Today’s post comes from Joshua Cain, an archives technician at the National Archives in College Park, MD. It features digitized videos and images available in the National Archives Catalog highlighting North Platte’s role in World War II.
In the early to mid-1900s, North Platte, Nebraska, was a small farm town located on the Union Pacific railway line. As this 1925 aerial photo shows, there was not much to the town. But the Union Pacific station’s canteen, the building in the bottom left corner near the train tracks, played a large role on the home front during World War II.
On December 17, 1941, a National Guard company from Nebraska was set to arrive in North Platte via train. The townsfolk organized to meet them at the depot and offer them some gifts as an appreciation for their service. Well, the train arrived, but it wasn’t carrying a National Guard Company from Nebraska. Nope, this company came from Kansas. Regardless, the townsfolk still treated them like their own.
The next day, Rae Wilson, a resident of North Platte, wrote a letter to the local paper asking the community to help create a canteen for service members to enjoy a nice meal as they made their long journey east or west for training and then future deployment overseas to fight. Her request was answered by volunteers from North Platte and, eventually, 125 other surrounding communities.
The North Platte Canteen officially opened on December 25, 1941. It began in the Cody Hotel, but that was a bit too far from the depot, as the train only stopped for 10-15 minutes. Wilson was able to talk with Union Pacific railroad president William M. Jeffers about using the lunchroom at the station. Jeffers agreed and the volunteers relocated.
Trains arrived at the depot from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Volunteers prepared sandwiches, coffee, and even birthday cake for the troops during the quick break (as seen in the silent video below from 0:00 to 6:28). Volunteers also provided magazines and other reading materials for the troops. On some occasions, there was music in the air as troops or volunteers played the piano in the canteen.
The North Platte Canteen was a welcome break from the train journeys across the United States. Soldiers would spend days on overcrowded trains, often not having a seat of their own. One soldier’s postcard sent from the North Platte Canteen describes it well.
Just arrived at North Platte. Had roll and coffee. Train running late but will make it. Stood from Chicago to Omaha but finally got a seat.
As a train rolled out, another one would arrive. Every day was a busy day for both the service members and those who helped greet and feed them. The local communities wanted to help out as much as they could. One 12-year-old local boy even took the shirt off of his back at livestock auctions to help raise money for supplies for the canteen (as seen in the silent video below from 7:15 to 8:22). Often the buyer wouldn’t keep the shirt, and the boy was able to resell it again and again.
The North Platte Canteen operated until April 1, 1946, well after World War II ended. It is estimated that the small Nebraska town served six million troops during the 54 months it was running. Unfortunately, the building was demolished in 1973, and a plaque is the only recognition of its existence and contribution to the war effort.
For further reading, Bob Greene’s book, Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen offers accounts from the canteen volunteers and the service members who visited.