Last summer, I was passing through North Platte, Nebraska. For those who do not know, North Platte, on the Union Pacific Railroad, has the largest and busiest railroad yard in the U.S., and witnesses the passage of over 100 trains a day. North Platte however is known for something else, something wonderful and poignant which happened there during World War II.-the North Platte Canteen.
Just after Pearl Harbor in 1941, a rumor spread throughout the town that members of the Nebraska National Guard would be passing through North Platte on a troop train on their way west to join the war. Spontaneously, hundreds of local people assembled at the depot on December 17, 1941 to greet the soldiers with food, coffee and cigarettes. When the train arrived, it contained not Nebraska but Kansas troops. However, people who had congregated at the depot were motivated to show their support for the soldiers, by providing them with the food which they had collected.
This idea caught the imagination of North Platte resident, Rae Wilson. Rae wrote to the local paper and proposed that the community continue to meet the trains to give the troops a taste of home. What happened on December 17 was not the end of the story. The idea caught fire. Thanks to the help of the Union Pacific, volunteers set up shop in the dining room of the depot. Day after day, troop trains, often 23 per day, arrived at the depot, usually stopping only for 10 minutes. Soldiers, sailors and airmen streamed out of the coaches and headed inside the depot, and were served food by friendly volunteers. After 10 minutes the trains filled up again and departed.
Volunteers from 125 communities from Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado came out in droves to greet the troop trains. They contributed cakes, cookies, coffee, fruit, cigarettes, and sandwiches. In the 1940's there were no places to buy all of these foods; almost all were homemade and brought to the depot for distribution. Those who greeted the soldiers mended torn clothing, presented soldiers with cakes on their birthday, and sent messages to soldiers' families. Women helped servicemen select religious literature of their choice. Thousands of magazines and playing cards were distributed.
Many drove hundreds of miles to deliver food and help in the work of greeting the troops at the North Platte depot. Donations of appliances and furniture to help in the work of the Canteen came from many others. Scrap drives, benefit dances and socials all contributed money to the operation of the Canteen. It should be remembered that this outpouring of generosity is all the more impressive since much of America was just getting back on its feet from the Great Depression.
There is one story which particularly touched me. A woman working at the Canteen left the depot suddenly for home one day when she found out her son had been killed in action. She returned to the depot the next day saying, "I may not be able to help my son any longer, but I can help someone else's son."
The December 17 story was repeated many, many times. In fact, from its opening in December 1941 to its closing in 1946, it is estimated that the people of the North Platte Canteen greeted over 6,000,000 passengers! The North Platte Canteen story touched me deeply. It is particularly fitting and appropriate that as we approach the holiday season, in a time when the United States is involved in two wars, we reflect upon the people at the North Platte Canteen, whose story tells us what giving is all about.