Nebraskans have a lot to be proud of, but there are few things as poignant as what happened in North Platte during WWII. In an unprecedented display of kindness, generosity, and hospitality, Nebraskans banded together during a difficult time to provide comfort for those who risked their lives for our country.
The story began on December 17, 1941.
Residents of North Platte got word that a train full of Nebraska Army National Guard members would be rolling through town on its way to Camp Joseph T. Robinson in Arkansas. An estimated 500 friends, family, and community members lined up along the tracks at the North Platte depot, their arms full of gifts for the soldiers like candy, food, and cigarettes.
The train was supposed to roll through at 11:00 am, but by 4:00 pm the crowd wondered if it was ever going to arrive.
Around 4:30 pm, they saw a train approaching and began to cheer. However, when the train pulled up the soldiers inside revealed that they weren't the 134th Infantry Regiment of Nebraska; they were from Kansas. The huge crowd at the depot stopped their cheering and instead murmured to each other in disappointment. And then one person stepped up to the train and handed over the gifts they brought for the Nebraska soldiers. It caused a ripple effect, an avalanche of kindness. Soon, all of the gift-bringers had passed their gifts to the soldiers on the train, many of whom were moved to speechlessness at the incredible generosity of these strangers.
That one simple act of kindness led to four and a half years of the same.
One of the people at the depot that day was 26-year-old Rae Wilson, a shop girl who had expected to see her brother on that train. She was so moved by the display at the depot that she suggested the people of North Platte should make a permanent canteen there to greet every single train of soldiers that rolled through. She helped organize the original volunteers (who were almost exclusively women) and fundraising. After working out of the nearby Cody Hotel for a while, Wilson even convinced Union Pacific president William M. Jeffers - a North Platte native - to let the canteen operate out of the vacant train depot lunch room. It was from this headquarters that the ladies of North Platte and surrounding areas provided a little bit of joy and comfort to service men and women for more than four years.
The volunteers worked tirelessly to garner donations and prepare treats for the soldiers on the trains.
Each train that stopped at the depot did so for approximately ten minutes while the wheels were lubricated, the water was topped off, and other maintenance was performed. This gave the volunteers a very short amount of time to interact with the soldiers. At first, the soldiers weren't allowed to leave the trains due to security concerns so the ladies simply handed baskets of fruit, cigarettes, magazines, playing cards, cookies, and other treats up through the train windows. Eventually, security loosened a little and the soldiers were allowed to disembark. The ladies in the canteen fed them, gave them coffee and gifts, and even helped them send postcards and make phone calls to home.
As the war continued, the generosity of the volunteers only continued to grow.
When rations were put in place for items like sugar, coffee, cheese, butter, and other goods, volunteers donated their own ration stamps to the canteen to allow them to purchase the supplies they needed. As word spread of the canteen's efforts, groups of volunteers came in from as far as 200 miles away to donate their time. A local 12-year-old boy picked up odd jobs around town and sold everything he owned, including the shirt off of his back, to raise money for the canteen. A coffee importer sent a 25-pound can of coffee. A local priest donated 12 turkeys to the canteen, then personally brought over his own turkey when he heard that the first 12 had all been eaten. In the time the canteen was operating, more than 55,000 people from 125 communities volunteered there.
The canteen and its dedicated volunteers became a vital part of the war effort, keeping up the spirits of soldiers who were homesick and scared.
Although railroad security was tight and the schedules of the soldier trains were kept secret, the head canteen organizers were given alerts of incoming trains so the volunteers would have enough time to get there and prepare for the troops. The woman in charge would put out a coded call - "I have the coffee on" - to let the others know that it was time to jump into action. Not that there was ever much time between trains; as many as 24 passed through North Platte every day. Some days the volunteers served thousands of soldiers. They performed acts of kindness like giving out cakes on soldiers' birthdays and singing "Happy Birthday" to them. For soldiers in medical cars who were unable to leave the train, girls went in with baskets of treats and distributed them up and down the aisles. For those soldiers who were able to get off of the train but couldn't make it inside, women stood on the platform to distribute items. Every one of the soldiers was treated like family, and volunteers saw to it that not a single train was missed. No soldier was ever charged a single cent for the items they received in North Platte.
By the end of the war, the North Platte Canteen had served more than six million military men and women.
The end of the war came in August 1945. The canteen remained open to welcome trains full of returning soldiers. As fewer and fewer trains came through, it was decided that the canteen had served its purpose and should close its doors. A closing ceremony was held on April 1, 1946. Tragically, the depot building where this incredible show of generosity took place was not preserved, though some bricks from the building are on display at the Lincoln County Museum. Still, there are many books, movies, and firsthand stories to remind us just how powerful this movement was.
The kindness that Nebraskans are known for really shone through in these four and a half years. Many service members and volunteers recall those days fondly – not the war itself, of course, but the little bit of comfort and hospitality that was exchanged thousands of times a day in the town of North Platte, Nebraska. The soldiers didn’t expect it and the volunteers asked for nothing in return. This was truly a monumental, organized act of kindness that should never, ever be forgotten.