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Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen

Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen

4.4 15
by Bob Greene

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During World War II, American soldiers from every city and walk of life rolled through North Platte, Nebraska on troop trains, en route to Europe and the Pacific. The tiny town transformed its modest railroad depot into the North Platte Canteen — a place where soldiers could enjoy coffee, music, home-cooked food, magazines, and friendly conversation during a


During World War II, American soldiers from every city and walk of life rolled through North Platte, Nebraska on troop trains, en route to Europe and the Pacific. The tiny town transformed its modest railroad depot into the North Platte Canteen — a place where soldiers could enjoy coffee, music, home-cooked food, magazines, and friendly conversation during a stopover that lasted only a few minutes. It provided homesick military personnel with the encouragement they needed to help them through the difficult times ahead. Every day of the war, the Canteen — staffed and funded entirely by local volunteers from the community of twelve thousand — was open from 5 a.m. until the last troop train of the day pulled away after midnight. By war's end they provided welcoming words, friendship, and baskets of food to more than six million GIs.

Based on interviews with North Platte residents and the GIs who once passed through, Bob Greene unearths and reveals a classic, lost-in-the-mists-of-time American story of a grateful country honoring its brave and dedicated sons.

Editorial Reviews

Vito F Sinisi
Bestselling author Bob Greene has given us another moving and inspirational look at WWII history with this account of the selfless volunteers who gave their all -- at a time when sacrifice was the order of the day -- to greet, thank, entertain, and feed millions of American servicemen as their troop train rolled though the small town of North Platte, Nebraska. Every day, for the entire duration of the war, this community of only 12,000 people kept the Canteen open from 5 A.M. until the very last troop train pulled away. Each train only stopped for ten minutes or so, but the memory of the helping hand given them by the North Platte volunteers would last a lifetime.
Ann Landers
This is an inspiring and uplifting tale . . . I was moved to tears, and you will be, too.
Rocky Mountain News
More than 6 million soldiers passed through then, nearly 8, 000 a day toward the end of the war.
Chicago Tribune
I salute the author for preserving this story of another time in another America.
Deirdre Donahue
Greene locates some of the women who greeted the trains with homemade food and a dance or two. . .
USA Today
Lincoln Journal Star
. . . a glimpse into rural Nebraska culture, norms and practices long since vanished.
Beth Kephart
There is an extraordinary story that should someday be told about the railroad depot in North Platte, Nebraska, that transformed itself, during World War II, into a most memorable convening place for the soldiers passing through. Every day, from 5 a.m. until midnight, the North Platte Canteen opened its doors to the troops whose trains pulled into town—providing free egg salad sandwiches, apples, candy and homemade cakes; magazines, Bibles and music; encouragement and friendship. Between Christmas Day 1941 and early April 1946, some 6 million military personnel were fed and nurtured by a community 12,000 people strong. All of them were volunteers. All of them were inspired to do something for men who might never return home. What a story that is, and what a dire shame that Bob Greene does not quite find a way to tell it in his new book, Once Upon a Town.

A syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of some twenty books, including the bestselling Duty, Greene surely has his heart in the right place. "We're always talking about what it is that we want the country to become," Greene writes. "Maybe the answer is one we already had, but somehow threw away."

But how does one reimagine history, when most of the evidence is gone? The conundrum faces Greene from the opening pages, and he never quite stares it down. "I arrived in town, and went to the place where the train depot had stood, and there was nothing there," he reports, about the station that was demolished in 1973. His search for the story he wants to tell will, he admits, be akin to searching for a ghost.

With the Canteen no longer standing, Greene feels compelled to fill the pages ofhis book with what he finds in contemporary North Platte instead—a girls' softball game, a Wal-Mart. We get the inside scoop, in other words, on many things that have nothing at all to do with his subject. In addition to making some rather obfuscating observations, Greene begins to ask old-timers to recollect the era of the great Canteen. But again, these tales are infused with so many tangents that the Canteen gets lost in the mist. For example, after one former volunteer briefly recalls for Greene the first Christmas at the Canteen ("We carried the bushel baskets out to the train, gave the men the apples and the candy, wished them Merry Christmas, and the train left"), she turns her memories upon her own "fly-by-night" mother, who had no presence at the Canteen. It's certainly easy to understand why this interviewee would choose to tell her mother's story to a kind and interested reporter, but it's harder to comprehend why Greene would include such anecdotes in this book.

What really thwarts Once Upon a Town is Greene's decision to tell the tale not as a historian might—using the tools of synthesis and imaginative reconstruction—but as a journalist overly enamored with so many seemingly unedited transcripts. Page after page of Once Upon a Town is given over to memories of old-timers whom Greene introduces merely by name and by age, making it difficult to lose one's self in whatever they are saying or the era they have been asked to re-create.

The North Platte Canteen represents an exquisite moment in our nation's history, when perfect strangers treated perfect strangers as best-loved sons, and Bob Greene does a very special thing by putting the fact of the Canteen back into our national consciousness. He could have done so much more, however, to make us believe in the place that it was.
Publishers Weekly
Chicago Tribune columnist Greene (Duty) provides a moving, detailed remembrance of North Platte, Neb., and its residents' selfless contribution to the war effort during WWII. The town, located in the middle of the middle of the country, was situated on the rail line to western military bases. Ignited by a letter printed in a local newspaper, the town's residents organized a canteen for soldiers headed for the front lines, bringing food, cigarettes and magazines. Greene interviews locals, war veterans and former residents, offering a genuine but unsentimental glimpse of Americana. LaVon Fairley Kemper remembers one volunteer who learned that her son had been killed in combat, yet said, I can't help my son, but I can help someone else's son. For the soldiers, Greene writes, the canteen and the townspeople's welcome was indicative of the nation's sacrifice, a point driven home in several memorable anecdotes. The young soldiers saw the brief stop in North Platte as one last chance to be carefree, an opportunity to jitterbug and flirt with the fresh-faced teenaged girls for a safe, fleeting moment. Beyond the wartime recollections, Greene reflects on his travels in the region, skillfully chronicling its citizens, evolution and love for its past, using the intimate, engaging writing style familiar to readers of his syndicated column. Those intrigued with WWII lore will find this well-crafted book an entertaining snapshot of a simpler, kinder America. Greene's skill makes this homage not just a time capsule but a work that will strike a resonating chord in those seeking to remember the generosity and selflessness of many when faced with adversity and peril. Agent, Eric Simonoff, Janklow & Nesbit. (June 3) Forecast: With a history of writing bestsellers, Greene will make the best of an extended tour in Nebraska and the Midwest to generate grassroots interest in this feel-good chronicle of wartime America. Faithful readers of his column and books will snatch this up, inspired by the current patriotic mood. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Greene, author of the best-selling Duty, here depicts the little North Dakota town that ran a canteen for troops passing through on their way to World War II. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Veteran Chicago Tribune columnist Greene (Duty) takes a lively, affectionate look at small-town America through the lens of a most unusual institution. North Platte, Nebraska, is one of those places that flashes by on the interstate, a typical wayside venue of fast-food restaurants, chain stores, and a decaying downtown, superficially "just another interchangeable part of a bland and homogenized America in which Connecticut is no different from Texas." Six decades ago, the town made much more of an impression upon thousands of young American men who, passing through on troop trains en route to war in Europe or the Pacific, were treated at its station canteen to cigarettes, fresh food, hot coffee, and plenty of hospitality. "This was not something orchestrated by the government," Greene writes. "This was not paid for with public money. All the food, all the services, all the hours of work were volunteered by private citizens and local businesses"—with, he adds, the exception of a five-dollar donation made by President Roosevelt, who had heard about the place and wanted to pay his respects. In the course of this searching portrait, Greene wanders around North Platte, visiting with elderly veterans of the canteen and WWII, examining how the citizens' generosity and caring made a world of difference to all those young men so many years ago. (He also includes grateful letters written to the townspeople by soldiers and their parents.) Along the way, pointedly but subtly, Greene contrasts the North Platte and America of yesteryear with what they have become today. Asking himself whether an American town today would do what North Platte did then, he rejoins with a more elemental question: "What's a town?" In a literature overflowing with melodramatic, and often overblown, accounts by the likes of Brokaw and Ambrose, this pleasingly modest and meaningful account of life on the homefront deserves the widest audience.
Orlando Sentinel
“Greene [is] one of the great contemporary chroniclers of American life.”
Tampa Tribune
“Once again, Bob Greene has shown us why he is one of the best storytellers of contemporary times.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Charming…a portrait of the can-do spirit at work.”
Omaha World-Herald
“A tale of small-town generosity in a time of war.”
Journal Star
“Poignant and heartfelt.”
Aaron Brown
“…the quintessential American story…”
Herbert Mitgang
“… I salute the author for preserving this story of another time in another America.”
Tom Wolfe
“Greene is a virtuoso of the things that bring journalism alive.”
Greg Moody
“This is a great story of love, country and uncalled-for service in a time of national crisis.”
Joe Duggan
“... a glimpse into rural Nebraska culture, norms and practices long since vanished.”

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
Unabridged Edition
Product dimensions:
5.16(w) x 6.32(h) x 0.76(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

On Interstate 80, three or four hours into the long westward drive across Nebraska, with the sun hovering mercilessly in the midsummer sky on a cloudless and broiling July afternoon, there were moments when I thought there was no way I'd ever find what I had come here to seek:

The best America there ever was. Or at least whatever might be left of it.

It wasn't some vague and gauzy concept I was searching for; not some version of hit-the-highway-and-aimlessly-look-for-the-heart-of-the-nation. This was specific: a real town.

But the news, as I was hearing it from the rental-car radio on this particular summer's day, made Nebraska in the early years of the twenty-first century sound deflatingly like the rest of the continental United States.

In Sutherland -- not far from where I was heading -- a man had come home from work to the rural farmhouse he and his sixty-six-year-old wife shared. The house, located on a dirt road about a mile from the closest neighbor, was in an area so quiet and sedate that there was seldom a reason to lock the doors. When the man arrived home, he found his wife sitting in a chair dead, with a gunshot wound to her head.

Two men-Billy J. Reed, twenty, and Steven J. justice, twenty-two -- were soon arrested. Prosecutors said they were wanted for the recent murders of an elderly couple in Adams County, Illinois. The men allegedly were fleeing across Nebraska, and stopped in at the farmhouse in Sutherland with the intention of robbing it. The men evidently selected the farmhouse at random, and allegedlyshot the sixty-six-year-old woman to death just because she happened to be at home.

Also in Nebraska on this summer day, Richard Cook, thirty-four, was sentenced to life in prison because of what he did to a nineteen-year-old woman who was a college freshman.

She had been driving late at night when her car suffered a flat tire. Alone, she had pulled over to the side of the road to try to change the tire. Richard Cook, driving on the same road that night, stopped his car as if to help the stranded young woman. He then assaulted her, shot her five times, and dumped her body in the Elkhorn River.

In Hall County, a man named Jamie G. Henry, twenty-four, was under arrest for allegedly using an electrified cattle prod to discipline his eight-year-old stepson. The cattle prod, according to sheriff's deputies, was of the kind designed to jolt two-thousand-pound bulls into obedience. Jamie Henry reportedly used it on the boy and his five-year-old sister; Henry also allegedly punished the boy by tying him tightly at his hands and ankles, and, during the winter, tying the boy barefoot to a tree and locking him out of the house in the cold.

That is what was going on in Nebraska on this summer day -- at least that is what was going on that had been deemed worthy of the public's notice. It could have been anywhere in the United States; the police-blotter barbarism of the news, the seeming soullessness of the crimes, had a sorrowful and deadening familiarity to them.

Yet once upon a time, in the town I hoped to reach by nightfall...

Well, that was the purpose of this trip. Once upon a time -- not really so very long ago -- something happened in this one little town that, especially on days like this one, now sounds just about impossible. Something happened, in the remote Nebraska sandhills, in a place few people today ever pass through....

Something happened that has been all but forgotten. What happened in that town speaks of an America that we once truly had -- or at least that our parents did, and their parents before them.

We're always talking about what it is that we want the country to become, about how we can save ourselves as a people. We speak as if the elusive answer is out there in the mists, off in the indeterminate future, waiting to be magically discovered, like a new constellation, and plucked from the surrounding stars.

But maybe the answer is not somewhere out in the future distance; maybe the answer is one we already had, but somehow threw away. Maybe, as we as a nation try to make things better, the answer is hidden off somewhere, locked in storage, waiting to be retrieved.

That's what I was looking for on this Nebraska summer afternoon, with the temperatures nearing one hundred degrees. The car radio continued to tell the dismal breaking news of the day, and I continued on toward my destination, a town with the unremarkable name of North Platte.

Chapter Two

North Platte, Nebraska, is about as isolated as a small town can conceivably be. It's in the middle of the middle of the country, alone out on the plains; it is hours by car even from the cities of Omaha and Lincoln. Few people venture there unless they live there, or have family there.

But before the air age, the Union Pacific Railroad's main line ran right through North Platte. In 1941, the town had little more than twelve thousand residents. When World War 11 began, with young men being transported across the American continent to both coasts before being shipped out to Europe and the Pacific, those Union Pacific cars carried a most precious cargo: the boys of the United States, on their way to battle.

The trains rolled into North Platte day and night. A local resident -- or so I had heard -- came up with an idea:

Why not meet the trains coming through, to offer the servicemen a little affection and support? The soldiers were out there on the empty expanses of midwestern prairie, filled with thoughts of loneliness and fear. Why not try to provide them with warmth and the feeling of being loved?

On Christmas Day 1941, it began. A troop train rolled in -- and the surprised soldiers on board were greeted by North Platte residents with welcoming words, heartfelt smiles and baskets of food and treats.

What happened in the years that followed was nothing short of amazing -- some would say a miracle. The railroad depot on Front Street was turned into the North Platte Canteen. Every day of the year-from 5 A.M. until the last troop train of the night had passed through after midnight -- the Canteen was open. The troop trains were scheduled to stop in North Platte for only ten minutes at a time before resuming their Journey. The people of North Platte made those ten minutes count.

Gradually, word of what was happening in North Platte spread from serviceman to serviceman during the war, and on the long train rides across the country the soldiers came to know that, out there on the Nebraska flatlands, the North Platte Canteen was waiting for them.

Each day of the war -- every day of the war -- an average of three thousand to five thousand military personnel came through North Platte, and were welcomed to the Canteen. Toward the end of the war, that number grew to eight thousand a day, on as many as twenty-three separate troop trains.

Many of the soldiers were really just teenagers. This was their first time away from home, the first time away from their families. On the troop trains they were lonesome and far from everything familiar, and they knew, that some of them might never come back from the war, might never see their country again. And then, when they likely felt they were out in the middle of nowhere, they rolled into a train station and were greeted day and night by men, women and children who were telling them thank you, were telling them that their country cared about them.

The numbers are almost enough to make you cry. Remember -- only twelve thousand people lived in that secluded town. But during the war, six million soldiers passed through North Platte, and were greeted at the train station that had been turned into a Canteen. This was not something orchestrated by the government; this was not paid for with public money. All the food, all the services, all the hours of work were volunteered by private citizens and local businesses.

The only federal funding for the North Platte Canteen was a five-dollar bill that President Roosevelt sent from the White House because he had heard about what was taking place in North Platte, and he wanted to help.

It might have been a dream-but it wasn't. Six million soldiers who passed through that little town -- six million of our fathers, before we were born. And every single train was greeted; every man was welcomed.

It was a love story -- a love story between a country and its sons.

And it's long gone.

That is why I was traveling across Nebraska on this sunbaked July afternoon.

There is no reason for anyone to pass through North Platte anymore-the jet age has done away with that. If a person wants to get from one end of the United States to the other, he or she now likely does it five miles in the air, high above the country -- high above Nebraska. All the small towns flash by in an instant-on a cloudy day, it's as if they are not even down there.

And the country itself... the country itself at times seems to have gone away. At least a country in which neighbors would join together for five straight years, every day and every night, just so they could provide kindness and companionship to people they had never met.

In a lot of ways, it is a country that many of us seem always to be searching for.

I wasn't at all certain what I would find when I got to North Platte.

But the people from the Canteen -- the people who came there on their own time to run it, the people who hurriedly ran inside to savor it, on their way to war-will soon all be gone.

I wanted to get to North Platte before it was too late.

Once Upon a Town. Copyright © by Bob Greene. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Aaron Brown
“…the quintessential American story…”
Joe Duggan
“... a glimpse into rural Nebraska culture, norms and practices long since vanished.”
Herbert Mitgang
“… I salute the author for preserving this story of another time in another America.”
Ann Landers
“Lovely...inspiring...uplifting...I was moved to tears, and you will be, too.”
Tom Wolfe
“Greene is a virtuoso of the things that bring journalism alive.”
Greg Moody
“This is a great story of love, country and uncalled-for service in a time of national crisis.”

Meet the Author

Award-winning journalist Bob Greene is the author of six New York Times bestsellers and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Op-Ed page.

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Once upon a Town 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very informative. The author went into great detail to track down and interview particiapants whom are now scattered throughout the USA. A most humbling and patriotic effort put on entirely by volunteers in a time of great need. A part of our history that should not be forgotten. Perhaps today's USO carries on this tradition.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Bob Greene's 'Once Upon A Town' is definitely a story that needs telling. The subject matter is an enthralling expose' of the basic, down-home patriotism of the American Midwest and the determination of the common folk to show their devotion to their country and their armed forces. The writing itself came-across to me as a bit 'korney' in some areas (the reiterative 'love will find you' angle got a bit tiresome) and it seems the author was trying a bit too hard at times to infuse a degree of drama into a story that needs little additional flavor. I'd definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in the home front of WWII.
Guest More than 1 year ago
During World War II, approximately 6 million military personnel passed through the nondescript town of North Platte, Nebraska. Some were headed to Europe, others to the Pacific, and some returning from battle; many of them wounded. The citizens of North Platte, and its surrounding communities, pitched in to greet the troop trains as they made their brief stops. The generosity of these people was overwhelming as they used their ration coupons and precious food reserves to bake goods for the servicemen to enjoy. Many also used their gas ration coupons to deliver it to the train depot. The author interviewed both the servicemen who were aboard those troop trains, and the citizens who greeted them. Their recollections are very moving. To quote one Veteran interviewed in the book, 'That was the other side of the war - the one that doesn't get mentioned in the history books. What people at home did.' Once Upon a Town recreates an era when Americans stood proudly in support of their military personnel.
Anonymous 7 months ago
Very well told story of outstanding citizens in a special town.
liner63 More than 1 year ago
There were good people then and there still are good people.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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NaomiNoon More than 1 year ago
By author of "Once Upon Yesterday". This book is about American during World War II, a time when married men quit their jobs to join the service, sixteen year olds lied about their ages so they could enlist to serve their country, and most of the service men were only kids who had just graduated from high school, they were lonely and scared, optimistic and brave. This book is about the volunteers at the canteen of North Platte, a small town in Nebraska, who were women of all ages and from all walks of life, including farmer's wives, from Nebraska and Colorado in the vicinities of North Platte, and with their husbands, sons, brothers went to war, they were lonely and scared, optimistic and brave. As the service men pass through North Platte by the thousands daily in troop trains, on their way either to the east coast, then to Europe, or to west coast, then to Pacific, they were met at the canteen at the railroad station in downtown North Platte, without fail, day and night, rain or shine, during the four years of war, by the women with home made sandwiches and cakes, hard boiled eggs, coffee, candies, cigarettes, chewing gums, magazines, all aplenty and free of charge, to show them, with a smile, that the country cared about them and was grateful to them for what they were doing for the country. The volunteers used their scarce food ration to make food for the service men and the canteen was supported by the people and business in the vicinities with generous donations in the form of money, food and supplies. As the book jumped back and forth from the war time to the present, it could easily get confusing, but in the hand of a talented and experienced writer, it served as the bridge between now and then. The author said he wanted to write the book, when many of the women who had volunteered at the canteen and many of the servicemen who had been there were still alive, so that he could interview them, and the events were told just the way it had happened, without exaggeration or distortion. The book gave me a glance of America during World War ll, as I came to America only years later.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was an extremely easy read and opened up an entire part of our history that I had never known existed. Had the author not done his research and interviews when he did this story may have never been told. I wish my own father were alive to ask if his trips across the country as a soldier included a stop in North Platte.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Dear Readers, what a wonderful way to go back in time. I was born in 1941 and now have an idea of how times were then and the impact the North Platte Canteen made on our young soldiers passing through this very thoughtful town. How unselfish. Something so generous that they did for our soldiers remains in the minds and hearts of those still living who experienced this selfless act, whether on the giving or the receiving end of it all.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is just further proof that the 'Greatest Generation' is appropriately named. These people exhibited unbelievable generosity while enduring their own hardships and never sought recognition or fame.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful book. The writing effortlessly evokes a wide range of moods. It convincingly conveys the intense emotions those men and women experienced so long ago. You glimpse the incredible generosity of the American heart.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I started reading this book at the stoplights on the way home and made it to the couch. I did not move until the last page! It's not because the book is full of war action on the front. It's the support action behind the troops that makes this book a Pulitzer prize worthy read. I had heard of the 'Nebraska Ladies' from my father, who was one of the soldiers on the West bound troop trains. I bought him the book for father's day..now I will have to buy him another as I am keeping this for my personal library. I hope that some sort of memorial honoring these fine people can be erected...A must read...even if you are not a history buff.We could all learn a valuable lesson from the people of the North Platte Canteen. I give it 5 stars as the best read of the year.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Bob Greene researched his latest book by spending lots of time in North Platte, Nebraska. I was born and raised in North Platte, and so walking the streets of memories along with Mr. Greene brought joy and some tears. BUT, this book tells it like it really was, and I know because my Mother was one of those special ladies who volunteered their time at the North Platte Canteen for the duration of the War. Mom told our family what is was like to help Our Boys get through rough times, and Mr. Greene retells it perfectly. He is an author in great command of the genre and I could not put this book down.