On December 17, 1941, just ten days after Pearl Harbor, men of the 134th Infantry of the Nebraska Army National Guard were on their way from Camp Joseph T. Robinson near Little Rock, Arkansas to an unknown destination. Rumor had it that the train would arrive in North Platte Nebraska at 11, but by noon it hadn’t shown up. After another false alarm, the train finally rolled in around 4:30. By this time, at least five hundred relatives and friends of local servicemen showed up at the depot.
Eventually the train arrived and the crowd cheered, but they weren’t members of the 134th. They were Kansas boys. The crowd gave the soldiers the gifts and food that was originally meant for their own sons and wished them off.
The reason that the train stopped in North Platte was because the town was a designated tender point for steam trains. Stopping the train allowed for the train crews to lubricate the wheels, top off the water levels in the tanks, and other things for maintenance of the locomotive. North Platt would be a stopping point for all Union Pacific troop and hospital trains during the entire war.
Of the group of people that were originally at the depot on the seventeenth, twenty-six-year-old Rae Wilson, a drugstore sales girl witnessed the hospitality. Her brother supposedly was to be on the troop train as a company commander. As she walked away from the train that evening, she had an idea to meet all the trains that went through North Platte and give the soldiers the same type of sendoff. The next day she suggested that the meeting of soldiers become a permanent occurrence.
“During World War I the army and navy mothers, or should I say the war mothers, had canteens at our own depot. Why can’t we, the people of North Platte and other towns surrounding our community, start a fund and open a Canteen now? I would be more than willing to give my time without charge and run this canteen.
We who met this troop train which arrived about 5 o’clock were expecting Nebraska boys. Naturally we had candy, cigarettes, etc., but we very willingly gave these things to the Kansas boys.
Smiles, tears and laughter followed. Appreciation showed on over 300 faces. An officer told me it was the first time anyone had met their train and that North Platte had helped the boys keep up their spirits.
I say get back of our sons and other mothers’ sons 100 per cent. Let’s do something and do it in a hurry! We can help this way when we can’t help any other way.”
And so the people of North Platte, Nebraska, young and old met every troop train every day of the war which had to stop in their town. Calls to merchants came with requests for cigarettes and tobacco, while housewives were asked to contribute cake and cookies, with attempts to get the younger women to hand out the gifts and keep conversation up with the soldiers. After a while, the women began to serve a thousand men a day, with those who were celebrating a birthday getting their own cake and “Happy Birthday!”
Over one hundred and twenty five communities donated their time to work at the canteen. Some people travelled as far as two hundred miles to take turns on regularly appointed days. The groups also took responsibility in supplying food for the day. If a group was too small, multiple ones would band together and help fulfill the daily requirements. Benefit dances, pie socials, and other activities were held to also help raise money for the canteen. Even the youth contributed to the workload, cleaning floors and raising money in all ways possible to support the troops. One girl remembers writing their addresses onto the packaging of popcorn balls so that the troops would have someone to write to; letters eventually poured in from far away battlefields thanking the people of Nebraska for their kindness.
The women at the canteen went to great lengths for the servicemen. Those who worked at the desk would write cards and letters as well as send telegrams for servicemen who wouldn’t otherwise have time to do so. They even wired for flowers and sent gifts on special occasions. When a service member would call home and confuse the operator because of the hurry that they were in, a woman would help step in and clear up the confusion
Women also were working on the platform, distributing the basics of fruit, matches, and candy bars for those who were unable to go inside. Another important job was to tend to those on the hospital trains who were unable to enter the building. The men on the trains were naturally treated the same as those who went inside.
Between Christmas 1941 and 1946, more than 6 million soldiers passed through North Platte Nebraska and everyone one of them was on a train that was met by local people with cakes, coffee, cigarettes, music, writing paper, matches, pens, conversation and hospitality.
Black or white, it made no difference.