Editorial — The North Platte Canteen

The New York Times reported a week or so ago that the nation is losing about 1,200 World War II veterans a day.

And just about every day in the local newspapers or on various local websites, you can see the obituaries of men and women who responded to the frightful events of early December, 1941.

Of course we should pay daily homage to those people who saved the war from fascism and fanaticism in that remarkable decade of the ’40s, but we should especially pause for a moment and remember — recalling with wonder, really — their accomplishments and sacrifices each year at Christmas time.

Think about that first Christmas of the war in 1941; it came just two-and-a-half weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. And when you do, think about the people of North Platte, Neb., and the way they responded to those frightening and uncertain times.

The story of the North Platte Canteen was captured a few years ago in Chicago writer Bob Greene’s Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. But if you haven’t heard the story, you should be made aware of it, familiar with it. And here is your chance.

On Dec. 17, ten days following the “Day of Infamy,” as President Franklin D. Roosevelt named it for all eternity, the people of North Platte heard — mistakenly as it turned out — that some soldiers from their town, members of the Nebraska Army National Guard called to duty following the start of the war, were going to pass through the town on one of the Union Pacific Railroad’s troop trains.

The ladies of the town, organized and helped in large part by the pastor of the local Catholic church — whose name has been lost in the fog of faded memories — decided to meet the train with sandwiches, hot coffee, chewing gum — whatever they could collect on short notice. Since the movement of troop trains was secret, nobody knew exactly when the boys from North Platte would be passing through.

They did know, however that their stop would be brief. They’d been in their hometown only long enough for the engineers and brakemen to service their steam locomotives, taking on water, greasing the driving wheels and running gear. The stops usually lasted no more than 10 or 15 minutes, so the treats had to be distributed quickly.

By the time the troop train arrived at the diminutive North Platte station, about 500 local friends and relatives of the servicemen were there, ready to great their boys and warm both their bodies and spirits with the donated coffee and homemade sandwiches.

But when the train came to a halt, the people learned that it wasn’t carrying the North Platte National Guard soldiers at all — it was filled with soldiers from another midwestern town. So the people of that Nebraska community did exactly the right thing, especially since it was the Christmas season.

They distributed all their collected coffee and sandwiches; they gave their donations away not to their hometown heroes but to people they’d never met before.

And that struck a chord with then 26-year-old Rae Wilson, a drugstore sales clerk who saw the beneficence first hand and thought that, by golly, for the duration of the war, this was something that the people of North Platte could do to help.

She wrote a letter outlining her plans to the local paper — the Daily Bulletin — and before you knew it, the North Platte Canteen was not only a regular place of food and shelter for all the soldiers who stopped there briefly, it was on its way to becoming part of World War II lore.

On Christmas Eve that first year, the local Catholic parish donated 12 turkeys to the sandwich effort, and when their pastor learned they’d run out of turkey sandwiches with more trains expected, he took the turkey off his own table and took it to the canteen.

Before the war ended, the North Platte Canteen had seen more than 125 communities from the surrounding areas, some of them hundreds of miles away, donate their time and services. Volunteers, according to Greene’s book, often worked from five in the morning until midnight, because, as noted earlier, the movement of the troop trains was secret, so no one knew exactly when one might arrive.

By the time the canteen closed in 1946, it had served more than six million servicemen and women. But it had done more than that:

It had shown a nation that sacrifice and sharing — as Jesus and Pope Francis have both asked us to do — can be beneficial not just to the receivers, but to the givers. The people of North Platte weren’t looking for fame; they were simply looking to do something good for the war effort.

The fact that they became famous for doing it was simply icing on the cake.

So this Christmas season, remember the priest who helped organize the city-wide act of kindness; remember the pastor who took his own turkey off the table to make sandwiches for the boys heading off to only God knew what.

And when you meet a World War II veteran — or a veteran of any war — thank them for their service and give thanks to God that they’re still with us for one more Christmas.

Glenn Rutherford
Record Editor

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