Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Hope, Food, and Cheer

Today my debut novel, Friends and Enemies, releases, but for this post, I’m jumping ahead to Book 3, Soar Like Eagles (which releases in September). I was searching for a war role for my female character and got an idea from the train canteens.

               America’s entrance into World War II brought about a mass mobilization of service men and women crisscrossing the country on their way to training facilities and embarkation points. Many of these people had never been far from home. Fresh out of school, they faced uncertain futures at unknown destinations. War fronts are dangerous places, and they had to realize not everyone would be returning home.

The railroads provided the bulk of the wartime transportation. Trains pulled into stations to take on water or change locomotives, giving the soldiers a few minutes to get out of their cramped quarters. Some suffered through five or six days sitting in overcrowded trains with no air conditioning. They arrived at small town train stations homesick, exhausted, scared, and hungry. Always hungry.

                Civilians mobilized as well. Volunteers met trains carrying 600 to 800 troops with smiles of welcome and baskets filled with food during the brief moments the trains paused at the railroad station. They offered  sandwiches, pies, cookies, cakes, coffee, milk, magazines, newspapers, writing paper, and sundry items. All free and all donated by residents in the surrounding region.


The North Platte, Nebraska canteen met every troop train with volunteers who prepared and served sandwiches, coffee, cookies, cakes, and other homemade treats during stops there. For 51 months, 24 hours a day, throughout the war, they provided food and hospitality to between two and three thousand soldiers per day.

The state of Ohio led the nation with twelve track-side canteens. The Dennison Canteen, started locally by Lucille Nussdorfer and later supported by the Salvation Army, attracted volunteers from eight counties. From March 19, 1942 to April 8, 1946, the Dennison Canteen never closed nor ran out of money or food. They also served food to German prisoners of war, en route to prison camps.

Dennison was the water stop on the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) halfway between Pittsburgh, PA and Columbus, OH. For the operation of steam-powered trains, this stop was mandatory. For the operation of a canteen, volunteers had five minutes to serve the troops while the trains were being filled with water.
It was not uncommon for the canteens to receive notes of thanks from far-off battlefields:
Words can never tell you how much I appreciated your most generous gift . . . with folks like you behind us it gives the added incentive that some of us might lack, to fight harder and better than ever before, and it's people like you that make the old USA. The best nation in the world, and worth working and fighting for.
From “Somewhere in Germany in 1945:
Late last Christmas Eve, a troop train rumbled across the U.S. en route from Texas to a P.O.E. The men were in their bunks but most of them were awake, thinking of their loved ones and the Christmas Eves of years gone by. Being away that far from home on this particular night was pretty rough and the men’s spirits were naturally very low. On top of it all, they had been traveling across the nation that whole day and no one had so much as wished them a ‘Merry Christmas.’
Then an event happened that none of the men will ever forget. The train rolled into a town and baskets of neatly wrapped gifts were brought on board. The shout of "Merry Christmas" was heard in the still night. This event made all the men feel pretty good. They knew then that someone appreciated what they were doing.

Sometimes the stops were too short and the troops were not allowed off the trains. Then the women gathered their food in baskets and went to the trains, offering their gifts to eager hands in the open windows.

               My friend Ron Hopley remembers “on the train to Norfolk we stopped in Columbus, Ohio, and there women handed cookies to all of us sailors on the train. I thought that was very nice and have never forgotten them.”

The Lima, Ohio, canteen offered an extensive menu:
Sandwiches: Roast Beef, Roast Pork, Baked Ham, Chicken, Turkey, Barbecue, Bologna (Ham) Salad, Meat Loaf, Egg Salad, Cheese, Chicken Salad, Goose, Rabbit
Fried Chicken
Cakes, Fruit Cake, Brownies, Doughnuts, Cookies, Peanut butter, Oatmeal, Molasses, Sugar, Gingerbread
Pies: Lemon, Apple, Cherry, Peach, Raisin, Strawberry, Pumpkin, Raspberry, Blackberry, Rhubarb, Pineapple
Hard boiled eggs
Candy bars, Fudge, Popcorn balls, Ice Cream, Other candy
Drinks: Coffee, Milk (white & chocolate), Orange Drink, Orange Juice, Tea, Hot Chocolate
Fruits: Apples, Oranges, Bananas, Grapes, Pears, Peaches, Cherries
Other Items: cigarettes, matches, tobacco, chewing gum, magazines, newspapers,  post cards, writing paper, pencils

The citizens of Aberdeen, South Dakota, opened a Red Cross/USO Canteen on August 19, 1943 in the depot of the Chicago-Milwaukee railroad, serving troops for more than two years, until March 22, 1946. Ham sandwiches, fruit, and cake were supplanted by pheasant-based dishes. Donated birds, at one time more than 1,000 pheasants were in storage for the canteen (the patriotic local warden kindly looked the other way), formed the basis of the meals.

            The largest train canteen in North Platte no longer exists, but the Dennison Salvation Army Canteen has been completely restored, including the stained glass windows with the original black paint around the edges from the wartime black-outs. They even have some of the sandwich bags in their museum. The Dennison Depot is recognized by the National Landmarks Commission and the National Park Service as the most significant remaining example in the nation of a railroad canteen still reflecting its World War II heritage. The train canteens were an American experience talked about and remembered at home and abroad.


  1. What a wonderful post. Warms the heart.

  2. Thank you for this post. I have seen the "Canteen" movies that featured movie stars entertaining the soldiers but I didn't realize the true worth for the soldiers at these various stops.

    1. They were a full-time labor of love for a lot of people.

  3. How interesting! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Brings tears to my eyes! Thanks, Terri.

  5. Congrats on the books! And thanks for the bit of history! :)

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