(This story first appeared alongside "All Aboard for Railfest" in the September/October 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

A UNION PACIFIC wrecking ball destroyed the brick building on Nov. 1, 1973, and now freight trains rumble just a few feet from where for 51 months thousands of dedicated women and teenage girls greeted millions of U.S. troops with hot food, warm smiles, and heartfelt prayers before they headed off to the horrors of World War II.

There are many railroad tales in Nebraska, but the most moving story of all is the inspiring and patriotic deeds of those female volunteers at the North Platte Canteen. Many of these servicemen had never heard of the town when they arrived, but they would never forget it when they left.

Some 70 years later, 10 minutes of kindness at the Union Pacific Railroad depot in North Platte remains a treasured memory for grateful GIs all across America. Some had been traveling for days, had no money, and it was their first trip from home. Then their bellies and hearts were filled in North Platte.

During almost 50 years as a reporter at the North Platte Telegraph, Sharron Hollen wrote many stories on the Canteen, including dozens of interviews with World War II veterans who wrote letters of thanks to the town decades later.

“Some of them were saying I just had to say thank you before I died,” recalled Hollen, who as a baby played in a basket in the Canteen while her mother served as a volunteer.

Hollen who retired in 2011, had also pored over hundreds of thank you letters sent during the war. One came from an officer who said the Canteen was the last good meal his soldiers had for 2 ½ years.

Union Pacific’s commuter service ended in 1971, but on Christmas Day, 1941, until April 1, 1946, nearly 7 million precious passengers rolled into the depot. These men and women of the military were greeted 24 hours a day with doughnuts, coffee, pies, and even pheasant sandwiches at the former UP restaurant. For more than four years, including months after the war’s end, nearly 55,000 Nebraskan women served those who bravely served America.

“They were going to some place far, far away,” Hollen said. “There were women who were serving them that were reminders of mom at home and it was real honest to God food.”

Bonnie Glo (Brown) Aubushon of Brady was a teenager serving boys not much older than she was, handing them birthday cakes, and passing out oranges, and their favorite treat, deviled eggs. She also got their addresses and wrote letters to them.

“One guy sent me a pair of ice skates, which I still have,” she said. “He was from Minnesota.”

Inside the Canteen, the GIs made the most of their short stay, gathering around the piano while a woman played songs like Stardust, or String of Pearls. “Some of them would just sing around the piano,” Aubushon said. “We’d get in there and dance with them. They loved that. They’d hold you pretty tight.”

Lorene (Runner) Huebner was another teen volunteer and the sound of those trains rolling in has always stayed with the Hershey farm girl. “One of the first memories I have is the train whistle.” she said. “That old steam engine sound as it came onto the viaduct coming to the depot.”

When a couple hundred soldiers dashed into the depot there was bedlam.

“They were usually shoulder to shoulder in the Canteen,” Huebner recalled. “For a few moments they could relax and think of home with homemade food. We knew and they knew that they were headed off to war. … You just said a silent prayer that they would get back home to their families.”

Two thousand brave souls stopped here each day. They knew the journey was heading into the darkest of tunnels, but for 10 minutes there was light. They had found their way back home in North Platte. 

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(This story first appeared alongside "All Aboard for Railfest" in the September/October 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)