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Jewish World Review June 10, 2002 / 1 Tamuz, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

'They made us
feel like heroes'

This column is excerpted from the author's latest book, Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. | North Platte, Neb., is about as isolated as a small town can be. It's in the middle of the middle of the country, alone out on the plains. But before the air age, the Union Pacific Railroad's main line ran right through the town, and when World War II began, those Union Pacific cars carried a most precious cargo: America's boys on their way to battle. Day and night, the troop trains rolled into North Platte, a town of 12,000 filled with young men being transported across America before being shipped out.

A local resident-or so I heard- came up with an idea: Why not meet the trains coming through, to offer the servicemen affection and support?

On Christmas Day 1941, it began. A troop train rolled in-- and the surprised soldiers on board were greeted by North Platte residents with welcoming words, heartfelt smiles and baskets of food. What happened in the years that followed was nothing short of amazing-- some would say a miracle. The depot was turned into the North Platte Canteen. Every day, from 5 a.m. until the last troop train had passed through after midnight, the Canteen was open. Each day of the war, 3,000 to 5,000 military personnel came through. The trains were scheduled to stop for only 10 minutes, but the people of North Platte made those 10 minutes count.

Many of the soldiers were just teenagers. This was their first time away from home, and they knew that some of them might never come back. Then they rolled into a train station and were greeted by men, women and children who were telling them "thank you."

This was not something orchestrated by the government. All the food, all the services, all the hours of work were volunteered by private citizens and local businesses. The only federal funding was a $5 bill that President Roosevelt sent because he had heard about what was taking place and wanted to help.

Purchasing this book
-- from which column is
excerpted -- helps fund JWR.
Link is in Bob's bio, below.

It might have been a dream, but it wasn't. Six million soldiers who passed through that little town-- 6 million of our fathers and grandfathers. And every single train was greeted; every man was welcomed. It was love story-- a love story between a country and its sons.

"We would hear the call of 'troop train coming in,'" said Rosalie Lippincott, 74, a Canteen volunteer, "and we would hurry to make sure that all the fried chicken, fresh fruit, sandwiches, coffee and cookies were out on tables. Then the soldiers would come running in. Oh! The different accents, the colors of skin...the men in khaki, the boys in Navy blue, the Marines. And all of this for 10 minutes at a time! They would say, 'How much do I owe you?' When we would say, 'You don't owe us anything,' they could hardly believe it."

Russ Fay, with whom I spoke before his death last year at 75, went through North Platte just after his induction into the Army in 1944: "The train stops, and we see these women carrying baskets toward our car. We can see that there's sandwiches and things in the baskets. The women get onto the train-- for some reason we aren't allowed off-- and they're offering us the sandwiches and these little bottles of cold milk. Those sandwiches were so good. I ended up in France and Germany, and I'd say a majority of the men on the battlefields knew exactly what North Platte was and what it meant. They would talk about it. Out of nowhere: 'How'd you like to have some of that food from the North Platte Canteen right about now?'"

LaVon Fairley Kemper, 84, was a volunteer that Christmas night when the Canteen began. "There were bushel baskets that the ladies had filled with apples and candy," she recalled. "The train didn't come in until about 11 that night. The soldiers were so amazed-- way out there in the boonies on Christmas night. We carried the baskets out to the train, gave the men the apples and the candy, wished them 'Merry Christmas,' and the train left."

Kemper would come back time after time. They were all so dedicated. She recalled another volunteer, Elaine Wright: "She had a son in the Navy and got the word that he had been killed in action. After being away for a day, she came back to the Canteen. 'I can't help my son,' she said, 'but I can help someone else's son.'"

Don Griffith, 79, remembers the tasty food and coffee. "But that wasn't the biggest thing about it," he said. "Those people made you feel really appreciated. Those happy smiles you saw. I know it sounds like a simple thing. But I was heading for an infantry division, and I didn't know where I would end up. And I never forgot those smiles. You have no idea what it meant to us. We came through in the middle of the night. And they were there."

More than 125 farm communities around North Platte made sure the Canteen was staffed. During a time of precious gasoline and no interstates, the people got to the depot. They dropped what they were doing, and when the young men looked out from the trains, the smiles were waiting for them.

"I had never heard of North Platte," said former Marine Sgt. Vincent Anderson, 80. "We pulled into the station, and this lady came up to me and said, 'Is it your birthday?' I said to her that, no, it was not. And she said to me, 'I'm making it your birthday,' and she handed me this beautiful home-baked cake. I was really melted. Such kindness. Here were these older women, our mothers' ages, and they made us feel we were heroes."

Sixty years later, the depot that housed the Canteen has been torn down, and only freight trains pass through North Platte. "There's not much there anymore," said Ann Perlinger, 70, who was one of the Canteen's youngest volunteers. "All those boys...they were here and then they were gone." But they haven't been forgotten. Even now, they haven't been forgotten.

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JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. His latest book is Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.

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