Thirty-five years ago this month, I drove through the town of North Platte, Nebraska.
Traveling westbound on Interstate 80 en route to Stanley, Idaho, Kirk Knoblauch and I drove by North Platte. Two weeks later, we passed by the south-central Nebraska city of roughly 20,000 people, located where the North and South Platte rivers meet. The interstate highway is just south of the heart of downtown North Platte.
In fact, a few years after that first trip, I would pass by North Platte for a third time when Pam and I drove to Sheridan, Wyo. and the Bighorn Mountains. (Note: That's a long way to drive for a horseback ride at 12,000 feet.)
To the best of my recollection, the only time North Platte crossed my mind was when it was a dot on a road atlas.
Seventy-three years ago, however, North Platte was the home of the North Platte Canteen, located at the Union Pacific Railroad station.
This was a railroad stop "manned" by local citizens – mostly women and girls – of North Platte and several nearby Nebraska communities.
Wikipedia documents that the Canteen 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 10- to 15-minute stopovers. It was located along the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad."
The history of the canteen can be traced to Dec. 17, 1941 – just 10 days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The North Platte Canteen and its unbelievable history were unfamiliar to me until Father's Day of this year. Most years on Father's Day, I am the happy recipient of a few good books and the occasional barbecue grill and grilling utensils.
Among the reading material this year were books by John Grisham and Mike Royko – which I've completed – and the one I'm finishing this week, "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen," by Bob Greene.
This year, the state of Nebraska library system selected Greene's book as the reading choice for the 2014 One Book One Nebraska statewide reading program. (See http://onebook.nebraska.gov/2014/index.aspx.)
"In this nonfiction story, bestselling author and award-winning journalist Bob Greene goes out in search of 'the best America there ever was' and finds it in a small Nebraska town few people pass through today – a town where Greene discovers the echoes of a love story between a country and its sons," the onebook.nebraska.gov site writes.
"During World War II, American soldiers from every city and walk of life rolled through North Platte on troop trains en route to their ultimate destinations in Europe and the Pacific. This small town, wanting to offer the servicemen warmth and support, transformed its modest railroad depot into the North Platte Canteen. Every day of the year, every day of the war, the Canteen – staffed and funded entirely by local volunteers – was open from 5 a.m. until the last troop train of the day pulled away after midnight. 'Once Upon a Town' tells the story of how this Great Plains community of only 12,000 people provided welcoming words, friendship and baskets of food and treats to more than 6 million GIs by the time the war ended."
Greene's book was published in 2002. In its early chapters, he explains that if he didn't research the book soon, most of his sources from the World War II era would be gone.
One of the Canteen volunteers Greene did locate was Rosalie Lippincott. Rosalie was a high school cheerleader when she started volunteering at the Canteen during the war.
"We would take hard-boiled eggs, and in the Canteen we would peel them and make egg-salad sandwiches," Rosalie said. "So many sandwiches – 20 bushel baskets lined with clean towels, with all these sandwiches waiting for the soldiers. It was really quite overwhelming. We also would put magazines out for the soldiers. Life, Look, Liberty, The Saturday Evening Post, Reader's Digest. We put out Bibles, too. Everything was free for the soldiers to take with them.
"The soldiers would hesitate, and say, 'How much do I owe you?' When we would say 'You don't owe us anything,' they could hardly believe it."
Rosalie also told the author, "There were no paper products back then; not the way we know them now. They'd take their cups of coffee onto the troop train, and at the next stop someone would gather up all the cups and put them on the next train back. It was done on the honor system, and we would always get the cups back."
Imagine something like this today. One town provides hundreds of cups of coffee to soldiers traveling off to war by train and a neighboring town makes sure the cups are returned. And this occurs not once, but multiple times a day. Every day. For more than four years. Amazing.
In looking for information for this week's column, I found an online video of Rosalie Lippincott discussing the North Platte Canteen. The video is almost an hour long, but well worth the time. You can see the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XYHQRKUB62I.
Just before Christmas 1941, Rae Wilson wrote a letter to the editor of the former North Platte Daily Bulletin. In the letter (see sidebar), Ms. Wilson wrote: "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 the soldiers' morale at its highest peak. We can do our part."
Ms. Wilson's letter brought to mind Support Our Troops of Highland County and the work that these fine individuals do for area service-members.
Not only did North Platte step up and do its part, so did more than 100 communities across the state of Nebraska. From Christmas Day 1941 until the war ended in August 1945, the North Platte Canteen served food, drinks and homemade breads and desserts to more than 3,000 soldiers each and every day of the war, working in shifts for some 20 hours a day, 365 days a year. More than 6 million American troops were served in four and a half years. All by volunteers and community donors. This was not a state-funded or federally-funded program. (Although FDR reportedly heard about it and sent $5.)
Let's remember, too, that this community service project was ongoing during the time of Ration Books.
"During the Second World War, you couldn't just walk into a shop and buy as much sugar or butter or meat as you wanted, nor could you fill up your car with gasoline whenever you liked," notes the Ames, Iowa Historical Society. "All these things were rationed, which meant you were only allowed to buy a small amount (even if you could afford more). The government introduced rationing because certain things were in short supply during the war, and rationing was the only way to make sure everyone got their fair share."
Bob Greene quotes from the Ration Book issued to Irene McKain in 1942 by the U.S. Office of Price Administration. If someone misused his or her Ration Book, punishments were as severe as 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
"If you don't need it, DON'T BUY IT," was the book's golden rule.
"Yet, in the face of this – with food products so scarce – the people of the Canteen kept giving their own food away," Greene writes.
A retired U.S. Marine, Sgt. Vincent Anderson of Palm Desert, Calif., told Greene: "I was really … melted. What I saw them doing at that place melted me. Such kindness. Such kindness.
"You can tell when people are being nice to you, if they really mean it. You can tell it in their eyes – if it's real. You can see it and you can feel it," the Marine said.
The kindness of the mostly female volunteers at the North Platte Canteen would make a great history lesson, not only for high school and college students, but for all of us.
After putting down Bob Greene's wonderful book, I cannot help but wonder: Do any local World War II veterans remember passing through the North Platte Canteen? If so, I'd love to hear from you.
Rory Ryan is Senior Editor, North American Desk, at Paperitalo Publications and the owner of The Highland County Press in Hillsboro, Ohio. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
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'We can do our part'
To the editor, The (North Platte, Neb.) 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 the 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 percent. Let's do something and do it in a hurry! We can help this way when we can't help any other way.
Dec. 18, 1941