Editor’s note: The following article is briefly excerpted in The Telegraph’s forthcoming book “Canteen: As It Happened,” which re-presents the coverage of North Platte’s canteens in both world wars by the city’s daily newspapers.
This article is reprinted here, in its entirety, from The Telegraph’s special Canteen celebration edition of Aug. 14, 1946. North Platte that day honored some 55,000 regional volunteers who made possible the World War II Canteen’s continuous service from Christmas Day 1941 to April 1, 1946.
North Platte today is host to 125 other communities of western Nebraska and eastern Colorado that helped to support the North Platte Canteen during its four years and four months of operation.
Each of these communities is honoring today its womenfolk who substituted as mothers and sisters in making a home away from home for the men and women of the armed forces as they traveled back and forth across the country, from camp to camp enroute to the fighting fronts all over the world or on their way home from the wars.
The North Platte Canteen has been termed “typically Nebraskan,” as no other state went so completely “all-out” to show hospitality, love and cheerfulness on the home front. While thousands of centers throughout the national helped the morale of our fighting men and women by their kindnesses, North Platte’s canteen was supported entirely by voluntary contributions, not a single cent in grants, subsidies, federal or any other governmental financial aid.
The North Platte Canteen also has been termed “the greatest example of faithfulness and cooperation demonstrated during World War II, or at any time.”
The tremendous amounts of food served and cash contributed are incomprehensible to many persons who have only heard about the North Platte Canteen.
“Won’t believe it”
One young sailor said to a native North Platter in the Philippines. “You won’t believe this but it’s the truth,” and as he continued its iteration of the food available, the hospitality shown and the kindness demonstrated at the North Platte Canteen, he interrupted his own story again and again with the phrase, “You won’t believe it.” The North Platter did believe it, yet others who have not are doubtful. Yet, the (monthly) Canteen audit has proved that servicemen have not exaggerated the North Platte Canteen.
The outstanding thing that is most incomprehensible to many in the hundreds upon hundreds of midwestern women who gave and gave of their time, effort, food and cash to keep the Canteen in operation through four long years of war and even after the peace.
“How and why?”
How: A group of North Platte women who could get to the Canteen any day took the responsibility of acting as officers-of-the-day, supervising the work of the organizations and communities, which served regularly by turn. Officers were elected, and the Canteen was put on a business basis to work effectively.
Hundreds of clubs and organizations or just groups of residents of 125 communities, some as far away as 200 miles, took turns serving at the Canteen regularly on appointed days. These groups assumed the responsibility of supplying the food for that day. When one group or club was too small to donate an entire day’s supply, several groups went together to jointly meet the requirements.
Nor were the womenfolk of these 125 communities alone in this cooperative enterprise on behalf of the military personnel of this nation. Men’s organizations often contributed a day’s supply and prepared and served it themselves. Youth groups worked to raise cash, helped prepare and serve food, washed dishes and swept floors at the Canteen. Young boys and girls, too young to do all the work, staged drives to collect magazines, raised cash funds or worked in the kitchen of the Canteen. One 12-year-old boy (Gene Slattery) distinguished himself by selling his pets, toys and even the shirt off his back, donating the money to the North Platte Canteen.
Benefit dances and other activities were held. Pie socials and other affairs were held. One firm contributed a walk-in ice box; the railroad gave coffee urns and a dishwasher. The list of contributions is too extensive to give, but the answer to “how?” is “Everyone, everything in cooperation for the Canteen.”
Why? In the beginning, the reasons that many people contributed to and served at the Canteen were limited. The primary reason was patriotism on the part of the folk who couldn’t serve on the fighting front.
But collectively or individually, the workers saw the appreciation in the faces of the fellows. They saw many a homesick, lonely and scared boy break into smiles at the sight of homemade food being served by beaproned women like “mom,” or “six,” like “my wife” or “the girl friend.”
After experiencing the joy of having been instrumental in bringing happiness to some fellows who were “just like son Joe and his buddies,” these women became determined to continue the Canteen. No matter how tired, they had no desire to quit. Any who served once returned to serve again and still again. Many had sons or brothers, husbands or other loved ones serving in the armed forces. These served because it was a way of serving their own loved ones. Others lost relatives in the war. For those, supporting and serving at the Canteen was a way to carry on in their places, or perhaps it was “what he would have wanted me to do.” Patriotism continued to be one of the primary reasons the workers carried on the operation of the Canteen.
One smile, one “Thanks Mom!”, one postcard of appreciation from some far-off battle field. These were more than enough reward to make worthwhile the tremendous efforts of these women. These, and many others, are the answer to “Why?”
Nor was the North Platte Canteen the result of wealthy socialites seeking a method to fill in their time or rich men desiring to cut down their income taxes.
The North Platte Canteen was the direct result of common working people, farmers, ranchers, housewives and businessmen displaying their patriotism and shouting appreciation to the men and women who were fighting for them.
Before serving and working at the Canteen, many had chores to do in the wee hours of the morning, a long drive over poor roads, sometimes muddy or icy, or covered with snow. After eight or ten hours making sandwiches, sweeping floors, washing dishes and serving, there was that long ride back home and chores waiting to be done again.
Meals to get
Nearly every woman who worked at the Canteen had meals to get, a family to care for, washing and ironing and housework to do. Employed people worked evenings or Sundays.
The cash that was donated was given by the same hard-working people, not people who were working in war industries and making more money than they had ever made before. The tons of meat, butter, coffee, canned goods and other food were donated during the day of rationing, when these things were hard to get, as well as dear to the purse.
Everyone in each of those 125 communities, men, women and children alike, gave in some way of their time, effort, money and food to support the North Platte Canteen.
The result? An institution and a place that will forever remain in the hearts and the memories of several million men and women. No commendation made by high-ranking military officials or governmental or railroad representatives can be a higher tribute.
Ask any canteen worker if the effort was worthwhile and ask her too, what was the highest tribute ever paid her for that effort.