Remembering an epic volunteer effort in North Platte
LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - The North Platte Canteen was a chance for community members to offer food and coffee to soldiers passing through town during World War II. It was a project that changed lives.
We visited with Jim Griffin with the Lincoln County Historical Museum to learn more. “The story happened really by mistake,” Griffin said. “The people met down at the local train depot on December 17, 1941. This was 10 days after Pearl Harbor. They heard the local Nebraska National Guard unit, Company D, was coming through. They wanted to give them their Christmas presents. Company D did come through, but it was the Kansas National Guard. Everyone was wondering what to do. We don’t know who the first person was to step forward, but someone stepped forward and gave the goodies to the Kansas soldiers, and others followed. Rae Wilson was there. Her brother was the commander of the Nebraska company they thought was coming through. She saw how happy the strangers were to get the gifts. So, she wrote into the newspaper and said, let’s make raising morale our war industry.”
At that point, a group of ladies gathered, and they would make baskets of gifts and food. “They would go across the street when a troop train would come through and hand up the gifts,” Griffin said. “Pretty soon they realized there were a lot of troop trains, and they couldn’t keep up. Wilson contacted Bill Jeffers, who was a local man who happened to be president of the Union Pacific Railroad. She contacted him about using the lunchroom at the depot. He said to use it by all means. That was good, because at that point, troop trains were beginning to pour in. Eventually, 125 different communities throughout western Nebraska were participating in the North Platte Canteen. Not only were they bringing labor, but they were bringing their food with them. At the height of the war, they were serving 3 to 5 thousand soldiers a day. They would be here, a train would pull into the yards, and the troops would be here for 15 minutes. The soldiers would get ham salad, egg salad, or beef sandwiches. They would get lots of donuts, cookies and cakes. These ladies would meet them, and it was free. The other thing that was cool about the North Platte Canteen was that if it was your birthday, you would get a birthday cake.”
Griffin says the canteen service went on day and night for the entire war. “They had the older ladies bringing in all this food, and serving it,” Griffin said. “You had the younger ladies serving as platform girls, which meant they stood out on the train platform and had baskets of goodies for any troops that didn’t want to step off the train. Those girls also had popcorn balls they gave out. Some included their names and addresses in the popcorn balls! It’s kind of like the first internet dating sort of thing. We know of two weddings that occurred because of this! The North Platte Canteen continued until 1946. The amazing part is, those volunteers served six million soldiers.”
If you’d like to learn more about the North Platte Canteen, check out the Lincoln County Historical Museum website at lincolncountymuseum.org.
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