By Kylie Kinley, Assistant Editor
(From the July-August-September 2016 issue of Nebraska History News)
April 1 of this year marked the seventieth anniversary of the closing of the North Platte Canteen. The canteen served over six million World War II service men and women traveling on the Union Pacific railroad between December 25, 1941, and April 1, 1946. While it was created to boost morale among service men and women, the canteen also had significant lasting effects on the volunteers.
Rosalie Lippincott of Lincoln is proof of how a small act of service reverberates through a lifetime.
“I’ve thought so many times how I did this little act as a teenager and young woman and then I put it out of my mind and didn’t think about it,” Lippincott said. “And here in my sunset years, that act has brought me so much joy and pleasure. It gave me back some enthusiasm for life.”
Then Rosalie Frazell, she was one of the 55,000 volunteers from 125 different towns who helped serve food and drink and hand out cigarettes, popcorn balls, and magazines to canteen visitors.
“You just felt so good because everything was free, where at other canteens you had to pay,” Lippincott said. “Enlisted and officers together—nobody paid a cent.”
Lippincott served at the canteen between six and eight times. She visited for the first time in 1942 when she was a sophomore growing up on a farm near Shelton.
“The call was put out, and they wanted women volunteers to go,” Lippincott said. “My older sister went, so, boy, I thought—me, too! My parents understood what was going on and were certainly willing to let me help.”
While many communities pooled gas rations so volunteers could drive to the canteen, Shelton volunteers could take the train.
“But there was a catch,” Lippincott said. “The train left Shelton at 3:30 a.m.”
The first time, Lippincott and her friend nearly missed it even though she stayed overnight in Shelton instead of traveling the seven miles from her family’s farm to town in the morning.
“We overslept,” Lippincott said. “We jumped up and jumped into our clothes, but the train was twenty minutes late so time was in our favor. That little train didn’t chug along very fast.”
The girls arrived in North Platte around 7:00 a.m. and were put immediately to work.
“I arranged magazines and made them attractive for pick up,” Lippincott said. “It was all free, all donated by families. They weren’t absolutely current, but they were something to read.” Reading materials included Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, and sports, movie, and automobile magazines.
When that was finished, Lippincott started peeling hard-boiled eggs. In a letter she wrote to her future husband, Dick Lippincott, who was serving in Germany, she recorded that from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., volunteers filled twenty bushel baskets with egg salad sandwiches. Around twenty to twenty-five women were working constantly to keep the tables stocked with sandwiches, cookies, coffee, milk, and birthday cakes. Most remarkably for a nation under war rationing, all of the ingredients were donated.
“People gave up their sugar rations to bake something to give to the canteen,” Lippincott said.
Soldiers had about ten to twenty minutes to enjoy North Platte’s generosity.
“They ran in and ate and then the train whistled and away they’d have to go,” Lippincott said. The birthday cakes were part of a tradition at the canteen to make sure soldiers with birthdays left North Platte with their own cake.
“You’d call, ‘Any birthdays today?’” Lippincott said. “It brought big smiles when you could bring a birthday cake to somebody.”
After the food was served, massive clean-up commenced.
“We served coffee in china cups and that meant dishes to wash,” Lippincott said. “Being a peon and a teenager, that was my next job—to wash and dry dishes.”
Dishwashing did not dim Lippincott’s enthusiasm for working at the canteen.
“I was a teenager and these were men in uniform. Your heart went bumpity-bump-bump,” Lippincott said. “But you had to behave yourself, and we always did. My dad would have skinned me if he thought I was being a floozy.”
Lippincott graduated from high school at age fifteen in 1944 and then taught school, so she didn’t have as much time to go to North Platte. After the war ended, she was reunited with her soldier sweetheart, Dick Lippincott.
“It was love at first sight,” Lippincott said. “A mutual friend had a Sunday dinner, and she set us up. He had a farm deferment, but he didn’t feel right about it and went to the draft board. After two years in the service, he came back in August 1946, and we married on his birthday, November 27, 1946.”
The Lippincotts, who were married sixty-two years before Dick passed away in 2009, farmed near Central City and raised three sons and a daughter. All their sons served in the military, and their daughter is a registered nurse.
For a while, Lippincott’s time at the canteen faded from memory.
“My kids never heard me talk about the canteen,” Lippincott said. “I was so busy raising four kids and being a farmer’s wife that talking about the canteen never happened. Sometime in the 90s, when we got a computer, I wanted something to do on it, so I wrote out what I remembered about the canteen. I told my two youngest sons and they said to me, ’You’ve never said anything about it.’ I said, ’Well, I’m telling you about it now so you know.’”
Lippincott has done numerous speaking engagements throughout the state to share the amazing feat of generosity that happened at the North Platte Canteen. Beyond sandwiches, birthday cake, and something to read, the canteen gave support to soldiers far from home, bound for dangerous destinations.
“It’s surprising how many people say—‘I didn’t know that!’” Lippincott said. “It’s a story that needs to be talked about.”
For Further Reading
For more stories, images, and video of the North Platte Canteen, visit nebraskastudies.org and click on the 1925-1949 timeline button. Or, for a shortcut to the page, click here . The Lincoln County Museum in North Platte also has a web site with excellent photos and stories. You can find them by clicking here