For scared young soldiers heading off to battle during World War II, canteens became away-from-home islands of respite; places for a hot cup of coffee, a sandwich, perhaps a dance with a pretty girl. Many of these canteens were operated by organizations like the Red Cross that often charged soldiers for food and drink. However, in the town of North Platte, Nebraska (1940 population approximately 12,000), an amazing canteen sprung up that was completely run and supported by community volunteers from North Platte and the surrounding communities. For the duration of the war, these dedicated patriots worked tirelessly from dawn to midnight, meeting 20+ trains a day, and, in four years, served nearly 7 million soldiers. Today, visitors can relive this amazing story at the Lincoln County Historical Museum in North Platte.
The museum, just outside the town of North Platte, is located on a sprawling eight acres where they’ve moved a number of historic buildings, including a large, red barn to create a historic pioneer village. But it’s inside the main museum building, in the back half beyond displays of local minerals, mammoth tusks, and old clothing and household goods that you’ll find the story of North Platte’s can-do canteen.
It was December 17, 1941 just 10 days after the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. The country had suddenly been plunged into war. In Nebraska, the Army National Guard 134th Infantry Regiment had been called up and, rumor had it, that the local boys would be passing through North Platte on a train. Friends and relatives gathered to greet the train, but it never arrived. Instead, after waiting for hours, a train pulled into the station at 4:30 p.m. It wasn’t the 134th, but it was full of young soldiers being deployed to far-flung destinations and uncertain destinies. The crowd welcomed them and gave them the food and gifts they’d brought for their own sons and sent them on their way.
One of the people in the crowd was 26-year-old Rae Wilson, a drugstore sales clerk who had come to greet her brother. Rae was inspired by how surprised and grateful the young soldiers on the train were for the community’s welcome. She wrote this letter to the city’s paper, The Daily Bulletin:
Editor, The Daily Bulletin:
I don’t know just how many people went to meet the trains when the troops went thru our city Wednesday, but those who didn’t should have.
To see the spirits and the high morale among those soldiers should certainly put some of us on our feet and make us realize we are really at war. We should help keep these soldiers morale at its highest peak. We can do our part.
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.
Rae was good to her word and began working on the canteen project the very next day. She started calling merchants asking for donations. Before a week had passed, the first canteen committee met. Three days later, on Christmas Day, the group meet the first trains, surprising soldiers who were expecting just another boring stop, but, instead were met with food, drink, and pretty young girls.
The Lincoln County Historical Museum’s exhibit of the North Platte Canteen is rich with artifacts such as historic photos of the soldiers and volunteers and copies of food ration cards often donated by volunteers to ensure the canteen had enough butter and sugar for the thousands of cookies and cakes they made. There’s a large coffee urn that served thousands of cups of java to soldiers between Dec. 25, 1941 and April 1, 1946, when the canteen finally closed.
One of the things that made the North Platte Canteen unique was the number of volunteers involved. It’s estimated that as many as 55,000 people donated their time, their rations, and their money to this effort. This was the era just after the Great Depression and many people, including rural farmers in the area, didn’t have a lot of money or extra food. But they gave anyway. As many as 125 surrounding communities like Gothenburg, some as far away as 100 miles, stepped up. Often rural families would travel for hours to bring fresh eggs, produce and other goods to donate.
All the food for the soldiers was hand-prepared and hand-delivered. There were no microwaves or prepackaged goods. In the museum is a small four-burner stove like the ones volunteers used to bake thousands of cookies and their trademark birthday cakes. Women would bake up angel food cakes, which used less precious sugar, to commemorate soldiers’ birthdays. They’d give the soldiers, even men who weren’t celebrating birthdays, entire cakes and sing “Happy Birthday.”
One canteen volunteer, Elaine Wright, was working at the canteen when she received word that her soldier son was killed. Elaine took the rest of the afternoon off to grieve. The next day she was right back at work in the canteen. She reportedly said, “We can’t help my son, but we can help these other boys.”
The Union Pacific Railroad donated space next to the train yards for the canteen and young girls often met the trains, encouraging the men to come in for some food. Frequently the trains would stop for no more than 10 or 15 minutes, but canteen volunteers made those precious few minutes memorable. The museum has a stack of letters written from grateful soldiers. One wrote: “It was like having 15 or 20 mothers waiting for you.”
Volunteer Doris Kugler recalled, “We treated them like they were in our home.”
For hospital trains where soldiers couldn’t disembark, the young women would hand the soldiers candy, food, and other goodies through train windows. One of the treats they were famous for in North Platte was sweetened popcorn balls. Sometimes the young women would put their names and addresses on slips of paper and pen pal friendships and even romances blossomed.
One such couple’s story, Virgil and Ethel Butolph, is told in the museum. After receiving Ethel’s name and address in one of the popcorn balls, Virgil wrote to her and they began a correspondence. One thing led to another, as they say, and they were married on Sept. 14, 1941.
No solider ever paid a penny for the food or hospitality they received in North Platte. The canteen never received government money to operate the effort. One chart at the museum documents the incredible number of goods dolled out in one month’s time:
30,679 hard boiled eggs
6,939 cup, loaf, and birthday cakes
2,845 pounds of sandwich meat
12 dozen different items in similar proportions
North Platte and the surrounding community raised all the money themselves to operate the canteen. One boy would sell the shirt off his back every month and offer to perform chores to raise money. His take totaled $2,000. Toward the end of its operation, the canteen’s monthly operating budget was more than $50,000. During the 4½ years North Platte Canteen operated, they raised and spent $137,884 or $1.3 million in today’s dollars.
The Can-do Canteen’s story isn’t over. It lives on at the Lincoln County Historical Museum in the photos, artifacts, and exhibits. The museum still receives letters from grateful soldiers and family members who visited the canteen and were buoyed by its hospitality. One of the original North Platte volunteers, now in her 90s, still tells stories about the canteen. Military groups hold reunions at the museum. That’s because this is a story of heart, community and selfless determination that embodies the American spirit that lives on today. – Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor
Lincoln County Historical Museum
2403 N Buffalo Bill Ave, North Platte, NE 69101