One of the most inspiring wartime volunteer efforts in United States history began with a mix-up. On December 17, 1941—just ten days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—the citizens of North Platte, Nebraska, received word that a troop train would be passing through, carrying soldiers from Company D of the Nebraska National Guard. Some 500 people, many of them family members and friends of the new recruits, hurried to the local Union Pacific Railroad station, carrying baskets of food and crowding the platform, hoping for a chance to see their boys. But when the train pulled in, the soldiers on board turned out to be from Company D of the Kansas National Guard.

After a moment of disbelief, 26-year-old Rae Wilson stepped forward and began passing out the goodies she had brought for her brother to the Kansas boys, along with the rest of the crowd. Touched by the soldiers’ delight and amazement, Wilson wrote a letter to the local newspaper, the North Platte Daily Bulletin, proposing the establishment of a canteen, or cafeteria, to meet every troop train passing through the station.

Rae Wilson hands out food to soldiers passing through North Platte.
Rae Wilson hands out food to soldiers passing through North Platte. Courtesy of the Lincoln County Historical Museum, North Platte, Nebraska

A week later, on December 25, the newly formed North Platte Canteen met its first train with baskets of prepared treats. Between that Christmas Day in 1941 and April 1, 1946, canteen volunteers met as many as 24 trains carrying 3,000 to 5,000 military personnel every day. In total, they served six million men and women. The momentous effort involved 55,000 volunteers, mostly women, from 125 different towns, some as far as 200 miles away.

Even the implementation of wartime rationing didn’t disrupt the canteen’s operations. Organizers simply found new ways to make things happen, from donating extra ration stamps and surplus farm produce to pooling gas rations so volunteers could travel to North Platte from distant towns. By the time the canteen closed in 1946, fundraising events and private donations had contributed nearly $138,000 in cash.

Running the canteen was an enormous responsibility, and the effort soon took a toll on Wilson’s health. She eventually moved to California, leaving another local woman, Helen Christ, to oversee operations for the remainder of World War II.

Canteen founder Rae Wilson
Canteen founder Rae Wilson Courtesy of the Lincoln County Historical Museum, North Platte, Nebraska

Charlotte Endorf, author of Bless Your Hearts: The North Platte Canteen, has interviewed numerous people involved in the canteen, including soldiers who passed through. Home to North America’s largest railroad classification yard, North Platte has been a major rail hub since the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869. During World War II, trains carrying soldiers bound for both the European and Pacific theaters stopped in North Platte for about ten minutes to service their steam locomotives. Initially, troops weren’t allowed to disembark for security reasons, but officials soon changed the rules to allow them to get off during the brief stop in North Platte.

“[The veterans] would say, ‘When I was in the heat of battle, I would focus on the canteen. I remembered those nice ladies giving us hugs, and I would focus on that,’” Endorf recalls.

The statistics of the North Platte Canteen are astounding. In March 1945, the canteen served a record 40,161 cookies, 30,679 hard-boiled eggs, 6,547 doughnuts, 2,419 loaves of bread, 2,845 pounds of meat and more than a dozen other items in similarly impressive amounts. On a typical day, volunteers handed out 1,080 cookies, 2,000 buns, 1,000 bottles of milk, 100 pounds of ham, 80 pounds of ground beef, 70 fried chickens, 720 hard-boiled eggs, 23 pounds of butter, 16 pounds of coffee, 2 crates of oranges, 8 bushels of apples and 36 birthday cakes. The tradition of giving birthday cakes to every soldier celebrating on the day of their visit began in 1942, and angel food cakes were particularly popular. Some local children gave up their own birthday cakes to make sure soldiers didn’t go without.

Gene Slattery auctions his shirt, pledging to donate the proceeds to the canteen.
Gene Slattery auctions his shirt, pledging to donate proceeds from the sale to the canteen. Courtesy of the Lincoln County Historical Museum, North Platte, Nebraska

One young boy, John “Gene” Slattery, came up with a creative way to contribute to the canteen after his mother told him to get rid of his goats, which had destroyed her cherry trees. Slattery sold the goats at the local livestock market, then told the crowd he planned to donate the proceeds from the sale to the canteen. When asked if he had anything else to sell, Slattery responded, “All I have is the shirt on my back.” Someone offered to buy it, and over the next several years, Slattery became famous for selling his shirt—often supplied by local merchants like Hirschfeld’s—again and again, raising around $2,000 for the canteen. One of the last known survivors associated with the volunteer effort, Slattery died in August at age 90.

Many of the women running the canteen had sons, brothers, husbands or boyfriends fighting in the war. The canteen became an emotional outlet for both volunteers and troops, says Endorf. Approximately 120 community-based canteens existed across the country during World War II; the North Platte one was not only the largest of these canteens but also one of the largest wartime volunteer efforts of any kind.

“North Platte’s war industry was not munitions, airplanes or tanks,” says journalist Bob Greene, author of Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. “It was raising morale, and every volunteer knew it.”

Two soldiers enjoy coffee while grabbing a magazine before hopping back on the train.
Everything at the North Platte Canteen was free to service members. Here, two soldiers enjoy coffee and grab magazines before hopping back on the train. Courtesy of the Lincoln County Historical Museum, North Platte, Nebraska

As James J. Reisdorff, an author whose short 1986 book, North Platte Canteen: An Account of Heartland Hospitality Along the Union Pacific Railroad, inspired many longer subsequent accounts, including Greene’s, explains, “These long-distance train trips [took a toll on] those poor service personnel. It was a long time just to sit there in a train that wasn’t air conditioned and think about where they were and why they were going [to war].” He adds, “It got them thinking as to whether anybody cared, and to find out that there was this oasis in the wilds of Nebraska where someone wants to show you appreciation by giving all these treats, that helped immensely.”

James Griffin, director and curator of the Lincoln County Historical Museum, which houses a North Platte Canteen exhibition, points out that most of the personnel met by the canteen were homesick teenagers who’d just completed “boot camp, and they’re in the middle of nowhere. They get off the train, and they see [a maternal figure], and she’s got food.” In letters home, some of the soldiers wrote that they were fighting for the women who’d offered them a brief respite from the war. One such missive referenced by Griffin says, “We would never let the enemy ever take North Platte.” The curator adds, “They’re only here for ten minutes, but they knew they were loved when they left here.”

Among the most famous canteen treats were popcorn balls, which teenage girls on the platform would pass on to soldiers. The young women started writing their names and addresses on slips of paper and tucking them inside the balls, paving the way for a pen pal correspondence. One soldier, Virgil Butolph, received a popcorn ball but passed the address—of one Vera Winters—on to a friend, William Woodrow Butrick. Later, Virgil began corresponding with Vera’s sister Ethel. Virgil and Ethel fell in love and got married in 1944, and Vera and Woody followed suit after the war. Both marriages lasted for decades, ending only with the men’s deaths.

L to R: Virgil Butolph, Woody Butrick, Vera Butrick and Ethel Butolph (holding daughter Verdina)
L to R: Virgil Butolph, Woody Butrick, Vera Butrick and Ethel Butolph (holding daughter Verdina) Courtesy of the Lincoln County Historical Museum, North Platte, Nebraska

After the war officially ended in September 1945, the canteen kept operating for another seven months, until the arrival of trains carrying returning soldiers slowed to a trickle.

“Every aspect of the story is uplifting,” says Greene, “but what moved me time and time again was the feeling of love that endured over all the years—the love the people of the town felt for the young men they only saw for ten minutes or so, as the troop trains paused, and the love for the town that the … soldiers kept in their hearts for the rest of [their] lives.”

In a 1977 interview with journalist Charles Kuralt, canteen volunteer Rose Loncar recalled a day when volunteers from the town of Stapleton brought huge quantities of fried pheasant to serve to the troops. “Whoever was in charge saved all the tail feathers and had them in jars on the tables, and I tell you it was just like ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy,’” she said. “Every soldier had a feather in his hat when he left.”

Canteen volunteers on the train platform. L to R: Bonnie Paul, Dorothy (Loncar) VanBuskirk and Margaret McEvoy
Canteen volunteers on the train platform. L to R: Bonnie Paul, Dorothy (Loncar) VanBuskirk and Margaret McEvoy Courtesy of the Lincoln County Historical Museum, North Platte, Nebraska

According to Griffin, a letter held by the Lincoln County Historical Museum finds a medic describing his visit to a field hospital, where he saw a commotion taking place between wounded soldiers and the nurses trying to prepare them for surgery. When a surgeon asked what was going on, the nurses told him the soldiers all had disgusting feathers in their boots that they refused to give up. Eventually, the surgeon told the nurses to wash the feathers in alcohol and return them to the soldiers so they could get the men into surgery. Later, the medic asked the soldiers what was so important about these dirty old feathers. As it turned out, the troops were the same ones who’d passed through the North Platte Canteen on the day the Stapleton volunteers were serving up pheasant, and the feathers were the ones they’d stuck in their caps. To the soldiers, they represented a link to home—one so important they’d rather skip surgery than give up the feathers.

Greene heard similarly strong emotions in the voices of servicemen he interviewed. “So often, their voices would break, and some of the men would cry as they would try to put into words the gratitude they felt for the people of North Platte,” he says. “They spoke of how lonely they had felt on the troop trains, heading for war and perhaps for death. And then, in that one little town, the train paused and, like a miracle, the people of North Platte were there. That’s exactly how one soldier put it: ‘They were there.’ The soldiers weren’t expecting anything and weren’t asking for anything. But the very fact that the people of North Platte were there meant the world to those soldiers.”

The Union Pacific Depot, where the North Platte Canteen was based, was torn down in 1973. Very few living people still remember the canteen firsthand. “One of the things that the volunteers and the soldiers told me again and again was that they were afraid … no one would be left to remember what happened in that little town—that the story would die with them,” says Greene.

Soldiers and sailors pick up food and drinks at the canteen.
Soldiers and sailors pick up food and drinks at the canteen. Courtesy of the Lincoln County Historical Museum, North Platte, Nebraska

Efforts to ensure this doesn’t happen are ongoing. In 2018, a two-day revival of the North Platte Canteen delighted Arkansas National Guard troops passing through on their way home from Wyoming, especially one soldier who received a birthday cake for the first time in his life. Downtown North Platte has been revitalized as the Canteen District, and in 2020, the neighborhood was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Lincoln County Historical Museum is planning a significant expansion that will include a much larger canteen exhibition, a small theater to show film footage and a new display on the region’s other notable contributions during World War II.

“Our job is to keep this story alive, because it’s too important to let die,” says Griffin. “Honestly, I think … the canteen was the next most important thing that most of the soldiers experienced [after] winning the war, because it gave them such a morale boost, and they knew why they were fighting the war when they left [North Platte].”

Politicians are also determined to make sure the North Platte Canteen isn’t forgotten. Earlier this year, lawmakers reintroduced a bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the communities and individuals who volunteered or donated supplies to the canteen. The bill has since been referred to the appropriate Senate and House of Representatives committees, where it will need to obtain the co-sponsorship of two-thirds of each chamber’s membership before receiving full consideration.

Greene says, “What the people of North Platte did for the soldiers of this country—what they did on their own, without any help from the government—is as fine an example of what our nation can be as anything, and any place, I have ever found.”

Volunteers arriving at the North Platte Canteen
Volunteers arriving at the North Platte Canteen Courtesy of the Lincoln County Historical Museum, North Platte, Nebraska

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