North Platte is known for four historical sites – Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park; a Pony Express Station; Baily Switchyard... and The North Platte Canteen.




North Platte Canteen sign

A fictional narrative dated 1941:



When WWII started, my closest friend and I, both recent high school graduates from a small town in Ohio, decided we better enlist in the army to do our patriotic duty. We went to the local army recruiting station and were sworn in. In less than two weeks we received a letter from the Department of the Army, telling us the date, time and place to meet in order to catch the troop train. Needless to say we were there a little early so we wouldn't miss it. A couple of real nervous guys.


We boarded the troop train car, only to see more 18 year olds, mostly from the east coast. Everybody seemed to be hanging with their friends. Even my pal and I found ourselves talking to one another. We were headed for boot camp, somewhere in a southern state, I don't remember which one. After intense training, we were put back on the troop train, headed north and then transferred to the main east west bound UP railroad. That's when we heard about the North Platte Canteen. Guys who had passed through North Platte told us, "You're not going to believe North Platte, Nebraska." North Platte what?


After leaving from our transfer location in Ohio, the train headed west. My buddy and I and our thoughts turned to war and fighting on some island in the Pacific. After several hours on a westbound course we crossed over a large river. Somebody yelled "this must be the Missouri River and we're leaving Iowa." I didn't even know we had been in Iowa. The river seemed to curl around a lot near Omaha and Council Bluffs. I never knew if we were in Iowa or Nebraska. As the river disappeared a landmark took shape in the distance. The Nebraska State Capitol building in Lincoln began to loom in the background growing larger every minute. We were in Nebraska. I had seen pictures of the capitol building in our American history books in high school. We were making good time on the train.



North Platte Nebraska


Because Nebraska is in, sort of, the middle of America, and North Platte is in, sort of, the center of Nebraska, and on the main UP east west rails, North Platte had been designated a federal steam engine stopover to top off the water tank, add more coal, and lubricate the locomotive. Takes a maximum of about 15 minutes.


Sure enough, when we arrived in North Platte at the UP Depot, there were women of all ages waving to us and beckoning us to come inside. There, on several tables were baked goods, candy bars, cigarettes, decks of playing cards...all free. The North Platte Canteen was its name. We were stunned at first. Here we had traveled half way across America thinking about going off to war somewhere in the Pacific, scared, yes, and all of a sudden here is North Platte, Nebraska and the North Platte Canteen. What a great idea to get our thinking headed into something other than war. Knowing we had about seven or eight minutes, we all bolted for the Canteen. There always seemed to be somebody who knew how to play boogie-woogie music on the piano, the jitterbug was in style



Soldier jitterbug


Those of us who didn't know how to jitterbug were a little shy to "cut the rug." However, my friend and I saw two young girls by themselves, we asked them to dance, they said yes, took us about one minute to learn the jitterbug, the girls knew all the steps, and we were "cuttin' the rug."


The first train whistle sounded, meaning head for the train. We thanked the two young girls we danced with, then dashed over to the pie table, lucked out and got the last two slices of apple pie. As we sat down in our seats, we both took a bite. We looked up at each other and simultaneously said, "Best damn apple pie I've ever had!" The women of North Platte wanted to help with the war effort, and the North Platte Canteen was their contribution. The federal government wanted all of the nation's chicken eggs, but there was no mention of duck, goose or turkey eggs. I'll bet you can't tell the difference between a pie made with chicken eggs and one made with duck, goose or turkey eggs.


After we finished our pie my friend told me he had asked his dance partner if he could write to her. She said yes and gave him her home address. They corresponded through our entire two year commitment in the Army.



North Platte Canteen serviceman fed


As more and more troop trains stopped in North Platte, the women began to worry about having enough food. A contingent of women from 125 small towns around North Platte arrived to help. The Canteen needed more baked goods. Some of these women had to drive on gravel roads to get to the main highway, then at least two hours to North Platte. This is the early 40s in Nebraska, highways in rural areas were not in the best of shape. And the cars were not 2016 versions of SUVs. However, more baked goods began to arrive, as traffic of troop trains increased every day.


After my friend and my enlistments were up, we were headed back to our hometowns, again on one of the troop trains. My friend informed me that he was getting off the train in North Platte to meet the girl that he had been corresponding with throughout our time at war in the South Pacific. When we stopped in North Platte the Canteen was still operational with all of the women who were still volunteering. As I found out, my friend had asked one of the women at the Canteen where and how to get to the street where the young girl lived. The woman gave him directions. Not hard to find in North Platte.


From some letters that my friend and I exchanged for the first few years after we got home, my friend told me he found his friend. They dated for a while, got engaged, then got married. He had a good job as manager of a grocery store. I was back home doing what I always wanted to do, being a car mechanic. I had my own repair garage. Over the years we sent letters to each other, then Christmas cards, then occasional phone calls. We always talked about the Canteen and how great it was to have been through North Platte and enjoy a few minutes of peace of mind.


From what I could find out there were several service members who did the same as my friend. Corresponded with the young girl they met at the North Platte Canteen, got off the train in North Platte, found the girl they had stayed in touch with and ended up marrying them. Some stayed in North Platte, others took their new brides and headed back east to their home towns.


After the first six months the legend of the North Platte Canteen spread even more rapidly. Over the course of the war over six million service men and women crossed the U.S., with most of the trains stopping in North Platte and continuing to enjoy the services of the North Platte Canteen. My friend and I were lucky as we were two of the six million.


Eventually the Union Pacific Rail Road Company demolished the entire depot, but that didn't stop the memories. When the Canteen first opened the UP allowed the women to work out of a shack next to the train tracks. Eventually the Canteen was given permission to use the waiting area inside the depot. What a shame the Depot was torn down, it could have been turned into a great museum.



North Platte Canteen ladies with food


I'm now 95, but my memories of the North Platte Canteen are just as vivid as the first time I visited it.


Best damn slice of apple pie I ever had!



Tom Hedges

Tom Hedges

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