My cousin, Jim sent me an email the other day and said he receive a second copy of the book, Once Upon a Town, by Bob Greene and was wondering what he would do with it. I sent a note back saying I would love to have a copy after all this is the era I had spent three years writing about AND it was in Dad’s home state of Nebraska. I got it a week ago sat down and read it in just a few days. I knew I had to write a post about it as I knew you all would love it.
When my father was training at Camp Robinson in 1941 and Pearl Harbor was bombed he along with a hundreds of thousands other soldiers were sent to guard both the West and the East Coasts. My father arrived at Fort Ord in California Christmas Eve of that year. I know they took the train but was sad to realize he probably did not get a chance at least then, to go through North Platte.
As the story goes on a cold evening, Christmas day, the people of North Platte heard rumor that their sons, husbands, and brothers who were soldiers would make the trek to California aboard the usual mode of transportation in those days, the train. Mr. Greene says it was the Nebraska National Guard; Company D. (Dad was with Company C.) The town thought it would be good to be at the train depot to show their support and to make sure they all knew they were loved and supported. As a crowd of 500 townspeople which was amazing in those days, gathered and the train rolled in and “the surprised soldiers on board were greeted by North Platte residents with welcoming words, heartfelt smiles and baskets of food and treats,” Greene writes
What they did not know is the trains of Nebraskans were sent on another route and the men on the train that day were from Kansas. Then the magic happened. As the town people boarded that train they did not want the men to see their disappointment and they put on a smile and with sincere enthusiasm wish the boys luck, handed out their goodies, and showed the love they had reserved for their soldiers.
This was the beginning of The North Platte Canteen. From that day on the people of North Platte and surrounding areas banded together to meet every troop train that passed through town. From the first one at 5am till the last one that passed after midnight those people manned the Canteen. From that first Christmas Eve in 1941 through the end of the war in 1945 the town made sure each and every troop train was met with and handed out goodies and well wishes. This was not an easy task with rationing being imposed. The North Platte stop was not a long one but when the conductors learned of the miracle that was happening there they pushed the time to the limits so that each soldier could experience the miracle that went on there.
Bob Greene goes to North Platte to see if there is anything left and preserve the memory of the canteen. He does not say when this journey started but since the book was published in 2005 I would assume it was not long before then. He takes us on a journey to blend the past and the present giving insight into both. He was able to find Guest Books from the canteen days and with that was able to find some of the soldiers who passed through North Platte. Each remembers the place many with tears in their eyes, sixty years after their short visit to that wonderful town.
He was also able to find townspeople who had worked in the canteen and was able to show their take on the whole thing. What they went through to keep it stocked and manned. My cousin Jim went there when he was just a lad and he tells of other cousins that actually worked there. I have to wonder if my dad was able to experience it as I know they made many trips back and forth across the US on those troop trains. I can only hope he was able to experience the love generated there in his home state.
All in all Mr. Greene’s message was clear. The North Platte Canteen was run on love, that is what they handed out those days. He sees it time and time again in the retelling of the story. It is a wonderful read and I have to admit I had tears in my eyes more than once before the book was finished. Thank you Mr. Greene for preserving this story, it was definitely worth it, it truly touched my heart.