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New Year Special: North Platte Canteen 1/1/2024

By Roger Wright

My dad and 16 million other Americans served in the Armed Forces during WWII. He and his brother, Roger, got on the same train on the same day in Springfield, Ohio to go to Ft. Hayes, Columbus, Ohio to get their physical, and then on to boot camp.


Their enlistment period was “for the duration,” meaning they were going to be in the military until the war was won or they died. Dad was assigned to the Army Air Corps and Uncle Roger was assigned to the Navy.


Dad would only talk about his good times in the Air Corps. This is his most memorable experience:


A few days after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt ordered the country to go to war-time economy. That meant all factories quit manufacturing consumer goods and retooled to manufacture war machinery and supplies.


In those days, goods and people were moved by steam-powered trains. In peacetime, passenger trains had the right-of-way; meaning freight trains had to wait on the siding for passenger trains to pass. But in a war-time economy, freight trains had the right away. After all, there were men dying due to a lack of modern or proper weapons, ammo, parts, medical supplies, food etc.


The number of people needing to travel in a time of war expanded exponentially. Sixteen million military personnel had to go to boot camp, transported to the schools, then to practice and rehearsal bases and finally travel to their wartime duty stations.


Military spouses who needed to move back home after a last good-bye at the dock for overseas duty. The passenger load during WWII was multiple times larger than the US rail system ever dreamed it would have to handle.


The seating code was women with babies got to sit down first, then the pregnant women, then the elderly ladies, then the younger women, then wounded soldiers, elderly men, etc. Able-bodied young men were the last to be seated, but the seats were always full someplace between wounded soldiers and elderly men. The young boys and the older men got to stand inside the car and the younger men in good health (Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines) stood wherever they could and that meant many had to stand outside on the platforms between the cars.   


Seating capacity per car was 56, but the cars could carry over 200 customers in a crush load plus however many could stand on the outside on platforms between cars. During WWII, every car carried a crush load every day.


Adding to the discomfort, it was simply impossible for the railroad to provide food and water for that many passengers.  


Passenger trains had to pull onto a side rail to make way for freight trains, perhaps as many as 5 times a day. There was no air conditioning and no ice.


The steam locomotive had to take on water every 100 to 140 miles. It took 140 to 160 gallons of water and 165 to 170 pounds of coal for a locomotive to pull a train one mile.    


The water stops provided an opportunity for everyone to get out of the cars to stretch, rest room, and pay a ridiculous fee for a candy bar. There was no time to eat at a restaurant, which was just as well, most water stop locations did not have a restaurant.


After riding trains from Columbus, Ohio to Miami Beach for basic training then to Ypsilanti, Michigan for specialty training, Dad was on his way west on the Union Pacific Railroad. His train had been across lower Michigan, through Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and finally was traversing the wide-open prairies and corn fields of Nebraska.


The conductor told the soldiers on the platforms between the cars that the stop at North Platte would be a few minutes longer than a typical water stop because the locomotives would be oiled, greased, and all the car axles would be checked for “hot boxes.” Soon, the train slowed and coasted into North Platte, Nebraska.


Dad could not believe his eyes as the train lurched to a stop!

There was more food than he had ever seen in one place in his life! He looked to the left and as far as he could see, the row of tables was filled with food! He looked to the right and as far as he could see the row of tables was filled with more food! Every kind of food. Every dish that could be made from beef, pork, chicken, and lamb. Potatoes fixed every way imaginable, every vegetable, every kind of soup, every form of salad, homemade bread, biscuits, buns, butter, jams, jellies, cold milk, hot coffee, fresh water, lemonade, and every form of dessert known to man.


There were special tables for women with babies, pregnant women, and tables for little kids. Teenagers were milling throughout the crowd offering hot coffee, cold milk, hot tea, ice tea, hot chocolate, fruit juices, with unlimited refills, etc. Women were handing out plates, bowls, utensils, etc. Servicemen were piling their plates full of food as they ate a bite with every step.


Everybody was happy!


When the whistle blew the “All Aboard,” each of the car’s boarding stations had two or more young ladies offering packed lunches, cookies, home grown fruit, homemade candy, etc. There was something for every pocket and every hand.


Everything was 100% free at the North Platte Canteen!


The Canteen opened officially on Christmas Day 1941, 17 days after the Declaration of War and closed April 1st, 1946, 8 months after the war ended to allow time for all the military folks to get home.   


Cooperating families were assigned Canteen duty on a regular schedule, often one day a week. Folks came from all over Nebraska and as far away as Kansas, Colorado, and South Dakota with loads of home grown and home cooked foods. During the war, sugar, gasoline, and rubber were rationed, yet one would never guess that was the case at the Canteen, which was  open 24/7 for 1,361 consecutive days to provide free food and refreshment to every passenger on every train…  


My dad’s voice always faded away as his mind was deep into memory lane every time he told the story.  


In the spring of 1988, I was attending the national meeting of National Agri-Marketing Association (NAMA) in Reno, Nevada. One day, I entered the hotel elevator and found myself alone with an attractive young lady who was in her 30’s. Her name tag said her hometown was North Platte, Nebraska.


I said, “You are from North Platte, Nebraska, home of the North Platte Canteen!”  


A startled, but big smile came across her face. She immediately wanted to know how I knew about the Canteen. She was quite pleased to hear my dad’s story.


She said her mom and dad met each when they were teenagers working at the Canteen. One of her parents was from South Dakota and the other was from Kansas, so when they married, they decided to make North Platte their home.


The North Platte Canteen is one of the great stories of American History and reflects the culture of the Midwest. It is a shame so few people have ever heard of it!  


Let us start 2024 on a very positive note and go up from there!


1 Comment

Great story shared today!! Thanks!

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