Note: This story is from the November-December 2004 issue of the Gypsy Journal.
My father and uncles were part of the generation that liberated Europe from the Nazis and wrested control of the Pacific from the Japanese during World War II. When recalling their wartime experiences, I remember some of them talking about their troop trains stopping in the small Nebraska town of North Platte, and how the townspeople met them at the station with food, hot coffee, and warm smiles of encouragement and appreciation. For a soldier headed off to war, it isn’t the parades and speeches that are remembered. Sometimes it is the small acts of kindness from strangers that linger on when their days are long, lonely, and dangerous. Many GIs headed off to war took the memory of the good folks of North Platte with them when they hit foreign soil.
It all began ten days after the devastating attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. America was at war, and National Guard units from across the country were activated and on the move. The Company D of the local National Guard detachment had been stationed at Camp Robinson, Arkansas training for the war everybody knew might soon come. When word reached North Platte that their local soldiers would be on a train making a stop at the Union Pacific depot just about everybody in town rushed to meet the train. Nearly everybody had a loved one or a friend on that train, and they brought candy, cakes, pies, cigarettes, and other goodies to shower on their fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, and friends. When the train came into sight there was a great cheer that did not stop until the massive locomotive had ground to a halt and the troops disembarked. Silence and disappointment followed for a moment, for these were not the North Platte boys, but a group of Guardsmen from Kansas. Somebody had gotten their information wrong.
Then the well wishers realized that it did not matter. These brave men were somebody’s fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, and friends, and they deserved to be made as welcome as they hoped their own men were being welcomed somewhere else! The townspeople cheered for the soldiers, pushed food into their hands and made them feel accepted and appreciated; all the while hoping someone somewhere was making their loved ones feel the same way.
From that day on, every soldier, marine, sailor, and airman on every troop train for five long years that stopped in North Platte, day or night, was met with a smile, a welcome, and something to eat. What began as a spontaneous celebration for the hometown boys grew into a highly organized civilian effort to support the troops who had left their former lives behind for the good of the nation.
The North Platte Canteen fell under the guise of the Red Cross, and they set up business in the old Cody Hotel, located across the street from the railroad depot. The hotel allowed the Canteen to use their kitchen facilities for over six months. A local boy, William Jeffers, had risen from station assistant to president of the Union Pacific Railroad, and when Jeffers learned of the efforts of the Canteen, he ordered the North Platte depot lunchroom to be turned over to the Canteen for the duration of the war. Jeffers continued to support the Canteen with financial contributions and donations of equipment until the last troop train rolled through North Platte, bringing the troops home at the end of the war.
The Canteen was organized like a small army, under the direction of Mrs. Anna Bogue, with seven “companies” of lady volunteers who solicited donations of food and supplies, prepared meals, met the trains, and fed and entertained the troops. For a lonely soldier far from home, a hot cup of coffee, a sandwich, and a pretty girl’s smile was enough to remind him of what he was fighting for.
The operation of the canteen was a monumental effort, especially in those war years when most items were rationed and supplies were hard to come by. 23 troop trains came through North Platte every day for five straight years. The Canteen volunteers served over six million servicemen during its five years of operation, daily pouring out over 14,000 gallons of coffee, another 527 gallons of iced drinks, feeding them 109,500 sandwiches, and nearly 50,000 donuts. To add to those staggering figures, 4,000 magazines were distributed, over 35,000 cigarettes, and over 41,500 postcards were handed out, not to mention hundreds of chocolate bars, oranges, apples, mirrors, handkerchiefs, soap bars, and bibles. This went on every day for five years!
Funding came from the American Red Cross, donations, and fundraisers by the local civilian population, and the aforementioned support of William Jeffers and the Union Pacific Railroad. One consistent fundraiser was a nine year old farm boy named Gene Slattery. During the war years, Gene raised thousands of dollars by gathering contributions of blankets and boxes of chocolates, which he sold through local auctions. One day somebody in the crowd at a sale yelled out “What are you going to sell next, Gene, your shirt?” Not one to miss an opportunity, Gene quickly ripped off his shirt and threw it on the auction block. The good natured bidding brought in much more than the shirt was worth, and Gene knew he had found a winner. Over the next four years Gene sold 120 shirts for sums ranging from $48 to $1,700 at auction sales and bond rallies throughout the region. Everybody wanted to get in on the good work, and Hirschfield’s Clothing Store in North Platte and the J.C. Penny store donated many shirts for Gene to auction off.
Those terrible years of conflict are over, but the memory of the contributions to the war effort are honored today at the Lincoln County Historical Museum in North Platte. Along with displays on all themes of local and regional history, the museum has a gallery devoted to the North Platte Canteen. Here visitors can see the faces of the young women who met the trains to offer the troops a sandwich and a smile, as well as the faces of those brave young men on their way to combat.
Exhibits include World War II uniforms, displays of military equipment, tattered battle flags, and items from the North Platte Canteen. Old photographs bring the stories to life and make you wonder what happened to the GIs they show. Did they make it home, or did they give their lives to protect their country and loved ones, including the citizens of North Platte?
Letters the Canteen received from grateful servicemen during the war years, and those that still arrive occasionally, are displayed in the exhibit. Today visitors include elderly veterans of World War II who come back to remember, and to say thank you for a kindness offered so long ago.
The museum complex also includes a re-created frontier town, with several original buildings moved to the grounds from other places in the region. Included is the birthplace and boyhood home of Union Pacific president William Jeffers, a railroad depot, barbershop, general store, school, church, and barn. Browsing through the museum’s displays and buildings is a wonderful opportunity to experience what life was like in earlier times on the prairie, and to learn about the men and women who lived and died here.
The Lincoln County Historical Museum is open May 1 through September. Hours are Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. After Labor Day hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is $3 for adults. The museum has an open area where RVs can park on the south side of the main building. Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park, the home of the famous frontier scout and showman is just around the corner and is also an interesting place to visit. The park features 23 RV sites with 50 amp electric. North Platte also has an RV camping area in the city park, located on the North Platte River. The museum is located a short drive off Interstate 80 at 2403 North Buffalo Bill Avenue in North Plate, For more information about the North Platte Canteen, call 800-955-4528.
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Thought For The Day – Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.