After Pearl Harbor, millions of new recruits needed to be trained. Old military bases were filled to capacity and beyond. New bases were built. Millions of young men had to be moved from one region to another, and almost all of them moved by train.
Troop trains became a common sight. Inside, soldiers were crammed onto the train with no sleeping quarters, no showers and few rest rooms. Many were homesick, tired and maybe a little scared. The steam engines of the day had to stop every 50 miles or so to take on more water and fuel. At these stops, the soldiers only had time to eat quickly or stretch their legs. Then the whistle sounded, and they ran back to the train.
North Platte, Nebraska, was one of the major rail yards and junction points on the transcontinental Union Pacific line. It still is (a fact that is not lost on modern authors). Within the first month of the war, a rumor swept through North Platte. The Nebraska National Guard was coming through town on Christmas day on their way to the West Coast and the war, according to the rumor. But no one knew for sure because troop train schedules weren’t published.
Someone got the idea of greeting the train with home-cooked food, fruit, gifts and coffee – all for our home state boys.
Everyone was surprised when the train turned out to be carrying the Kansas National Guard. The greeters decided to give them the goodies anyway. Rae Wilson was one of the greeters that day, and she was so moved by the joy and gratitude expressed by the troops that she wrote a letter to the local newspaper.
“We should help keep this soldier morale at its highest peak,” Rae wrote. “We can do our part… Why can’t we, the people of North Platte and the other towns surrounding our community, start a fund and open a Canteen now?”
Within days they organized the North Platte Canteen. For more than four years, day and night, volunteers met the troops, gave out food, coffee, candy and companionship. On the train platform, young women handed out fruit or decks of cards. For wounded men on the hospital trains who couldn’t come inside the Canteen, volunteers went on the cars and delivered food and “care baskets” of toothbrushes and razors. Soldiers celebrating a birthday received a birthday cake to a chorus of “Happy Birthday.”
Volunteers sewed on buttons. They wrote cards and letters for servicemen of every color and creed. They mailed packages back home to family or sweethearts.
They also kept track of the effort.
- Troop trains ran from early in the morning until late at night. Volunteers served 2,000 to 5,000 servicemen and women each day.
- During a period of 51 months, almost 55,0000 volunteers served 6 million soldiers.
- More than 125 communities in three states (some as far away as 200 miles) joined in this miraculous volunteer effort.
- Volunteers from more than 300 organizations helped fix sandwiches, bake cakes and cookies, pour coffee, wash dishes and hand out candy and magazines, and helped soldiers send letters and packages home during their brief stop over.
- To raise money for the Canteen, North Platte citizens held scrap drives, collecting and selling metal, paper and rubber. They held benefit dances and pie socials. Businesses donated appliances to help store food. At least one young man went to the weekly stockyard auctions and auctioned off the shirt off his back – then got it back and auctioned it off the next week.
- No government money was used, and no federal agency organized the volunteers.
While North Platte saw more troop trains and was a highly organized effort, wherever troops moved through they were met with warmth and support.Sedfield Hill was a young Air Corps trainee traveling from St. Paul, Minnesota, to the airbase outside Fairmont, Nebraska. He remembers local people greeting the trains delivering new recruits to the Fairmont Air Base.
“They wouldn’t let go of us,” he says. “As a result, a lot of us call this place home.”
Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.