NORTH PLATTE, Neb. (KDVR) — In the small towns along Colorado’s eastern plains, a spirit of service takes root faster and deeper than the crops in the field. So it should come as no surprise that more than 75 years ago some of the smallest communities in our state took part in one of the biggest volunteer efforts of World War II.
More than 55,000 volunteers from 125 small towns organized a sendoff for more than six million service members headed to and from war. For more than five years, beginning Dec. 17, 1941 and ending April 1, 1946, they greeted every single troop transport train that passed through town.
“They got inside the (train depot) building, and they would have been greeted with ladies with ham salad sandwiches, egg salad sandwiches. They would’ve been pints of milk. Cake… if it was their birthday, you got a birthday cake – a whole birthday cake, not just a slice. And you got candy bars, cigarettes, magazines, all kinds of things. By the time you left you had a pile of things to go with you on the trip the rest of the way,” Jim Griffin, director of the Lincoln County Historical Museum, said.
For soldiers and sailors headed to Europe or the Pacific, it was one last taste of home. Food, made by moms and grandmothers, who used their own rationed supplies to make treats for total strangers.
“I can remember getting off and wondering why we stopped,” said Milo Shavlik, 94, of North Platte. He was a teenager who’d just joined the Navy when he passed through town.
“The ladies had ice cream and they had coffee and they had sandwiches and stuff. And one year, they shot a bunch of pheasants and cooked them up and served the service men coming through here,” he added.
Dorothy Van Buskirk was a 16-year-old high school student who volunteered to be a “platform girl.” Her job was to take baskets full of treats to service members who stayed on board the train during their brief stops in town.
“Well they liked seeing the girls,” Van Buskirk told FOX31. “The boys that didn’t want to go into the canteen, we’d give them fruit and cigarettes, candy and all that kind of stuff.”
Before long, the canteen project was too big an undertaking for just the ladies of North Platte. So other towns joined in – with each town rotating turns staffing the canteen. Women from Julesburg, Holyoke, Haxtun and other small Colorado towns would drive for hours – with carloads of food – to take part.
“Everybody wanted to be a part of something even bigger. And this was their chance, and they wanted to come from as far away as 250 or more miles. On gas rationing, they still got here to work,” Griffin said.
Little did they know it at the time, but their kind gesture left a mark months later on the battlefields of World War II.
“We have letters from lots and lots of veterans who went through. One letter talks about how they were in trenches waiting for the Japanese (to) attack, and everybody was pretty down, you know, it was the jungle, and it was wet. And someone said ‘hey you guys remember North Platte canteen?’ And everybody was happy for just a little bit, talking about it,” Griffin said.
The story of the canteen is just one example of the hometown heroes from the great plains, who contributed to the battle from the home front. In our Veteran’s Voices special, we take a look at the moms and dads who worked in a top secret ammunition plant on the prairie – while their sons were off at war. And we take you to the Weld County farm field that was once home to a German POW camp.
Watch the FOX31 Serving Those Who Serve Veterans Voices special “Heroes of the Heartland” above.