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Book Recalls Small US Town's Unique Patriotism During WWII - 2002-07-03

Often Americans demonstrate their patriotism with an American flag strategically placed outside their home or on their car. That sort of pride was commonly seen around the country after last year's terrorist attacks on September 11. Sixty years ago, residents of one midwestern town in the U.S. expressed their patriotism with gratitude, providing hospitality for troop trains passing through their town just ten days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In December 1941, big band music was king on the radio, the United States' involvement in World War II was just beginning and trains full of American soldiers crisscrossed the country on their way to the coasts. Trains passing through the small town of North Platte, Nebraska usually stopped for about 15 minutes to take on water and supplies. One December evening, the people of North Platte heard rumors a train full of soldiers from Nebraska would stop in town, so they prepared baskets of food and drink for the boys. It turned out the train was carrying young men from Kansas.

Newspaper columnist and author Bob Greene has written a book, titled Once Upon a Town. He says the people of North Platte gave those baskets to the Kansas boys in the spirit of patriotism. "A woman named Rae Wilson, whose brother was in the Nebraska National Guard, wrote a letter to one of the local papers, the North Platte Bulletin," said Mr. Greene. "She said, 'If we can do nothing else for the war effort, we can do this. Why don't we start a canteen?'"

At the time, North Platte was a town of about 12,000 people. But Mr. Greene says it demonstrated a rare outpouring of generosity that was almost unseen before in the United States. "From December of 1941 through April of 1946, when all of the soldiers were home from World War II, the people of North Platte, Nebraska, met, fed, danced with, played music for, gave gifts to, befriended and took care of six million soldiers."

One of those servicemen was Lloyd Synovec, who stopped briefly in North Platte on the way to his Navy assignment in the Pacific. "It sort of bugged your eyes out," he recalled. "I just sort of went, 'wow,' like a lot of other guys."

Canteen workers were all volunteers and set up shop in an unused cafeteria at the Union Pacific train depot in town. They prepared sandwiches, pies, birthday cakes, coffee, milk and other things for the soldiers. Some teenagers, like Marjorie Roethmeyer, volunteered at the canteen.

"What I liked to do was go work on the platform. Then you got to meet the troop trains and the guys coming off them, and direct them where they should go," she said.

Troop trains did not stop often on their cross-country trips, usually when the train needed supplies and then on those occasions, not for very long. Trains rarely stopped in North Platte for more than 15 minutes. Ms. Roethmeyer says soldiers would run from their cars to the canteen.

"Some of these guys had not had much to eat," she explained. "When they got to get off the train to get a sandwich and get some exercise and get something to drink, they were very grateful."

People from throughout western Nebraska and eastern Colorado supported the canteen. Some volunteered to work a few days a month; others donated money, eggs or vegetables from their farms. Younger volunteers not needed in the canteen kitchen found other ways to be productive. "At that time, the jitterbug was the big rage," remembers Doris Dotson, who spent many days at the canteen. "I was only 11, 12, 13 years old. My cousins had taught me how to jitterbug. Some of those boys getting off of those troop trains were not much older than I was. They did not care if I was just a kid, as long as I could dance."

The 15 minute stop was not long enough to form lasting friendships, but some of the troops did keep in touch with teenage girls who occasionally wrote their addresses on slips of paper, and wrapped them inside balls of candied popcorn. Doris Dotson collected military patches from the soldiers.

"I had a jacket my folks had bought for me. I started putting [military] insignia patches on it. The boys would see my jacket and say, 'You do not have the best patch on there.' Meaning theirs.

The North Platte canteen never charged soldiers a penny for any of the food, drink or magazines it distributed. The canteen got no money from the government, except for a five dollar bill sent by President Franklin Roosevelt when he heard what the people of North Platte were doing.

This was not a time of plenty for most Americans. Items like sugar, food and gasoline were rationed. Lloyd Synovec says it amazed him that people would be so generous when they did not have much to share.

"They way people gave of themselves and of their rationed goods that they put into the cakes that they gave to these guys. In some cases, I would say that was probably quite a sacrifice," he said.

But author Bob Green says the people who worked at the canteen did not feel they were making a sacrifice. "They just thought that if they did not do it, no one else would. They thought the soldiers were working for them; they were not working for the soldiers. They never mixed that up. They thought the soldiers were the ones who were really sacrificing. Then canteen people were saying thank you," said Mr. Greene.

After the war ended, the canteen remained open for troops returning from duty. It closed for good on April 1, 1946. The Union Pacific Railroad tore down the depot in the 1970s. Today, a small plaque on the site of the depot commemorates the North Platte Canteen. Mr. Green hopes his book will add to that.

"They deserve a monument," said the author. " My thought is that a monument does not have to be made out of granite or glass. I hope their stories are their monument. I hope the stories they told me are their monument because 100 years from now, assuming people are still reading, these stories will still be there."