One of these days I am going to board the Amtrak train at Waterloo and head over to North Platte, Nebraska. I have been wanting to do this for a long time.
I had never heard of North Platte until I read “Once Upon a Town” by Bob Greene. I don’t even remember how or why I picked up this little book. Maybe it was recommended to me or maybe it was just accidental. With a title of “Once Upon a Town” it is no wonder I loved it. It is one of those books I read over and over again.
This week I pulled it off the shelf to review it, but as life often does, it sent me on an internet scavenger hunt that ended with phone calls and lots of tears.
On Dec. 17, 1941, the boys from North Platte were coming through their home town after basic training in California to be shipped overseas. Their mothers and sisters and daughters wanted to do something special for them. So they prepared food at the Cody Hotel, which was across the street from the depot so that when their boys came through they could feed them.
The women cooked tirelessly getting everything ready for their boys: cookies, hard boiled eggs, birthday cakes, doughnuts, and sandwiches. They bought cigarettes, chocolate and newspapers to hand out. They knew the time would be short so they were ready when they heard the steam engine pull into the station. They opened the window of the Cody Hotel and waited until the train stopped and the young men began climbing out of the train. They could not wait to see their sons and brothers and fathers. But something was amiss … it was not their sons and brothers and fathers. Rae Wilson was in charge of the entire operation and she made a split second decision that changed the course of history for North Platte forever. She decided they would feed them just as if they were their own boys, and that they did.
After the train pulled out a short meeting was held. It was so wonderful to see those young grateful faces that they decided to meet every train until the end of the war.
That sounds easy. However, there were 24 trains per day until the close of the war. Men and women from small towns and farms flocked to help and give donations in Nebraska. William “Bill” Jeffers, who was a local resident and president of the Union Pacific Railroad, gave permission to the women to use a vacant room in the depot instead of the hotel. Here there was a piano as well.
In order to have enough food, volunteers donated stamps from their ration books. Children went without birthday cakes so there would be enough sugar for the cakes. The younger women, ages 16-25, made popcorn balls with their names and addresses tucked into them. Many marriages occurred after the war years because of those writing to one another. It was Helen Christ who kept track of how much food they were making. This is an excerpt from just one month in 1945:
30,679 hard-boiled eggs
2,845 sandwich meat
6,939 cakes including birthday cakes
All in all there were 55,000 volunteers from 25 towns. More than 6 million troops were fed with no money ever exchanged and no train ever missed.
With a little researching I learned that the Union Pacific Railroad, in the 1940s, carried 97 percent of the military.
By pure accident, or perhaps not, yesterday morning there was a re-enactment of a 1940s steam engine, The Spirit entered the old Union Station at 11:11 in Omaha, which is now the site of the Durham Museum. I logged on to their site to watch the train come into town and hear the whistle just as it did long ago. I knew it would be an emotional event for me after reading about this for so many years, but I didn’t know I would burst into tears.
Sitting quietly at my writing desk I watched the train pull in and the crowds cheer. I could see it all in my imagination … the men getting off the train, the women feeding them, the shy young girls handing out the popcorn balls.
The last train went through April 1, 1946, as the men were still returning home.
The Depot is now gone. Many of the folks are now gone.
But the story is here forever.