“Don’t you know the war’s on,
Everything is rationed,
How ’bout that jive, keep me alive?” – Nat King Cole, If You Can’t Smile and Say Yes, 1945
Just 10 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941, the U.S. had begun mobilizing troops in preparation for a war that would test the limits of her spirit and the strength of her people. The little town of North Platte Nebraska served as a tending station for trains, a place where the water could be topped off, coal resupplied, and the wheels lubricated, altogether about a 10 minute stop and not much of a relief for the young soldiers on their long journey towards the unknown terrors of war. Yet, it would be in this town that many men would experience their last comforts of home, for many would never return, and for those who did, they would carry the memories of those 10 minutes for the rest of their life.
Cookies for the Nebraska 134th
Back in 1941 the U.S. Military did some pretty smart things, such as keeping secrets from civilians. The train schedules were not published to the public and so, when Rae Wilson, a 26 year old drugstore clerk, got “word” that her brother’s regiment from Nebraska would be stopping in North Platte, even for just 10 minutes, she rushed to get a few ladies together to meet the boys at the train depot with cookies and cakes. However, once the train arrived, no one from Nebraska could be found; it turned out to be a company from Kansas aboard the train. Rae is reported to have said, “Well, I know I am not going to take my cookies home,” and with smiles the ladies handed out their goodies to the Kansas company.
The impact of that simple act of kindness must have made an obvious impression on the soldiers, for it moved Rae to write a letter to the local paper:
“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.” – Rae Wilson, Dec. 18th, 1941
Within days the women of North Platte had organized a committee, elected Rae as the chairman, and began collecting cigarettes and tobacco and baking goods to take to the men and women that would stop in North Platte.
On Christmas day, December 25th, 1941, the North Platte Canteen official opened.
The North Platte Canteen
The enthusiasm by the town of North Platte and surrounding counties to help in the effort of feeding their soldiers grew to meet the demand of the military coming through the depot. Union Pacific President, William M. Jeffers, gave the ladies full run of the depot in order to set up a permanent station for the troops.
As the trains would come in at an unknown time, the Canteen had to be in operation 24×7. The ladies would serve up to 32 trains a day, sometimes totaling over 3,000 men and women in uniform, never charging a dime for the coffee, cakes, and meals.
Feeding an Army
The operations and financial burden for feeding an army every day of the year was supported entirely by the people and businesses of North Platte and the surrounding area. Even with the amount of round-the-clock effort required just to get the men fed and back on the train, the ladies showed an incredible amount of individual care for the troops.
Birthday cakes would be made ahead of time, and as the troops would arrive the ladies would ask if any of them had a birthday, handing out the cakes to any man or woman who said they did.
On Thanksgiving the Canteen would serve roasted turkey and pumpkin pie. Everything was raised locally and handmade.
On Christmas the school children did not exchange presents. Instead, they would wrap gifts for the troops and take them down to the depot.
To give you an idea of the amount of work that went into a typical days operations, one log entry tallies up a days worth of meals at the Canteen:
- 175 loaves of bread
- 100lbs of meat
- 45lbs of coffee
- 1000 pints of milk
- 40 quarts of cream
- Several quarts of peanut butter
- Several dozens hard-boiled eggs
Everything listed above, except for the coffee, was raised locally and prepared by mothers, sisters, and wives in their homes. This doesn’t include the numerous cakes and cookies that were a staple of the Canteen. That this was able to be accomplished at all is nothing short of astonishing, but the fact that it was done during a time of rationing just goes to show that frugality and charity can go hand in hand.
Rosalie Lippincott, when recalling her memories of the depot, says that the fried chicken that was often served was, “grown on a farm, killed, plucked, dressed, and fried” all in peoples homes.
All Without Government Assistance
I believe one of the most impressive aspects of the North Platte Canteen is that it was organized by caring communities and was executed with great success without any help from the U.S. Government. The North Platte Canteen never received a dime from the government, though, F.D.R. did send them $5 along with a note stating that he, “heard they were doing a fine job.”
In fact, the meals given to soldiers on this scale could not legally be done today due to government regulations.
This is one of the many qualities I love about the “Greatest Generation”: their can-do attitude and their sense of thrift. They never took to the notion that anyone owed them anything. All of those from that generation that I had the pleasure of knowing, brought those virtues into their years of plenty and did so with great pride.
A Girl Back Home to Write
The selflessness and love and care for “our own” during the earlier days of our nation never ceases to amaze me. There is one bit of history from the North Platte Canteen that stands out to me more than the rest and I think it is because it so clearly points to a simpler time. A time before the wide scale perversion and suspicion of one another we have today.
On more than one occasion, the ladies would make popcorn balls for the boys making their pit stop in North Platte, coming from towns they did not know off to an unknown destination. Inside these popcorn balls they would put the names, phone numbers, and addresses of the single ladies in town for the soldiers to correspond with! Can you imagine this today? There is something so good about that, and at least one marriage is known to have resulted from that trick! God bless those men and women for their good character.
From December 25th, 1941 to April 1st, 1946 the North Platte Canteen served over 6 million men and women in uniform. In that four and a half year period they raised nearly $138,000, cooked countless meals and birthday cakes, and blessed the lives of everyone who stopped in that depot. I am amazed at how a towns heart could remain so caring and involved over all of those years.
If you liked this story as much as I did and believe we need this kind of spirit, please share this story!
Resources for more information on the North Platte Canteen
Bob Greene’s Book: Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen
Rosalie Lippincott’s account: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XYHQRKUB62I