From National Public Radio -- June 6, 2002 -- Writer Bob Greene calls it "the miracle of the trains." Starting in December 1941 and throughout World War II, volunteers in North Platte, Neb., greeted and comforted millions of soldiers and sailors heading off to battle as troop trains made brief stops in the little town.
"The people of the town were there, every train for the entire war," Greene says. In a Morning Edition interview with host Bob Edwards, the Chicago Tribune columnist and author discusses Once Upon a Town, his new book about North Platte.
The numbers are astonishing. "This town of 12,000 people... greeted 6 million men. Sometimes with as many as 20 trains a day, sometimes 7,000 or 8,000 people came through this little town. And the men pulled in and they looked out the train windows" and saw the locals waiting for them with a smile and a meal.
The North Platte Canteen was an oasis for "the boys" -- many of the soldiers were teenagers, who were lonely, hungry and tired. Many had never been away from home before "and they didn’t know if they’d ever come back," Greene says.
But during their 10-minute stops, they were greeted with chicken and egg salad sandwiches, coffee and free magazines. Volunteers from North Platte and 125 farming communities from around Nebraska came to the canteen. They took turns preparing meals for the GIs. The locals would stay up all night cooking chicken and "in an assembly line they would make hundreds or thousands of sandwiches in a day," Greene says.
(cold bottles of milk and coffee with free magazines and books were made available; some gave above their ration card… only $5.00 from F.D.R. the only government aide given to the project!)
There was even time for a bit of socializing. "There was a piano in the corner of the canteen and they would play the piano and the men would dance with these girls for 10 minutes," Greene says.
The men received popcorn balls with little slips of paper tucked inside with the addresses of local high school girls or young women for the soldiers to write to. In researching his book, Greene says he even found two women who ended up marrying men who found their names in the popcorn balls. (pen pals… some even married)
Other places around the country sporadically pitched in to help soldiers during World War II. But in North Platte, it was a constant effort. Greene says the Nebraskans "were doing it for themselves, doing it to say, ’This is what it means to be an American.’"
The soldiers were amazed to see the locals waiting for them -- even in the middle of the night -- and would talk about their brief visit when they got to the battlefields of Europe. Greene says: "The men would say to each other, ’Ever been to North Platte, Nebraska?’ They never forgot because the trains only stopped for 10 minutes.
The people of North Platte made those 10 minutes count."
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