America struggled to gear up for war in the months following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The nation was ushered into World War II by the Japanese surprise attack.
Elizabeth Heskett was chairperson of the Danville Office of Civilian Defense in 1942. When I interviewed her in 1992 she recalled, “The war was affecting nearly everyone, in some way, and people wanted to do something. I don’t think anything has ever produced the community spirit and the willingness to work together like World War II.”
Heskett and a group of women decided to open a USO canteen to serve the military personnel passing through Danville on the railroads. She was president of the USO when it was organized.
The canteen had a modest opening on November 27, 1942. It was launched with a $500 donation from the community war chest, candy donated by the Fred Amend Candy Company, fruit donated by Clint Tilton, and cookies and sandwiches made by local women.
The first two served from the little canteen cart that November day were Pvt. Richard G. James of Farmersville, Texas, and Pvt. Donnis W. Lambeth of Carlisle, Ind. They were followed by 298 other members of the military traveling by rail that day.
When the call went out for volunteers at the Canteen, there were extras; when cookies were needed, they came in by the hundreds; when money was needed to buy supplies, donations were provided.
“It was a learning time for many women, a time of discovery; they found they could do things they never dreamed themselves capable of,” Heskett said.
She noted many of the women had never driven learned to drive.
“They scheduled supplies, they raised money, they helped with soldiers’ travel schedules.," Heskett said. "We had mothers who lost sons and wives who lost husbands working as volunteers and even after their losses they kept right on. People wanted to help, even though it wasn’t the same as being in the military, they wanted to do what they could.”
The service that started with a cart grew. Heskett and Mrs. A. E. Dale, who was general chairman of the USO, had more than a dozen women heading up committees for what became the Railroad Canteen Service.
Danville had several rail stations at the time and the railroads built booths supplied with electricity for the canteen workers. The Fred Amend Candy Company continued to donate large quantities of Chuckles candy.
Heskett recalled they had hostesses and canteenettes working at the booths.
“It was stressed for them to make each person they served feel special, like they were the only person being served that day, like family. Many of the soldiers were very young and had never been away from home before. They knew they were involved in a war where they might never return home.”
Tens of thousands of military men and women and their family members were served by the Danville Railroad Canteen Service during the war. Heskett was a civic leader in Danville for more than 60 years and she noted. “Nothing has ever given me greater pleasure than working with the volunteers and the men and women we served through the Canteen.”
People like Private Richard G. James and Private Donnis W. Lambeth and the thousands who followed.
Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.