One of the most outstanding volunteer efforts in
history were the track side canteens for servicemen and women at the
railroad stations around the United States during World War II. Ccitizens
at over 125 cities around the United States operated
track side free
canteens for the soldiers, sailors, marines and aviators in WWII. They
provided dedicated service to millions of troops passing
through on trains.
Volunteers greeted soldiers on every train with friendly smiles, welcoming words, and baskets filled with food and
other treats during the brief moments their train paused at the
railroad station. Service men and women could get
cookies, cakes, coffee, milk, magazines, newspapers, writing paper and
sundry items, all free, and all donated by residents in their
respective communities and immediate region.
Americaís railroads were suddenly placed under
crushing volumes of war time traffic as this nation mobilized. With
the turn of Spring 1942, thousands of regular passenger trains were
filled with active duty service men and service women, many heading
home on furlough. Hundreds of troop trains were moving entire
Divisions from post to post or toward ports for embarkation to North
Africa, England and the Pacific as the allies began to defeat the
Germans and Japanese.
In those coaches were green troops, soda jerks and
farm boys, teachers and dentists, students and lawyers, service
station attendants, iron workers and store clerks who in the prime of
their lives were going to war. Many had no idea where they would be
going and it shown on their faces. Most had never been this far from
home. These were the men and women destined to stand in harmís way.
Many were homesick, perhaps tired and maybe a
little scared. At designated railroad stops, the soldiers only had
time to stretch their legs, some were on trains for as long as five to
Many troops procured a short furlough before moving
to a port of embarkation. They made every effort, sometimes
extraordinary efforts to make the solemn journey home. In many
instances their funds did not stretch much beyond purchase of a train
ticket home. The need to get home was so important that they would go
without food while on the train in order to make that all-important
final trip home to see the folks, a favorite girl or young wife and
family before leaving for foreign shores. Soldiers on furlough were
not being fed by the government and did not have a travel voucher to
cover personal travel expenses.
Food from the dining car was expensive and
railroads were being squeezed with food rationing to serve only two
on-train meals daily. Meals ranged from $1 to $1.50, prices that were
excessively high for the GI who earned just $21 a month. Soldiers on
furlough sometimes traveled four or five days, existing on water, and
perhaps a few cookies offered by a kind stranger. The boys going home
on furlough or traveling at their own expense more often than not were
Troop trains also became a common sight, but those
trains only made a terminal stop long enough to make a crew and
locomotive change. They had kitchen cars designed and built
specifically to feed the on-board troops and at first restricted
soldiers from getting off. The War Department had imposed a regulation
that trackside donations of food not be permitted. It was quickly
As America mobilized the United Service
Organizations, USO, was formed in partial response to the need for
providing Canteen services for the troops. This was 1940, preceded the
United States entry into World War II. President Franklin Delano
Roosevelt solicited six private organizations-the YMCA, YWCA, National
Catholic Community Service, the National Jewish Welfare Board, the
Travelerís Aid Association and the Salvation Army. Their task was to
find some way to meet on-leave recreation needs for the members of the
The six organizations formed a joint entity and the
USO, was incorporated in February 1941. One place they set up
recreation and food facilities was in the railroad stations of larger
towns. For troops on layover between trains, such locations were
satisfactory. USO CANTEEN LIST
For many trains the stop was so brief it did not
give troops a chance to get off or sometimes they simply did not stop.
It created a difficult situation. What the USO did not see was the
imperative need to keep thousands of soldiers fed while on the trains.
At Towns like
Reno, Nevada; North Platte, Nebraska;
Bellefontaine, Ohio; Lima, Ohio; Troy, Ohio; Clinton, Iowa and
Connellsville, Pennsylvania, local groups recognized a greater need to
provide a little food, a few moments of comfort and distraction at
Many were small towns but major railroad terminals
where train crews were changed, locomotives serviced and freight
trains were yarded. The hub in these towns was the busy passenger
station, usually close to the center of town. Railroads were the major
industry in town. There were also towns like Troy, Ohio that had no
major rail facilities but were water stops where the trains only
paused long enough to take on locomotive water. It was enough time to
warrant some kind of canteen service for the benefit of the troops.
As the war deepened hometown people were routinely
visiting the local train station to watch as the troops passed by. In
those spectators were a few people who were moved in powerful ways to
do something compassionate for the boys. They wanted to give them some
brief relaxation, a distraction, a few moments of home with something
to eat and drink.
Driven by a duty of service, at different towns the
idea was conceived to do more for every soldier they could possibly
touch. They might have seven to fifteen minutes to give the soldiers
something; magazines, newspapers, cookies, candy bars, drinks and even
sandwiches, a gentle smile, a word of encouragement, and most
importantly, powerful assurance the people back home were behind them.
There was no local USO, so they would have to do it themselves.
From December 1941, until September 1970, a most
amazing phenomenon quietly occurred at railroad stations in many towns
around the United States.
It was a grass roots effort that brought hundreds
of local residents and their offering of comfort and kindness for each
trainload of soldiers. Those kind hearted souls promoted peace and
inspired others to also extend kindness to those many young men and
women, most being total strangers.
Their duty of service and gladness helped all the
soldiers they served to freshen into smiles as fears and anxiety were
dissolved. This was the unselfish love of those patriots.