August 2007 Issue
A Vet Fete
The First Annual American Soldiers Homecoming Festival honors both WWII veterans and the hometown heroes of the Dennison Canteen.
It could have all been a dream: the kindness, the bounty of food, the women in white who sought only a smile in exchange for their services.
But the Dennison Canteen lives on in the minds of too many WWII veterans around the nation to have been a fantasy. How could they forget the Ohio town with the whimsical nickname of Dreamsville? For soldiers riding aboard troop trains between 1942 and 1946, headed for foreign countries and uncertain futures, that stop in Dennison was one last heartbreaking reminder of home: 10 minutes to breathe the air of an American town as idyllic as the ones they left behind.
So, to be greeted on the depot's platform by beaming locals, waving with one hand and holding trays of free sandwiches and baked goods in the other?
"There have been a lot of WWII reunions and anniversary celebrations, but there's never been one recognizing the tremendous effort that people made here at home," says Wendy Zucal, director of the Dennison Railroad Depot Museum, which will hold its First Annual American Soldiers Homecoming Festival August 10–12. The salute to that period when 3,987 area volunteers tirelessly expressed Dennison's patriotism and town pride through hospitality and home cooking –– ultimately serving 1.5 million troops, or 13 percent of all U.S. armed personnel –– is like a nostalgic trip through time for history enthusiasts and those who fondly recall the era. Entertainment includes swing and big band tunes, a jitterbug contest and a USO Movie Tent; educational fare includes military displays, roundtable discussions on WWII and battle reenactments on the depot's grounds (see below for more event information).
The lively celebration is certainly long overdue. However, Zucal notes that the memory of the Dennison Canteen and its citizen volunteers remains so beloved that, 60 years later, its significance can still be heard –– and not just in the 1942 Glenn Miller song the area inspired, "Dreamsville, Ohio."
"The town still get letters and calls from veterans from across the country," she says, "wondering if anyone remembers what took place here."
At 87 years old, Norm Meese would be forgiven for forgetting the particulars of 1943, all those recollections of enlisting in the army and fighting overseas and missing his family back in New Philadelphia, reduced to sepia-tinged photos and military memorabilia.
Not a chance. "I remember that my little 7-year-old brother was there on the platform in Dennison with me to see me off," says Meese, who can recall vividly the spring day when he stood at the Dennison depot waiting for a train to take him back to boot camp in Maryland after being on leave.
If his memory of one day more than half a century ago seems surprisingly sharp, it shouldn't be. After all, Meese, who now lives in Bowling Green, has only to walk through the doors of the Dennison Railroad Depot Museum for a visual reminder of his 24-year-old self –– the year when his all-American good looks and snappy military garb made him an unwitting poster boy for the Dennison Canteen.
It's a striking image, young Meese with his broad smile and crisp, brown uniform, clutching a doughnut and a cup of hot coffee. "And I didn't ask for either of them when I got there," he says. Meese had just been a recipient of the knee-jerk generosity of the volunteers at the Dennison Canteen, a program begun by local Lucille Nussdorfer, who recognized that the town's location, halfway between Columbus and Pittsburgh, made it the perfect place for steam trains to stop and replenish their water and coal supplies. The passengers on those trains would undoubtedly be GIs –– anxious and homesick, in need of a friendly face and a helping of good free food. (A similar Canteen was also established in Dennison during World War I.)
Private First Class Meese, waiting for his train, was just handed his refreshments when a photographer asked if he could take the soldier's picture. Meese agreed, and before long, "I was like the mascot of the place," he says with a chuckle. The Canteen used the image in their promotional and fund-raising paraphernalia, and Meese's wide grin came to represent the generosity of Dennison.
"Those troop trains traveled 24 hours a day, stopping there at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning, and every single GI got served," he says. "Pretty soon, all of those guys had smiles on their faces, too –– and a warm spot in their hearts because of the thoughtfulness of the people in that town."
Ultimately, residents from eight surrounding counties would volunteer a total of 601,520 hours at the Dennison Canteen; the Salvation Army eventually took over Lucille Nussdorfer's booming war effort. Not that hers was the only one. At the North Platte Canteen in Nebraska, troop trains were greeted by an army of smiling residents who offered everything from home-cooked fare to free books and playing cards to more than 6 million servicemen and women from 1941 to 1946 –– an inspired community effort that was memorialized in the 2002 book, Once Upon A Town, by Bob Greene.
But, unlike the Dennison Canteen, memories are all that remain of that legendary spot.
"Bob Greene went in search of the North Platte Canteen, and when he got there, all he found was a plaque," says Zucal (the Nebraska station was demolished in 1973). "It's really sad."
Fortunately, the same patriotism and town pride that sparked the Dennison Canteen's birth has also kept its location alive and thriving. The Dennison Railroad Depot Museum –– which also includes a restaurant, children's area and gift shop –– recently added a new wing: a series of antique railroad cars that are adorned with WWII memorabilia and displays.
"[The vets who call and write], they're all curious about if there's some sort of historical plaque here to remember the Canteen,'" says Zucal.
"We tell them, ‘Yes, there is a plaque. And right next to it still stands the entire building.'"
When You Go ...
In addition to military-themed displays, vendors and memorials, the First Annual American Soldiers Homecoming Festival will also feature special events throughout the weekend; the following is a sampling. For a complete list of events and times, as well as admission prices for nonmilitary attendees –– the festival is free to all veterans and current servicemen –– call 740/922-6776 or visit www.dennisondepot.org. The Dennison Railroad Depot Museum is located at 400 Center St., Dennison.
Friday, August 10: 5–11 p.m.
"Meet the Troops" cookout
1940s and '50s swing music
Roundtable on the Dennison Canteen's history
Vietnam War veteran and author Daryl Hicks
Saturday, August 11: 9 a.m.–11 p.m.
Parade from Uhrichsville to Dennison
USO WWII Movie Tent
Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy Show
Train and Canteen reenactment
Moonlight Serenade and Buffet Dinner
Roundtable discussions, speakers and more
Sunday, August 12: 11 a.m.–4 p.m.
Old Timers Baseball Game
Memorial service; 21-gun salute
Roundtable discussion and speakers, including WWII author Ken Badoian