Extraordinary times demand extraordinary depth of character; in this case: extraordinary depth of heart and stamina.
In 1942, when the world turned dangerous and the nation responded in epic mobilization to war, the Village of Crestline rose up and demonstrated to American soldiers exactly what it was that they were fighting for: a place where people are kind, thoughtful and generous.
These aren’t my words; they are the exact words used by soldiers who felt compelled to write postcards of thanks to the women of the Crestline Canteen.
The Crestline Community Service Center was a humble little frame building that stood near the railroad tracks, at the juncture where cross-country trains needed to stop and take on water. The maintenance break was enough of a pause to give a weary and homesick soldier the opportunity to step off the train for a few minutes, pick up a free sandwich, and take a cup of coffee from the hands of a woman with a warm smile.
It was a touching act of encouragement that was enacted over a million times in the course of four years: any time of day or night; any kind of weather.
The community-based canteen movement—of free trackside food service to transiting military—got its start in the Midwest early in 1942, as towns across the US railroad map responded in supporting the troops with free coffee. Crestline recognized it had a prime opportunity to be of service because it is an intersection of major railroad lines: there would be troops passing through the village every day of the year on passenger trains, troop trains, and hospital trains.
The organizing committee in Crestline had the idea that all the churches in town could divide up hours of duty, and be on hand to serve 200 troops a day.
They couldn’t imagine at that point, in August 1942, that they would see 800 to 2500 troops on a regular day, and up to 5000 troops on a hectic day. In the first year of operation, they had 116,000 troops at their window.
Before it was over, they would get backup from 3,897 different committees across six surrounding counties: three committees a day, for 1,299 days.
The actual spot on the map, where the civilian world intersected with transiting troops, took place at the modest building by the side of the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks in Crestline; but the body of support behind that tiny spot was a vast, multifaceted network that defies calculation. It is not beyond reason to say that nearly everybody in six counties had a hand in making it possible.
Committees in Mansfield raised funds for the canteen to buy supplies: like the Tri Gamma Sorority; the Knights of Pythias; St. James Church and First Lutheran Church.
Committees scheduled days when they would stand duty at the Canteen to greet traveling troops: like the Business and Professional Women’s Club; the Liederkranz; the Sons of Union Veterans Auxiliary and the American Legion Auxiliary.
Committees in Richland County baked cookies and stacked sandwiches: like the Women of the Moose; the Lucas Mothers Club; the Blue Star Mothers.
Committees collected magazines and paperbound books and comic books; cardboard games, countless playing cards and innumerable cigarettes: like Westinghouse Local 711; Mansfield Tire Local 17; the Mansfield Bowling league.
Committees assembled kits of postcards and pencils so soldiers could write home: like the D.A.R.; the GOP Women’s Club; the Jefferson Grange 251.
The war was a fearful and largely abstract concept to kids here: a catastrophe that was shaking the earth in someplace like Europe or Africa or the South Pacific; but anyone here in our hometown, no matter how small, could do their part to put an end to it, by collecting matchbooks to put into the hands of US troops at the Crestline Canteen.
Everyone had a role to play, if it was simply dropping a dime in the hat.
The Crestline Canteen was on the Pennsy line that ran east/west, and it was generally halfway between the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, where troops prepared to leave the country, and the ports of embarkation on the East Coast, where they stepped off American turf. From Chicago, it was a 5-7 hour ride to Crestline, so troops were always eager to take a break in Crawford County.
The problem was that US troop movements—even within the States—were top secret information, so nobody at the Canteen ever knew what to expect, or when, or how many.
It led to a careful networking between Ohio canteens: Lima, Crestline and Alliance; because trains might stop for only a few quick minutes and the ladies needed to be ready to hand baskets of provisions into the trains through the windows.
Troops on the trains were just as uncertain about their schedule as were the canteens: they didn’t know where they were headed or how long it would take. Some soldiers rode the train 4-6 days straight, and the tedium only served to amplify their dread of the unknown they were headed toward.
To them the Crestline canteen was an inexpressible intercession of grace.
One soldier came through Crestline in 1943, and eighteen years later he was still moved by the experience:
To a young man and a young woman in Crestline, Ohio:
This letter of appreciation and affection stems from a certain piece of chocolate cake I ate in Crestline, Ohio, on March 21, 1943.
I was on a jam-packed troop train, chugging fitfully from Camp Upton, New York, to California. There were about 500 of us on the shipment, a ragged collection of unhappy New York draftees in ill-fitting green fatigues, our arms still aching from shots, our morale frayed.
At Crestline, as the train came to a tired halt at a railroad siding, we looked through the frosted windows, across the rows of track glistening in the winter sun, and saw a small wooden booth, shivering in a freezing March wind.
From out of the booth ran two children—you, to whom I am addressing this letter.
Each of you carried an enormous wicker basket. Grinning, you hurtled across the rows of railroad track, eager to reach us before the train pulled out. We leaned out of the windows and shouted at you.
Eighteen years after that March day, my recollection remains vivid, heart-warming. In my mind’s eye, I see the outlines of the little Ohio town, the bright, cold sky, the two of you in your rough winter clothing. And I will be forever touched by the memory of the ladies of Crestline, who made up the baskets, and you who waited for us so patiently.
“For all I know, you may have moved away from Crestline, but surely someone there will convey to you my thanks for a moment of simple kindness that will stay with me forever.”