It started as a fluke. Ten days after Pearl Harbor, some women in North Platte heard a troop train carrying boys from Company D of the Nebraska National Guard would pass through town on their way to the west coast. Realizing boys in their late teens headed for war would probably be scared and homesick, they decided to make them feel better by meeting the train with baskets full of cookies, cakes, gum and cigarettes. But when the train finally arrived, the fledgling Company D turned out to be from Kansas. Of course, the Kansas boys gladly gobbled up the goodies.
However, 26-year-old Rae Wilson knew a good idea when she saw one. The next day, she wrote the North Platte paper and proposed establishing a canteen for all the soldiers passing through town. Everyone wanted to help the war effort; this was one thing they could do. By Christmas day, a canteen committee was at work, passing our snacks and small gifts to passing troops. The UP’s steam locomotives had to take a 10-minute stop for water in North Platte, which allowed the servicemen time to run in for a bite to eat and bit of mothering.
But first the committee had to set up a system. With troop train movements a military secret, UP special agents had to notify Wilson when to be ready to serve. She, in turn, would call her committee, saying, “I have the coffee on!” At first, they fixed the food at the Cody Hotel and stored it in a maintenance shed. But Wilson quickly persuaded the UP president (a hometown boy) to let the townspeople turn the vacant UP station lunchroom into a canteen. By Jan. 1, 1942, troops in transit were discovering the North Platte Canteen offered them 10-minutes of home.
At the peak of the war, there were 125 canteen committees active in and around Nebraska. Every person involved was a volunteer. With food strictly rationed, families from all over the state prepared and donated enough food to serve between 3,000 and 5,000 service people each day, every day of the year. And those days began at 5 am and often stretched to midnight. Surprised GIs enjoyed birthday cakes, coffee, sandwiches, magazines, and sometimes music and dancing.
By April of 1946 when it closed, the canteen had served six million military personnel. The end of passenger trains doomed the depot to the wrecking ball in 1973, but bricks from the depot were formed into a historical marker at its site. And decades after the war,countless servicemen remembered how grateful they were for the warm welcome they received in this small town in the middle of the plains of Nebraska.