North Platte Canteen
Ten days after Pearl Harbor, North Platte residents heard Company D, Nebraska National Guard, was coming through on a troop train. About 500 residents waited at the station with cookies, candy, cakes and cigarettes. When the train arrived they learned the troops were from Kansas, not Nebraska. Residents treated them anyway and Rae Wilson, daughter of a Union Pacific carpenter, then championed the idea for a canteen for all troop trains.
Volunteers met their first train on Christmas Day, 1941. Initially they prepared their food at a nearby hotel and stored their treats in a shed near the depot. Wilson approached Union Pacific President William M. Jeffers, a North Platte native, about using the vacant lunchroom in the Union Pacific depot. Jeffers quickly approved the idea and workers moved into the lunchroom by January 1, 1942.
North Platte was a natural location for the canteen because all the trains had to stop to service the steam locomotives, giving the troops a 10-minute chance to rush inside and help themselves to free food and coffee. About 8,000 military personnel were served daily.
The canteen served about 6 million servicemen and women before it was closed on April 1, 1946.
In March 1945 they served:
- 40,161 homemade cookies
- 30,679 hard-boiled eggs
- 6,547 donuts
- 6,939 cakes
Everything was free. Much of the food came from local farms. Magazines, cigarettes and writing materials also were distributed. A canteen tradition was to give any serviceman a cake who said it was his birthday. An average of 20 cakes were given away daily, with up to 600 given away each month. The generosity was a remarkable achievement during wartime rationing.
Volunteers came from 125 surrounding communities. It was estimated about 50,000 people volunteered at some time during the war. Like other North Platte organizations, UP roundhouse and shop workers volunteered a workday at the center.
When Rae Wilson left North Platte in March 1942, Helen Christ, wife of an UP conductor was appointed general chairman, a post she held for the duration.
Union Pacific provided the canteen with heat, water, cups, napkins and a dishwashing machine as well as UP employees to do janitorial duties. The railroad public relations department publicized the canteen and thousands of postcards and brochures were given to service personnel.