p.m. A larger crowd had gathered at this time, only to hear that a troop train would not arrive in North Platte until 4:30 p.m.

By this time, the grapevine had run its course and no less than 500 relatives and friends of local men in the service huddled together at the depot. Baskets of fruit, cartons of cigarettes, Christmas gifts and fruit cakes were on hand everywhere.

Boys are welcomed

At last the train arrived. A whoop of joy arose from the throng as open windows in the train revealed soldiers. Only they weren't members of the 134th. But the sight of the smiling lads, their friendly spirits and their joy at seeing such a reception was too much for the crowd. They gathered around the boys, burdened them down with the gifts they had brought for their own sons, and wished them well.

As the train left, the boys waved gaily good-bye, thumbs were sticking up out of open windows and mothers were dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs. Some weren't bothering about the hankies, just crying and not caring who saw them.

In the happy group that jammed the depot, no one was more thrilled than a pretty 26-year-old Rae Wilson, a drugstore sales girl whose brother commanded one of the companies supposedly on the troop train.

An institution is born

As Rae Wilson walked home, an idea began to take shape: Why not meet all the trains going through North Platte and give other boys the same sort of send-off?

The next day, following the visit of the troop train, Miss Wilson suggested that a canteen be opened to make the trips of soldiers through the city more entertaining. She offered her services without charge. Her public-spirited and generous offer was contained in the following communication to The Daily Bulletin:

Rae Wilson Letter

That day she took time off from her job and got busy. She called practically everyone in town, asking the merchants for candy, magazines, tobacco and anything else they would give; lining up the housewives to contribute cakes and cookies; and getting the younger women to promise to be on hand at the station to dish up coffee and conversation for the boys.

Christmas surprise

Eight days later, on Christmas, when another troop train pulled in at North Platte, the boys glumly anticipating an uneventful holiday, were greeted by a crowd of smiling young women and a canteen.

First they worked out of the Cody Hotel. Later, railroaders arranged to let them use a little shack beside the tracks, which saved many steps.

One day Miss Wilson collared William M. Jeffers, president of the Union Pacific Railroad, and a few days later Jeffers ordered the large dining room in the depot turned over to the canteen.

From then on, the movement began to grow. More and more clubs and organizations began to help serve and to contribute. Soon, out-of-town communities were sharing in what became the greatest example of cooperation and faithfulness to come out of the Second World War.

With a total of $137,884.72 in cash contributed to the North Platte Canteen, the following figures indicate the growth of interest and support of the servicemen's mecca:

1942 - $10,429.83
1943 - $23,417.45
1944 - $42,931.20
1945 - $51,565.35
Sometimes the women served as many as 23 trains a day, carrying as high as 8,000 servicemen and women.

Money, donations

Serving a thousand men a day was a routine chore for the women at the canteen. Any service man or woman who advised canteen officials it was his or her birthday received a beautiful birthday cake as the women sang “Happy Birthday”. Once, canteen workers reported, a soldier lied about his birthday. A few miles out of North Platte he became conscious stricken and wrote to say he had given the cake to a little boy on the train who was suffering from polio.

One day a coffee importer inspected the canteen and when he reached home he sent a 25 pound can of coffee. A New York woman watched as the service men consumed food at the canteen and, when she reached home, mailed a check for $200. An Oregon man sent a check for $50. Everyday some cash was received in the mail which would make the canteen workers happy because it took $225 to purchase supplies for an average week.

Two-thirds of the money derived from sale of scrap collected in a fall scrap drive was given to the canteen.

Father Patrick McDaid, pastor of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, personally gave 12 turkeys, 60 pies, 12 cans of cranberries and one hundred candy bars for distribution on one Thanksgiving day. Just as his housekeeper placed his own Thanksgiving turkey before him in his parish house on Thanksgiving afternoon he received a call from the canteen that the 12 turkeys had been consumed so Father McDaid had the bird placed back in the cook pan and he hurriedly carried it over to the canteen.

North Platte was not alone in this work. There were 125 communities represented in canteen work. Some as far away as 200 miles took turns serving at the canteen regularly on appointed days. These groups assumed the responsibility of supplying the food for that day. When one group or club was too small to donate and entire day's supply, several groups went together to jointly meet the requirements.

Everybody helps

Nor were the women folk of these 125 communities alone in this cooperative enterprise on behalf of the military personnel of this nation. Men's organizations often contributed a day’s supply and prepared and served it themselves. Youth groups worked to raise cash, helped prepare and serve food, washed dishes and swept floors at the canteen.

Young boys and girls, too young to do all the work, staged drives to collect magazines, raise cash or worked in the kitchen of the canteen.

One 12-year-old boy distinguished himself by selling his pets, toys and even the shirt off his back, donating the money to the North Platte Canteen.

Benefit dances and pie socials and other activities were held.

One firm contributed a walk-in ice box, the railroad gave coffee urns and a dishwasher.

Everyone in each of these 125 communities, men, women, and children alike, gave in some way of their time, effort, money and food to support the North Platte Canteen.

The result? An institution and a place that will forever remain in the hearts and the memories of several million men and women. No commendation made by high-ranking military officials or governmental or railroad representatives could be as high a tribute.

Needles and thread

Small acts of kindness and helpfulness endeared the North Platte Canteen to millions of servicemen as much as did the contributions of food.

Women working at the desk wrote all types of cards and letters for servicemen who had no time to do so or sent all kinds of telegrams for those who had too short a time in North Platte to send them themselves.

Birthday and anniversary greetings were mailed or wired and sometimes the women were requested to wire flowers for special occasions. They mailed packages back home to parents, husbands, wives, sweethearts and children of the servicemen and women. Often a member of the armed forces would want to place a long distance call, but would be so excited or in such a hurry that he did a fine job of bungling it or confusing the operator. Here, the Canteen women took over and got the call through.

The women of the Canteen made every effort to locate someone in or around North Platte when a friend in the armed forces came through and wanted to talk with them in the short 10 minute lay-over in North Platte. When it was impossible to make contact, the canteen women took a message and made sure it was delivered.

More personal services were rendered when a boy came into the Canteen with a headache, a cold, something in his eyes, a toothache, infection or a burn and was given first aid treatment for these minor injuries enabling him to continue his travels in a greater degree of comfort.

It seemed that none of those great, strapping, uniformed youths knew how to handle a needle and thread. Many hours were accumulated by the canteen workers who sewed on buttons or mended tears and rips in clothing.

Platform workers

The women who worked on the platform, too, had a big job, directing the boys to the Canteen and distributing fruit, matches and candy bars to those who were unable to go inside the canteen. One of their biggest jobs, however, was answering thousands of questions. They told many thousands of times the story of the North Platte Canteen. They became experts on the history, geography, climate and other phases of North Platte and Nebraska. They answered questions on population, agriculture, the distance and time from North Platte to other points or from coast to coast.

One of the platform workers main functions was to serve the wounded men on hospital trains as they could not enter the canteen. These boys, as well as those who went inside, received birthday cakes on their anniversaries.

Behind the magazine racks at the Canteen were women who helped the servicemen of every race, creed and denomination select religious literature of their choice. Tons of entertaining magazines and thousands of decks of cards were distributed to while away the weary hours aboard the trains.

These and many more small personal services were things that made many boys speak of the North Platte Canteen as a “home away from home”, despite the fact they stopped in North Platte for a brief 10 or 15 minutes.

First Canteen officers

The first officers of the Canteen selected in a meeting at the Chamber of Commerce office on Dec. 22, 1941 were: Rae Wilson, chairman; Executive committee, Mrs. Ted Haspel, Mrs. Mike Loncar, Mrs. Harold Langford, and Mrs. A. Herzog; Mrs. York Hinman, Sr., treasurer; and Mis Edwina Barraclaugh, secretary.

When Rae Wilson moved to California for her health, Mrs. Adam Christ, wife of a Union Pacific engineer, took over as chairman.

Sixteen trains were scheduled to bring servicemen and women to the North Platte Canteen on its last day of operation on April 1, 1946 with the regular Monday workers in charge and the Lutheran Church women of Gothenburg and North Platte furnishing the food and serving the service personnel who stopped.

Holding office at the close of the Canteen were Ira Bare, member of the auditing committee; Mrs. Charles Hutchens, secretary; Mrs. Amiel Traub, platform chairman; Mrs. T. J. Neid, buyer; Mrs. Adam Christ, general chairman; Mrs. Russel Wyman, kitchen chairman; Miss Anna Kramph, A. J. Grabowski and R. L. Getty, members of the grievance committee.

Canteen disbanded

Having served more than six million members of the armed forces during its 54 months of operations, the sign of the world-famous Service Men’s Canteen in the Union Pacific Railroad station at North Platte was taken down on April 1, 1946 and the canteen doors locked.

Servicemen from all over the world wrote thousands of letter of thanks to the women operating the Canteen which was supported by North Platte Groups, by 125 Nebraska and Colorado communities and the Union Pacific Railroad.

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