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The North Platte Canteen: Sacrifice and love

The North Platte Canteen: A sacrificial love story

The 20th Century Veterans Memorial stands in Iron Horse Park southeast of Interstate 80’s Exit 177 at North Platte, Nebraska. Like many other veterans memorials, every service is represented. Unlike any other veterans memorial, North Platte’s memorial has a Canteen Lady, Rae (Wilson) Sleight. Her presence is a question begging for an answer. Who were the Canteen Ladies?

In a selfless outpouring of love, the Canteen Ladies served those who served. The North Platte Canteen is a story of love, service, sacrifice, and civic pride. The canteen served over six million service members from 1941 to 1946 and never charged a cent. The 12,000 volunteers came from 125 Nebraska and Northeast Colorado communities. This is the canteen’s beautiful story, told at the Lincoln County Historical Museum.

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North Platte joins the war effort

On Dec. 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, plunging the United States into World War II. Troop trains began to rumble across the land. Every train coming through North Platte had to stop for 10 to 20 minutes for lubrication and to refill its water tanks. Ten days after Pearl Harber, North Platte residents heard that Company D of the Nebraska National Guard was coming through their hometown.

Knowing this, the soldiers’ families and friends gathered at the depot. When the train arrived, Company D belonged to the Kansas National Guard. The North Platte Daily Bulletin described (PDF) the scene: “The sight of the smiling lads … and the joy at seeing such a reception was too much for the crowd. They gathered around the boys, burdened them down with the gifts they had bought for their own sons, and wished them well. As the train left, the boys waved … goodbye … and mothers were dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs. Some were … crying and not caring who saw them.”

Inspired, Sleight wrote a letter to the Bulletin‘s editor. She volunteered to start and run a canteen. “Let’s do something and do it in a hurry!” she wrote. “We can help this way when we can’t help any other way.”

Wilson remembered that North Platte’s Red Cross had run a canteen during World War I. With that experience, surely the community could do it again. She was right, but she had no way of knowing how big the task would become or how many people would join the cause.

Artifacts from the first North Platte Canteen
The World War I canteen was the direct ancestor of the far larger World War II North Platte Canteen.

The first canteen in North Platte

From July 17, 1918, to Sept. 15, 1919, 70 North Platte women helped the Red Cross (PDF) provide a canteen for the troops. UP Vice-President William Jeffers said he would “do everything in his power” to help the canteen. The railroad donated the former dispatcher’s building. Mrs. Charles Bogue organized the 70 women into groups of 10 for canteen service. They converted three rooms into a kitchen, serving room, and hospital. Eventually, they converted a roundhouse into a shower room. The canteen ladies served thousands monthly. At one point, they set a record by serving 120 men in 12 minutes. The citizens donated all the supplies and cash they needed. By the war’s end, they had served more than 100,000 service members. (Read about a troop train that arrived in Goodland, Kansas, on Christmas morning 1917.)

They went beyond the military. When the Spanish flu epidemic struck, the canteen even served the community’s special flu hospital and other people who were too sick to cook.

The second North Platte Canteen opens on Christmas Day 1941

The 1941 canteen organizers pulled together quickly. In barely more than a week, North Platte’s women elected Wilson as the chair, chose a committee, and collected food, cigarettes, and magazines for the troops. On Christmas Day, 1941, the North Platte Canteen reopened for business, although the Red Cross wasn’t involved this time. North Platte citizens and their neighbors did the work on their own. The women prepared gift baskets at the Cody Hotel, across the street from the railroad depot. Because of security, the troops could not leave the train. Instead, the women handed the baskets into the train windows.

The North Platte depot, home of the North Platte Canteen
This model of North Platte’s Union Pacific Railroad depot is in the Lincoln County Historical Museum. The museum’s front doors came from the depot. Only a few items remain from the historic building.

The canteen moves into the North Platte depot

In 1941, Jeffers, who grew up in North Platte, was the railroad’s president. Sleight visited him and asked whether the canteen committee could use the depot’s unused lunchroom. He approved. The committee could use it as long as necessary.

Soon, Sleight’s health broke down. She had to resign and hand the organization to Helen Christ. Christ directed the canteen until the canteen closed.

Virgil and Ethel (Winters) Butolph's wedding apparel
Virgil and Ethel (Winters) Butolph carefully preserved their wedding finery.

Marrying the ‘popcorn girl’

At first, security concerns kept the service members on the train. When the military allowed the passengers to debark, the platform girls met them with baskets full of goodies like magazines, cigarettes, and popcorn balls. Many unmarried platform girls tucked their names and addresses in the balls so the soldiers could write to them.

At least one of those popcorn balls brought a couple together. The matchmaking McPherson County Canteen Ladies tucked an unmarried girl’s name in each ball. Even though Ethel Winters never served at the canteen, Virgil Butolph got her name through a popcorn ball connection. They corresponded for three years before they met. Two weeks later, they married on Sept. 14, 1944, while he was home on leave. She always enjoyed telling the story of her popcorn girl romance.

A little boy presents his ration book.
A little boy presents his ration book. (National Archives)

Sacrificing for the North Platte Canteen

The Canteen Ladies did not serve the service members 24 hours a day out of abundance. They served despite rationing. In 1942, the government halted automobile and part production and began rationing tires. Regular people could not buy new cars, parts to repair them, or tires. They had to patch them. Next, automobiles, gasoline, and bicycles went on the rationed list. Gasoline allocation for most people was three gallons a week. Automobile factories switched to military production in

Sugar and coffee were the first rationed food items. On May 5, 1942, rationing books came out. Removable stamps authorized families to purchase sugar, meat, cooking oil, coffee, cheese, and canned goods like milk and fish. When a person’s stamps were gone for the designated period, that person could no longer purchase rationed items until the next month. The stamps did not guarantee the ability to purchase the item. If the item was out of stock or the buyers lacked enough cash, they did without. To stretch their rations, people planted Victory Gardens and raised livestock. Home cooks substituted unflavored gelatin for butter. Molasses and corn syrup stood in for sugar.

North Platte Canteen volunteer's kitchen
Wartime cooks used their creativity and resolve to create dishes with limited ingredients.

Pooling their resources

For example, Anselmo and Merna pooled their resources for a single day’s volunteering. Three pickups and 22 cars caravaned 70 miles to North Platte. They brought 53 birthday cakes, 127 fried chickens, 58 dozen cookies, 32 dozen cupcakes, 73 pounds of coffee, 163 dozen eggs, 68 dozen donuts, 41 quarts of pickles, three crates of oranges, nine pounds of hame, 160 loaves of bread, 40 popcorn balls, 50 pounds of lunch meat, four cartons of cigarettes, four decks of cards and $600.

Many of these people hadn’t bought their contributions at the grocery store. They had made them from scratch. They had sacrificed their chicken flock to produce fried chicken.

Beyond transportation and food rationing, volunteers had to deal with poor roads. Many of them could travel by rail when troop trains didn’t crowd them out. If they couldn’t come by train, they crowded into vehicles with their food, like the people from Anselmo and Merna. Nebraska had some paved roads, but most of them were gravel. Some were dirt. But still, they came to serve, serving their food rations to the service members. That’s love. That’s sacrifice.

Soldiers cherish the North Platte Canteen

The canteen’s reputation spread quickly. James Nation recalled his experience. The train’s porters and conductors told him North Platte would welcome them. The welcome was all the railroaders said it would be.

Russ Fay of Wisconsin was on his way to California when his train stopped in North Platte. Canteen Ladies greeted the train with baskets of sandwiches and cold milk. Fay devoured a pheasant sandwich from Stapleton, Nebraska. Stapleton must have stripped Logan County of pheasants to provide the sandwiches. He still remembered the taste in 2002. North Platte was famous, he recalled. On the battlefield, men would say, “How’d you like to have some of that food from the North Platte Canteen right about now?”

Stapleton also sent pheasant feathers for souvenirs. After a battle in the Pacific Theater, nurses discovered those feathers in wounded soldiers’ boots. They refused to give them up to go into surgery. Finally, the surgeon told the nurses to douse the feathers in alcohol to disinfect them, then take them into surgery.

In later years, an unnamed officer told the North Platte Telegraph that the canteen meal was the last good meal his soldiers enjoyed for 2.5 years.

Spread at the North Platte Canteen
Birthday cakes, deviled eggs, cookies, pies, donuts, and sandwiches greeted hungry service members at the North Platte Canteen.

A day in the life of a North Platte Canteen volunteer

In 1942, 13-year-old Rosalie (Frazell) Lippincott volunteered from Shelton. Shelton volunteers were lucky; they could ride the train. The train left Shelton at 3:30 a.m. and arrived in North Platte around 7 a.m. First, Lippincott arranged magazines for the guests to pick up. Next, she peeled hard-boiled eggs. Lippincott recalled that from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., the volunteers filled 20 bushel baskets with egg sandwiches.

When the train stopped, the passengers rushed into the canteen. Some of them had been on the train for days with no money. Some had never been away from home before basic training. They savored the feel of home and a full belly. Two dozen women constantly stocked the tables with sandwiches, cookies, coffee, milk, and birthday cakes, Lippincott said.

Service members “were usually shoulder to shoulder,” Lorene (Runner) Huebner remembered. For a few moments, they could relax and think of [their homes] with homemade food… You just said a silent prayer that they would get back home.”

Any service member celebrating a birthday received an entire birthday cake, usually an angel food cake. (Angel food required egg whites. The bakers used the egg yolks for mayonnaise.)

If the layover lasted long enough, the passengers would gather around the piano. At times, a pianist would play a song like Stardust or String of Pearls. Some passengers would sing. Others would dance with the Canteen Ladies. “They’d hold you pretty tight,” Bonnie Glo (Brown) Aubushon said.

After the train left, Lippincott washed and dried the dishes. She enjoyed the tasks. “I was a teenager, and these were men in uniform,” she said. “Your heart went bumpity-bump-bump.”

In a segregated America, North Platte stood out. Everyone was welcome and was treated the same, no matter their rank, color, or gender.

Auctioning the shirt off his back for the North Platte Canteen

John “Gene” Slattery was 9 years old in 1942. He and his brother owned some goats. When the goats ruined the family’s fruit trees, his mother said the goats had to go. The brothers took the goats to the Ogallala sale barn and donated the proceeds to the canteen. After the auctioneer sold the animals, he asked, “What are you going to do next? Sell the shirt off your back?”

Slattery accepted the challenge. He sold that shirt everywhere he could. The successful buyer would donate it back for another auction round. Each auction sold the shirt about six times. Word of Slattery’s efforts reached President Franklin Roosevelt. The president donated $5 for the canteen. His secretary sent a letter and the donation to the North Platte Daily Bulletin. That $5 was a drop in the bucket compared to Slattery’s total effort. He raised more than $7,000 for the canteen.

The North Platte Telegraph special edition announcing "PEACE!"
This special edition sold out immediately. (National Archives)

The North Platte Canteen closes

On Aug. 14, 1945, the Japanese surrendered, and World War II ended. An Army Signal Corps film crew had come to North Platte to film the North Platte Canteen. In addition, they filmed North Platte’s delirious reaction to peace. People snatched copies of the newspaper’s special edition and spontaneously paraded through North Platte’s main streets. Now the troops could return home. Instead of sending their service members to war, the canteen could welcome them home. As the military rushed to demobilize, the canteen’s daily count hit 8,000 in the fall of 1945.

North Platte operated the canteen until April 1, 1946. Wilson returned home from California to join the ceremonial close. The next day, the volunteers returned to clean the canteen for one final time. They started coffee. While the volunteers were cleaning, a troop train pulled up. The volunteers could not provide food for this final train, but they donated their own coffee in one final loving act.

Canteen honored in North Platte’s Historic Canteen District

Look for the canteen marker at 300 E. Front St. where the depot stood before the railroad demolished it in November 1973. The marker is made from depot bricks. The railroad later admitted they had “probably” made a hasty decision (PDF) to tear it down. Despite the depot’s absence, North Platte’s downtown now bears the designation “Historic Canteen District.” When you pass under the arch emblazoned with that name, remember the parade of Canteen Ladies and their families who sacrificed so much to serve those who would be making the ultimate sacrifice.

List of the communities that served the North Platte Canteen.
The back of the North Platte Canteen marker at North Platte’s 20th Century Veterans Memorial displays the community names that served the North Platte Canteen.

The voices of six million

Adolf Hitler’s genocidal regime murdered some six million Jews. The North Platte Canteen served some six million troops. Love always wins.

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