True stories of wonderful small town women in World War II

This column originally was published by ECM Publishers, Inc, in hometownsource.com, 10-7-2015

True stories of wonderful small town women in World War II

by Joe Nathan

Reading the book “Once Upon a Town” can do several things for you. You will learn about a remarkable but little known, true World War II story that will fill you with gratitude and perhaps, amazement. It’s a tribute to terrific things that people working together can do.

You may want to read the book to or with elementary to high school age youngsters.

You also may experience a good cry. I rarely cry as I read books. But I cried repeatedly as I read this one – tears of appreciation and admiration.

Award-winning Chicago newspaper columnist Bob Greene traveled to North Platte, Nebraska, because he had heard about what people – mostly women from the area – had done. He wanted to find out whether vague stories he’d heard were true.

North Platte, Neb., had a canteen during World War II that served meals to about 6 million service members as they passed through the town on the train. (Photo courtesy of Jim Griffin, director and curator at the Lincoln County Historical Museum, North Platte, Neb.)

North Platte, Neb., had a canteen during World War II that served meals to about 6 million service members as they passed through the town on the train. (Photo courtesy of Jim Griffin, director and curator at the Lincoln County Historical Museum, North Platte, Neb.)

They were. From Dec. 17, 1941 to April 1, 1946, these folks met, welcomed and fed more than 6 million servicemen and servicewomen who stopped briefly in North Platte. Yes, 6 million. Yes, they did this for every troop train, from early morning until late at night. The trains were taking service people to the east or west coast, for war-time assignments.

Why did the people in and around North Platte do this?

Greene interviewed women who participated. Lorene Huebner, 76 when Greene interviewed, recalled: “You would feel like you had done something worthwhile, for the glory of God and for the glory of your nation.” She also explained, “It was exciting to go to North Platte and see the handsome young sailor boys.”

How did the service members react? Greene interviewed vets throughout the country who had stopped in North Platte. They experienced something there that happened nowhere else in the country.

Paul Metro, then 76, told Greene: “I think America should remember those people. Right in the middle of the country, … those people in that town helped us. They made us feel that someone appreciated us.”

Edward J. Fouss, who was 81 when interviewed, recalled, “Just a very nice feeling … and it smelled so good. … What I see, when I think back on it, is a lot of happy people.”

Russ Fay, 75 when he talked with Greene, recalled: “We never ran into anything like that, before or after. … I still thank them from the bottom of my heart.”

Greene noted that during interviews the (mostly female) canteen volunteers were emotional but generally “remained composed.” “But the soldiers they had welcomed, … as often as not, would weep at some point during our conversations.” They were so grateful, so surprised and so appreciative for what the Nebraskans had done.

I called Jim Griffin, director and curator of the Lincoln County Historical Museum in North Platte, to ask him about the book and the actual events. He said, “It’s a great book, really good introduction to the story.” Griffin explained that although (unfortunately) the canteen has been torn down, about 15,000 people a year visit North Platte, often coming to the museum. It has thousands of artifacts from the canteen, including pictures and letters of thanks from the service people.

Griffin told me there was just one thing that concerned him about the book. Greene accurately explains that a woman named Rae Wilson proposed the canteen and mentions a woman named Helen Christ. However, Griffin thinks Ms. Christ deserves more credit because she “ran the canteen for almost five years.”

More information, including great pictures, is available at Lincoln County Historical Museum’s website: http://bit.ly/1MZ99k5.

“Once Upon a Town” is a moving, memorable book. This was a remarkable, awesome effort to support and love fellow Americans.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at joe@centerforschoolchange.org.