Today: A little piece of heaven in a small Nebraska prairie town.
A loud shrill whistle echoed into the prairie and across the farms and tiny villages, announcing to the town of North Platte that a train packed with young soldiers would soon be arriving.
It was December 17th, 1941 in the icy winter, only days after Pearl Harbor had been bombed and the U.S. declared war against Japan and her allies, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, joining in the Hell of World War ll.
As America quickly mobilized for battle, teenage boys and some a little older, most of whom had been living with their parents and had never been away from home, were being inducted into the military. Soon they would complete basic training and be shipped off to war.
Many of them would be killed or maimed in battles in distant places, and the thought of it scared large numbers of them, despite a bravado front. Some of those boys were homesick and secretly crying themselves to sleep at night.
But in North Platte, a little prairie town in the middle of the continental United States, a crowd of 500 mostly women led by 25 year old pharmacy clerk Rae Wilson were there to greet them. The reason for the big turnout was the mistaken belief these soldiers were from Nebraska, including North Platte.
But it turned out they were from the nearby state of Kansas, and at first the crowd fell silent with disappointment. But Rae immediately began to work her magic. She told the crowd that she had made a considerable effort to bake her cookies, as had many of the other ladies, and she was not going to leave the station without giving them out to the troops.
As she stepped forward to greet the soldiers, which broke the ice, everyone else joined her and they greeted them with cheers and hugs and cookies. To these boys, it was a godsend. On that day, at that train station, the North Platte Canteen was born.
Built in 1918, this old fashioned red brick Union Pacific passenger station served the 12,000 person city of North Platte. But because of the war, each day thousands of young soldiers and other military personnel would come through this station, eventually totaling 6 million of them.
And each day, volunteers arrived to greet every train and offer the boys plenty of cheers, hugs and handshakes, and homemade sandwiches, cookies, cupcakes and milk and magazines and words of encouragement.
It didn’t matter if the day was a snowy blizzard or hot and stifling, every train was warmly greeted. It didn’t matter that food was rationed; everyone from near and far volunteered their food rations to share with the soldiers and the other military personnel.
When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt heard about what North Platte was doing, he sent a personal check to offer his support.
When Union Pacific president William Jeffers found out what was going on in his far off little train station, he made the lunch room welcome to all, which was not always so in a deeply segregated America. And he offered to transport volunteers from as distant as 200 miles away.
Volunteers took him up on it as they flooded in. They included housewives, retirees, World War l veterans and farmers and businesspeople who would devote a day of their time to greet all of the trains.
The North Platte Canteen was off to a great start.
But in March 1942, for health reasons, Rae Wilson stepped aside as founding chairperson of the Canteen. Without this dynamic young leader would it now fall apart?
Not at all. She was replaced by the wife of a Union Pacific train conductor, very capable 43 year old Helen Christ, for the rest of the war.
By the Christmas of 1943, coordinating with Helen, 55 neighboring communities had organized their volunteers to offer their support. It worked so well, that by April, 1946 when the last troop train came through, 125 communities had participated, with a total of 55,000 volunteers.
Grateful soldiers during and after the war, and even many years later would write letters thanking the volunteers for their work. For the kindness and love of the North Platte Canteen had become legendary and boosted the morale of many a soldier, including some who had only heard about it.
Those soldiers knew they really mattered to the people of the greater North Platte area. That they and their brothers in arms were appreciated and made to feel very special.
After the war, when the little town of North Platte again became a quiet and distant prairie location what became of Rae Wilson and Helen Christ, the two women destiny had thrust in the limelight?
Rae moved to Los Angeles, but she returned to North Platte, and married Frank Sleight, a former soldier, who spent most of his four years of military service in the European theater of the war. As a couple, they raised her son and he became a Nebraska Game Commission employee.
Later, they operated a diner, and Frank would eventually pass away in 1970. Rae died in 1986, at the age of 70, survived by her son and two grandchildren.
Helen, born in 1899, passed away in 1956. She was survived by her husband Adam and by their son and daughter and by eight grandchildren.
But both ladies were also survived by millions of grateful soldiers and their families, as their work helped to create a little piece of heaven in a small Nebraska prairie town.
Success Tip of the Week:
Perhaps some day destiny may call on you to tackle an enormous and meaningful task. If so, you could rise to become the compassionate, courageous and principled person needed to meet the enormity of the challenge.
If you would like to learn more about the North Platte Canteen and see pictures and films of it in operation in the 1940’s, please click on, http://www.npcanteen.net/.
In the next KazanToday:
How Bruce Llewellyn overcame racial segregation and limited financial resources to become one of America’s wealthiest black men.
Editor’s Note II:
Thank you to my friend and Vietnam era soldier Ben Haney for recommending this remarkable story.