Little Egypt Heritage Articles
© Bill Oliver
21 October 2007
Vol 6 Issue: #39
O’siyo, Good Evening Ladies and Gentlemen of Little Egypt,
“United Services Organization”
First, “Things I wouldn’t know if I didn’t open my mail.” [Sidney
Harris] Or, read my newspaper. Last Tuesday, 16 October, was “Boss Day”.
This annual day was created by Patricia Bays Haroski to honor her boss
at a State Farm Insurance office in Deerfield, Illinois. Things a boss
can do: give folks the freedom to do their jobs, while maintaining high
standards and performance.
Every war produces services to servicement. In 1914 26,000 YMCA
volunteers worked in YMCA canteens during WWI and carried food and
supplies to our soldiers. In 1940, America’s military was rapidly
growing in response to the increasing threat which preceded entry into
World War II. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called upon six
private organizations—the YMCA, YWCA, National Catholic Community
Service, the National Jewish Welfare Board, the Traveler’s Aid
Association and the Salvation Army—to handle the on-leave recreation
needs for the members of the Armed Forces. The six organizations pooled
their resources and the United Service Organizations was formed sixty
six years ago [4 February 1941]. The United Service Organization began
the tradition of following our troops everywhere they went in World War
II giving them a “touch of home”.
The USO, as it come to be known, enlisted such folks as Bob Hope, Glenn
Miller and his Orchestra, the Andrews Sisters and other shining stars of
Hollywood to help servicefolk to forget the horrors of combat.
This tradition was built upon after World War II, continuing to provide
entertainment and support to troops around the world. And when new
conflicts arose in Korea and Vietnam, folks like Judy Garland,
Ann-Margaret and John Wayne led the headliner list as the USO put on
shows on remote military bases around the world.
Public support of the USO declined following the U. S. withdrawal from
Vietnam; however, it has been renewed even to this day. In the early
1980s , tours by Lou Rawls and Loretta Lynn revived the USO’s stagnant
entertainment momentum. 1983 found Bob Hope and his USO show Christmas
Special entertaining Sailors and Marines off the coast of Lebanon. Major
rock musicians also began touring for the USO. Operation Desert Storm
saw the USO once again follow our troops to set up shows in the desert
with the indomitable Bob Hope, along with Steve Martin, Dolly Parton,
Jay Leno, and many other popular entertainers.
On the homefront, the USO organized dances, established canteens,
community centers and travel support offices while continuing to
providing quality entertainment from cultural landmarks like the
Hollywood Canteen and Radio City Music Hall to hand-rigged recreation
centers on remote military bases from Maine to Alaska.
While the USO is best known for bringing the biggest celebrities to the
troops, its mission continues today with programs such as ‘Newcomer’
briefings for troops and family members, airport service centers,
family-oriented picnics/cookouts, programs for children, discharge
employment assistance, telephone, Internet and e-mail capabilities, USO
Centers and USO Canteens to provide a comfortable and wholesome relief
from daily stress.
Though I remember Ed Sullivan bringing his show on board the USS Iowa in
1954, I also remember the hometown Canteens and the ‘Ladies’ who served
bologna salad sandwiches, a piece of pie and a ‘steaming’ cup of coffee
to troops in movement during WWII. Lima, Ohio brags that its “Free
Servicemen’s Canteen” was the longest operating canteen in the United
States [28 years from WWII until 1970]. This week a marker was dedicated
at the former Pennsylvania Railroad passenger station in Lima to give
notice of this.
General John H. Tilelli, Jr., President and CEO of USO Headquarters
Worldwide Operations, was the keynote speaker for the "Canteen Memories"
Reunion, June 11-12, 2000 during the Nebraskaland Days festival in North
During World War II, the rail station at North Platte, Nebraska, served
as one of the largest USO canteens in the United States, functioning as
a connection point for service members traveling across the country. The
"Canteen Memories" events honored the citizens of North Platte who
volunteered their time to serve the troops through the USO.
News article from the Omaha World-Herald, 1 June 1994*:
"North Platte Canteen Dished Up Instant Hospitality, Friendship," by
"The old brick train station moved people to tears when it was torn down
in the 1970s, and years later memories of it inspired a Harlequin
Romance novel. The simple building housed the North Platte Canteen, a
community-run hospitality center that welcomed, fed and entertained up
to 5,000 service men and women a day during World War II. Half a century
later, older North Platte residents become wistful as they recall the
troop trains whooshing in and out of the depot and their brief
encounters with homesick young Americans. "When those trains would come
in and when they'd leave, you would have a big lump in your throat
because you just knew that some of them wouldn't come back," said Wylma
Cantral, 83, who handed out cookies and cake at the canteen. She said
she still feels the lump sometimes. "It was a wonderful experience."
Of the numerous canteens and USO centers set up across the country
during the war, the way station at North Platte may have been the most
famous. Every day from Christmas 1941 to April 1, 1946, soldiers,
sailors and Marines traveling cross-country by train were given free
coffee, sandwiches, dessert, cigarettes and magazines at the canteen
before reboarding and moving on. Residents of North Platte and 125 other
communities in Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas provided the food, reading
material and camaraderie. During the whistle-stops that averaged about
10 minutes, friends were made and experiences of a lifetime were stored
in memory banks. . .
The canteen was the result of a typical wartime mix-up. Ten days after
the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, North Platte residents heard that
their own Company D of the Nebraska National Guard would pass through
the city by train en route from Camp Robinson, Ark., to the West Coast.
About 500 residents rushed to the Union Pacific Railroad station with
cookies, candy, cake and cigarettes. They were disappointed when Company
D turned out to be from Kansas. But they welcomed the unit with their
gifts. The experience gave one woman in the crowd an idea. Rae Wilson,
whose brother commanded the local company, arranged for people in the
city to meet all of the trains, beginning on Christmas Day 1941.
Volunteers from all walks donated their time. Funds were raised from
every conceivable source: scrap drives, dances, concerts, movie benefits
and cash donations.
Mrs. Dotson kept records on canteen activities. One daily shopping list
reads: 160 to 175 loaves of bread, 100 pounds of meat, 15 pounds of
cheese, 2 quarts of peanut butter and other spreads, 18 pounds of
butter, 45 pounds of coffee, 40 quarts of cream, 500 half-pint bottles
of milk and 35 dozen rolls. Every day 18 to 20 birthday cakes were
handed out. Such day-to-day dramas, as recorded in the letters on
display at the Historical Society museum, provided the material for
"I'll Be Seeing You," a Harlequin Romance novel published last year. The
author, Kristine Rolofson of Rhode Island, has said that she spent hours
reading letters people wrote about the canteen when she visited the
museum in the late 1980s.
The canteen was closed in April 1946. For three weeks in 1967 it was
reopened for a reunion. The 6 million service men and women who came
through the canteen were invited to attend. The end came for the Union
Pacific station when it was demolished in 1973, the year the Historical
Society museum was built. In May of that year, Mrs. Dotson helped reopen
the canteen one last time during North Platte's centennial. When
demolition began in November, she said, "I cried like everyone else in
North Platte. I kept thinking they should make a museum out of it."
e-la-Di-e-das-Di ha-WI NV-WA-do-hi-ya NV-WA-to-hi-ya-da.
(May you walk in peace and harmony)
"Myths are universal and timeless stories that reflect and shape our
lives ..." Alexander McCall Smith, Dream Angus