North Platte Canteen
To 6 million troops in up to 32 trains a day
From December 25, 1941 until April 1, 1946 more than 6 million servicemen and women traveled through Nebraska during World War II. They fondly remember the hospitality of the North Platte Canteen where every troop train was met by volunteers who prepared and served sandwiches, coffee, cookies, cakes, and other homemade ‘goodies’ during stops there. Over the years, there were 55,000 women volunteers. This page is to honor those servicemen and women, the Canteen and its volunteers as a reminder of its proud past.
The North Platte Canteen, because of the tremendous finances and labor involved, was organized and operated on a business basis. (The center did experience periodic cash shortages during its first two years. From then on, voluntary cash contributions were sufficient to pay all bills promptly and to maintain a sizable bank balance.) Only during March 1945 was an exact list of contributed food kept. Sent or brought in then were 40,161 homemade cookies, 30,679 hard boiled eggs, 6,939 cup, loaf and birthday cakes, 2,845 pounds of sandwich meat and a dozen or more other articles in like proportions. Retail value of the contributed items at that time was about $6,250.
Please see more details and photos below the video.
How it all got started
There was hope, then disappointment, then genuine pleasure all in the space of a few hours on Dec. 17, 1941 in the hearts of hundreds of mothers, friends and sweethearts of the men of Nebraska’s 134 Infantry.
It all came about as a result of the “grapevine”. Early the morning of Dec. 17 the story got around that a troop train, taking soldiers of the 134th from Camp Robinson to an unknown destination, would pass through North Platte about 11 a.m.
A small group gathered at the Union Pacific station and waited. Shortly after noon, a train pulled in, but it wasn't that of the 134th Infantry. Word passed that the boys would surely arrive at 3 p.m. A larger crowd had gathered at this time, only to hear that a troop train would not arrive in North Platte until 4:30 p.m.
By this time, the grapevine had run its course and no less than 500 relatives and friends of local men in the service huddled together at the depot. Baskets of fruit, cartons of cigarettes, Christmas gifts and fruit cakes were on hand everywhere.
At last the train arrived. A whoop of joy arose from the throng as open windows in the train revealed soldiers. Only they weren't members of the 134th. But the sight of the smiling lads, their friendly spirits and their joy at seeing such a reception was too much for the crowd. They gathered around the boys, burdened them down with the gifts they had brought for their own sons, and wished them well.
As the train left, the boys waved gaily good-bye, thumbs were sticking up out of open windows and mothers were dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs. Some weren't bothering about the hankies, just crying and not caring who saw them.
In the happy group that jammed the depot, no one was more thrilled than a pretty 26-year-old Rae Wilson, a drugstore sales girl whose brother commanded one of the companies supposedly on the troop train.
As Rae Wilson walked home, an idea began to take shape: Why not meet all the trains going through North Platte and give other boys the same sort of send-off?
The next day, following the visit of the troop train, Miss Wilson suggested that a canteen be opened to make the trips of soldiers through the city more entertaining. She offered her services without charge. See Rae Wilson link at bottom of page.
In a publicity pose, some of the 1943 North Platte Canteen officers display ham sandwiches prepared for those in uniform. From left: Helen Christ, general chairman; Mayme Wyman, kitchen chairman; Jessie Hutchens, secretary; Edna Neid, supplies buyer; and Opal Smith, platform girls chairman.
At left, women prepare some of the approximate 4000 sandwiches served daily. Statistics on the amount of food contributed and used on a daily basis at the canteen illustrates how, despite wartime rationing, North Platte area residents believed in the center's merit.
An average daily shopping list for the canteen included 160 to 175 loaves of bread, 100 pounds of meat plus 15 pounds of cheese and two quarts of peanut butter and other sandwich spreads; 45 pounds of coffee, 40 quarts of cream, 500 half-pint bottles of milk; and 25 dozen rolls.
The best remembered North Platte Canteen tradition, which started in 1942, was the free distribution of entire birthday cakes to any serviceman or woman who happened to visit there on his or her birthday. An average of 20 cakes were given away daily, with up to 600 cakes given away monthly. Former canteen workers indicate cake distribution was always done on the honor system. Canteen birthday cake stories abound. One serviceman, who lied that it was his birthday, reportedly later became conscious stricken and gave his cake to a polio-stricken child on his train. Area children gave up their own birthday cakes to the canteen, while some of the women corresponded for years afterward with the recipients of their cakes. In at least one instance, a sailor coincidentally visited the center two years apart on his birthday and was given cakes on both occasions. Pictured above, at Sutherland, Neb., women look on as Lyda Swenson, of North Platte, presented Army PFC Clifton Hill, of San Luis Obispo, Calif., with a cake in 1942.
The canteen room had a capacity for about 600 persons. In this view, servicemen cluster in front of the food tables. The station platform doorway is out of view at right, while the entry below the American flag was the canteen's walk-in cooler. A corner of the registration and contribution desk is at lower right. The canteen piano is behind the photographer.
“You mean this is all free?,” was the sort of comment that workers at the canteen's registration and contribution desk heard again and again from service personnel incredulous at the admission price. Canteen policy was to also provide treats to family members accompanying a serviceman or woman.
Please visit the North Platte Canteen site
Read more about Rae Wilson