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Saturday, Apr. 30, 2016

McCook during the war

Monday, August 22, 2011

Alex Gochis, Ace War Bond salesman.
It has been said that citizens were united, as never before, or since, during World War II. Everyone felt that winning the war was the nation's most important job. We felt that there was a real threat to America from the German Nazis and the Japanese. Those of us who remained home accepted as fact that we needed to do all we could to support our boys in uniform who were locked in mortal combat with our enemies in far-flung battle fronts around the world.

In McCook that support of our troops showed itself in many ways:

Since many items were rationed, or in short supply here at home, because of the war, we were asked to sacrifice. The highway speed limit was 35 mpg. That did save fuel; nevertheless, gas and tires were rationed, and new cars simply did not exist for civilians. There was grumbling, to be sure, but it was accepted that it was "all a part of the war effort".

Betty Harsh of Bartley's Busy Bee Club
Coffee was rationed, as were sugar and shortening, making the variety of bakery items severely restricted. When the bakery ran out of these ingredients it was forced to close till the new ration period began again. Once a mother brought in her own sugar ration coupons to the bakery, for the baker to buy sugar, so her daughter could have a wedding cake. People got very creative in the ways they stretched certain scarce items, or substituted to make do.

One woman brought a recipe to her club, for rhubarb pie, which called for NO sugar. She said that her husband had liked the pie---but said "don't make it again. It never caught on.

Even though all families zealously guarded their sugar coupons, women regularly brought homemade cookies to the depot to hand out to the boys passing through McCook on troop trains. This was an amazing phenomenon that took place in McCook, and in other towns situated on a major rail line. There was no formal organization of ladies who met the trains, and no published schedules. Yet, for the four years of the war, there was a welcoming committee to meet almost every troop train, day or night, to offer cookies, coffee, writing paper, playing cards and the like to boys going off to war, delivered with smiles and words of encouragement.

The women came from McCook, of course, but from all over the region, from Imperial, to Arapahoe. Because McCook was a division point most trains stopped here for a half-hour or so, to change crews and service the train, and boys could stretch their legs a bit. Betty (Mrs. Lester) Harsh, of the Busy Bees Club in Bartley, recalled that there were about three troop trains a day through McCook, though sometimes there would be several trains in one day, sometimes only one or two. Schedules were secret because of security; however, the dispatchers had their little code, which alerted the ladies that a troop train was coming, and when, and the ladies magically appeared to greet the trains. These stopovers, with goodies provided by the women of the area, were for the most part unexpected by the boys on the troop trains, and very much appreciated. Mrs. Opal Grannis, of McCook recalled her work with the McCook Canteen, "There was hardly ever a day when a train wouldn't come in. We had a lot of fun doing it. The boys seemed to appreciate it a lot. We got donations from the local merchants to buy pop and things like that."

In 1982, some 40 years later, one of those boys who had gone through McCook on a troop train in 1942, picked up his pen and wrote to "The Canteen Ladies of McCook".

"In 1942, just out of my teens, I was on a troop train with several hundred other servicemen. The train stopped late at night in a place called McCook, NE. Suddenly we were greeted with a pleasant surprise. Coming on to each car were grandmothers, mothers, and daughters. They carried food, candy, writing paper, etc. They offered each of us something. What a wonderful feeling to be treated as a hero when most of us were so unsure of ourselves. The ladies were on the train probably less than 10 minutes, and then we were moving again.

I never became a hero... Some of the others died or carry marks to this day...we have fond memories of that 10 minutes in McCook...If any of you ladies remember, I wish to thank you again for the memory." Signed, Robert W. Meagher, San Jose, California.

For the boys who had a little more time from the trains, and for the men stationed at the Air Base, north of town, there was "The Servicemen's Center", located in the Temple Building on Main Street. There was a reading area, with books and magazines, there were pool and ping pong tables---refreshments were provided, all free. The City took care of it.

Across the street from the depot was the Olympia, formerly a Candy/Ice Cream Store, which had become a bar after the war began. The Olympia's proprietor, Alex Gochis was a Greek immigrant, who had come to McCook after WORLD WAR I. Alex was a Super Patriotic American. He urged his patrons, his employees, people he met on the street -- everyone -- to buy War Bonds, "to help our boys win the war."

War Bonds were only sold by banks and the Post Office. But Alex was eager to sell bonds, persistently writing to his Senators, and Representative, even to President Roosevelt for permission. Finally he was given the Federal Seal, allowing him to issue War Bonds, perhaps the only individual in the country that had that sanction. Alex played a leading role in the sale of bonds in McCook, which totaled $275,392 from 5/1/41-5/1/42.

In addition to drives for metal, rags, paper, even pussy willow pods (which were used in the manufacture of parachutes), there was a surgical dressing room at the Court House, open four day a week, where volunteers rolled bandages for use by combat medics on battlefields. Big Bill Hanke headed a drive by the American Legion to collect hunting knives for jungle combat. A collection box to receive the knives was prominently set up in the Post Office.

Wade Stevens, Attorney, and former pilot during World War I, was in charge of the Service Office, to help men in uniform with various problems, including legal matters. He also chaired the Home Service Department, which assisted in dependency claims for soldiers.

The Navy Mothers Club conducted a fund drive by selling knitted socks, with the slogan, "Buy a Sock, sock a Jap," the money to help "Our Navy Boys." Mrs. Ivan Smith, who had a boy in the Navy, wrote a song that was adopted by the Navy Mothers Organization nationwide.

Mrs. Harold Sutton, the wife of a World War I aviator, was the Chairman of the local Red Cross unit, whose members donated time and assistance to the servicemen. Through the Red Cross Volunteer Service program aid was given through every church in town.

To alleviate shortages of food, "Victory Gardens" were promoted and encouraged. It was said that there was not a vacant lot in McCook that was not put to use as a Victory Garden. Signs were erected at the gardens, showing the name of the gardener and his sponsor. Students went from house to house with sign-up sheets for folks to promiss to plant a garden. Some folks took exception to such pressure, "I've been planting a garden all my life, and I reckon I will again this year, and I don't need any young whippinsnapper telling me what to do!"

In 1943 McCook received national attention when the USS McCook, a Destroyer, was launched in Seattle, and two McCook boys, Leland Sterr (a Gazette employee), and Kenneth Ludlow were members of the 208 crew. (The USS McCook was named after Roderick S. McCook, a Civil War hero and brother of McCook's namesake. The ship was later turned into a high speed minesweeper in 1945, and decommissioned in 1949. In 1973 she was broken up and sold for scrap metal.)

A different time, so long ago, a time filled with memories -- a time we certainly would not like to live again, yet perhaps a time when we were very close, all joined in a common effort.

Source: McCook Gazette Centennial Edition, 1882-1982

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Thanks, Walt. Reading and remembering my (ah hem) younger days, and the impact the war and the troops passing through town, had on my childhood mind and heart, still ring crisply.

Considering the age, folks in this area live to, there are many, yet living, that your words, will have deep meaning for, and will appreciate the honor of the memories of the many who survived the battle, and fondly hearken back to that brief respite from a very dark period in their/our history and lives.

Thanks, again.

-- Posted by Navyblue on Tue, Aug 23, 2011, at 10:31 AM

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By