The North Platte Canteen
When I used to live in Wyoming (Laramie and Cheyenne), we would jokingly refer to Nebraska as the armpit of the nation, we’d joke that all the bad stuff just blew over into Nebraska, jackrabbits committed suicide on the highways and interstates from sheer boredom – you know the kind of stuff I’m talking about.
But there’s a slice of history in Nebraska every American citizen should be aware of and every Nebraskan can take immense pride in: The North Platte Canteen.
Picture this: you’ve just survived the 10-year Dust Bowl which decimated the farming belt of the country in the midst of the Great Depression. You scrambled for work, food and survival on a daily basis for years. Your children didn’t have shoes, which meant they could not attend school. Your men left home wearing their best Sunday suits and shoes in search of a decent job to feed their families, to return who-knows-when. Most people had nothing. People didn’t own their own homes back then, so they rented – and when jobs were lost, they were out on the street in a heartbeat. Women worked day and night to make meager meals to fill bellies out of seemingly nothing. The national demeanor of the day was “Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without.” Many people died of common ailments because they weren’t healthy enough to combat diseases – or if they lived in the Dust Bowl region, their lungs filled with fine dust which slowly smothered them. People were worn out from desperation and hopelessness.
Then came December 7, 1941. The attack on Pearl Harbor.
The United States was doing its best to stay out of the brewing world war – until December 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. And things went from bad to worse, but an immense national pride swelled up and carried worn-out people on the crest of a patriotic wave such as the world had never seen. We came together as Americans do and entered it with a vengeance. Long lines formed at every recruiting office in the country as millions of Americans signed up to defend their country and to have a job.
Troop trains from all over the country carried America’s youth to training facilities, mostly in California close to ports that would carry them to war. We’re talking thousands of men a day being transported across the country to places they’d never heard of.
As America was gearing up for war, one town – ONE TOWN – in this country stood up like a beacon of light, showering these young troops transporting to war with love and friendship, to such a degree that 90-year old vets still choke up remembering the North Platte Canteen.
Remember the times: sugar, salt, flour, meat, coffee and other things were rationed. The people who lived on farms fared a bit better because they had their chickens/eggs, they could grow vegetables, churn butter from their dairy cow, etc. North Platte, Nebraska was one such area.
When the troop trains started pulling into North Platte, the community for 20 miles around decided to do something for these young men. People from the community worked in shifts and started a reception committee for every single train that made the 15-minute refuel stop in North Platte, usually 10-12 trains A DAY, at all hours of the day and night. Every single train was greeted by these wonderful people who provided homemade food: sandwiches, fruit, cakes, pies, soups, hot coffee, fresh lemonade – all made from their rations and their families’ resources. Women would make pies and cakes from their family’s rations, pack up dozens of their own eggs and precious cured meats, climb into the family buckboard and drive miles in all kinds of weather with their treasures to get to the Canteen for their shift. For YEARS this went on, until there were no more troop trains. These men were greeted with music, smiles, a hot cup of coffee and a feast. Sometimes the guys even got to dance with a local girl one last time before going to war. When the train whistle blew after 10-15 minutes and America’s sons had to scramble to get on board, every one of them left with a bag lunch and a hug from a grateful and loving “Mom” in North Platte, Nebraska.
Soldiers years later, hunkered down in a freezing foxhole somewhere in hell, would say to each other, “Remember the North Platte Canteen? I sure wish I were back there.”
This story is in a book called “Once Upon a Town” by Bob Greene, and it is a great joy to read. It has many interviews with WWII vets who still get choked up recalling their 15-minute stop at the North Platte Canteen and the love they received from Americans.
Sadly, years later, the North Platte train station was taken over by homeless people and drug dealers so it was torn down and that beautiful slice of American history ceased to exist except in hearts. I hope this story makes the North Platte Canteen one of the treasures in your heart. And I pray to God that we are still that kind of America.