From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

I Have the Coffee On

John gazed with astonishment at the newspaper in his hands. The picture on the page in his hands had been taken fifty years earlier. He recognized his uniformed body, hatless head and blurred legs in the photo, running from the canteen to the waiting train.

“What’s wrong?” his wife asked, afraid that his exclamation and subsequent stillness meant bad news.

He turned to her, showing her the paper. “That’s me in the picture.”

As she peered at the photo, John recalled the day the picture was taken.

What a stop that had been! John, then a young Air Force gunner, had been en route from Lincoln Air Force Base in Nebraska—where his crew had been formed—to their next destination of Casper, Wyoming. From there, it was on to England to fight the Germans.

As the steam locomotive slowly lumbered along, the servicemen and servicewomen on board looked out the sooty windows. All around were flat expanses of brown and green, fields of wheat, alfalfa and corn. Occasionally, a silo or barn would break the horizon.

During the war, stops on the troop trains were rare. The hard, wooden seats served as kitchen tables and beds. Food consisted of K-rations with an occasional sandwich. Open windows were out of the question, as the billowing ashes from the steam engine coated soldier and food alike with a dusty grime.

But the train, one of the many troop trains chugging slowly across America, did have to stop for maintenance along the way. Water in the engine’s tender had to be refilled and the huge driving wheels needed to be lubricated. The stops, which took about ten minutes, were top secret for security reasons.

North Platte, Nebraska, located in the vast, rich farmlands of the Great Plains, with a large Union Pacific railyard, serviced many of the troop trains.

As they rolled into North Platte’s huge train yard, the conversations on board had ceased. Everyone was eager to get off the train and maybe, if they were lucky, get a cup of coffee and a snack.

As the train pulled in to the station, the soldiers and sailors were surprised to see teenage girls with baskets of sandwiches and cookies waiting to greet them on the platform. John had gone in to the depot. He had tried to pay for the food, but had been turned down. Smiling broadly, the woman behind the counter had informed him that all of the food was free for the troops. Too soon, the maintenance stop was over and he’d had to run from the depot back to the train. That’s when the picture must have been taken, he thought.

John recalled what a boost that stop had been for a tired and hungry soldier. For almost fifty years, the canteen at North Platte had stood out in his memory as a special place, but he hadn’t known that it had been special for thousands of other enlisted men and women, too.

Now John read the article: The North Platte canteen began as a spontaneous gesture. During World War II, troop movements were considered a military secret. Ten days after the bombing at Pearl Harbor, North Platte residents learned through the “grapevine” that their own Nebraska National Guard, Company D, was going to pass through North Platte en route to the West Coast. Company D had been training at Camp Robinson, Arkansas, and family members were anxious to see their sons and husbands after weeks of absence. About five hundred residents showed up at the railroad station and waited with cookies, candy and cigarettes as the troop train pulled up.

When the train rumbled into the station, the crowd moved forward in anticipation, only to discover that the troops on board were from Kansas Company D, not Nebraska. Disappointed not to see their own boys, a collective groan went up from the assembled crowd. They stood for a moment with the treats in their hands. Then someone called out, “Well, what are we waiting for? Welcome to our city, sons, and here’s a little something for you.” The North Platte canteen was born.

From that one gesture grew a tremendous war effort by the people of North Platte. Soon communities in Colorado and Kansas joined other Nebraska communities as coffee, sandwiches, cakes, cookies and magazines were donated to the North Platte canteen. The arrival times of the trains, a military secret, were given only to the head canteen officials. The officials, in turn, notified canteen volunteers by phoning the message “I have the coffee on.” Volunteers then spread the word to bring the food and supplies to the depot to meet the coming train.

“Platform girls,” usually teenagers, met the trains with baskets of sandwiches and cookies. If the troops were allowed to disembark, they could run into the depot for a quick bite, a friendly smile and welcome conversation.

The platform girls and the North Platte canteen became known for the dedication to the servicemen and servicewomen who stopped there. The numbers tell the story.

The North Platte canteen served the troops from 1941 to 1946. Every day, three thousand to five thousand soldiers, sailors and Marines visited the canteen located in the Union Pacific station. Toward the end of the war, the daily total reached eight thousand.

Wartime rationing didn’t stop volunteers from finding needed supplies. Many residents gave up their own supplies to aid the canteen. Other supplies were donated by farmers or came from victory gardens. Even birthday cakes were presented to those among the troops whose birthdays fell on the days the troop train stopped in North Platte. This was especially challenging because of the ration on sugar. One local woman gave up her own birthday cake to the canteen, so a serviceman could celebrate his birthday “in style.”

Besides the food and supplies brought in by private citizens, canteen organizers had a daily shopping list that included 160 to 175 loaves of bread, 100 pounds of meat, 15 pounds of cheese, 2 quarts of peanut butter, 45 pounds of coffee, 40 quarts of cream and 25 dozen rolls.

Donations were received from all over the country as word of the canteen spread. Benefit dances, scrap metal drives, school victory clubs and can drives were held to meet costs. Not a single cent came from any city, state or federal government source, unless one counts the five dollars sent by President Franklin Roosevelt himself.

John sat back, musing on the information in the article, his eyes resting on the picture of himself. A smile crossed his lips as he silently thanked the people of North Platte once again: There sure are a lot of us that are glad you “put the coffee on.”

Susan Grady Bristol

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