The Martinez Canteen
Martinez Historical Society Newsletter – March 2007
Written by Barbara Hannafan
On Ferry Street next to the Hot Dog Depot and across from the old train station, there is a parking lot. If you look on a post in front of the parking lot, you can read the plaque commemorating the former location of Martinez Citizens Canteen. Here’s what it says:
Former site of Martinez Troops –in-transit Canteen.
Opened October 17, 1943, and closed February 15, 1946.
World War II
401,322 traveling servicemen and woman, escorts and children, given rest and refreshment. Served by 1,348 volunteer hostesses. Community Supported.
In 1940 Martinez had a population of 7,341. The population of the United States was 131,408,888. Between 1940 and 1944 the number of troops went from 50,000 to 12 million, eventually reaching a total of 15 million. As the citizens of Martinez watched the troop trains increase, watched young men and women on their way to being “shipped out”, they must have been thinking of ways they could comfort and assist them. And was there anyone in those times who did not have a loved one in the service, a husband, a son or sons, brother, or friends? It seems to me that everyone wanted to do something for these men and women, just as they hoped their own loved ones would be cared for. They wanted to show their appreciation.
Many of the service personnel changed trains in Martinez. Their wait could be hours or even days. At first some citizens would meet trains and invite servicemen to their homes for dinner. The local Women’s Club provided coffee, donuts, and sandwiches. But the people of Martinez realized that more was needed. Rose Milliff and Elizabeth Hoey began planning to organize a canteen that would feel like a “home away from home”
Villani Rogers, Agnes Hoey, and Genevieve Perrier owned and donated land rent-free for the canteen, and local unions donated labor. As Thelma Milliff said in her memories of the canteen, “that dear, warm, little building on Ferry Street…came into being through the concerted efforts of so many willing volunteers. The response of local craftsmen and talented artisans who gave untold hours of talented and experienced labor…” She remembered “a very knowledgeable and able electrician [who] worked long hours after his own day’s work, and on weekends.” The completed building was 2,800 square feet, with a front and rear lounge, day rest rooms with cots, a nursery, showers for men and women, a kitchen and a checkroom. There was music – Vi Dunklee loved to play the piano – a radio, and a jukebox as one volunteer remembers. There were fresh flowers always, donated from home gardens. The canteen also offered magazines, newspapers, and writing materials in addition to the food and fun. It seemed as if everyone in Martinez donated something for the canteen. Homemade baked goods, birthday cakes (probably a monthly birthday celebration), and tons of cookies were donated, as well as food and labor for making sandwiches. Best of all, everything was free to people in uniform. Volunteers also answered the thank-you letters that arrived every month from every fighting arena in the world.
With the help of Thelma Bettencort, I contacted Vi Dunklee’s daughter, Esther Mae Gilbert, who provided many photos, letters, articles, and train and ferry schedules. Vi was one of the regular volunteers at the canteen. These documents illustrate that coffee and donuts were staples, along with other good things to eat.
James Rogers, Jr. and Ruth Carpenter Rogers often opened the canteen at 4:00 am for people on the first train of the day. They were on their way to Camp Knight and from there overseas. Others started work early in the morning; the police chief gave them rides to the canteen. Doreen Barney, who has lived in Martinez for almost 70 years, remembers going to the canteen to make sandwiches. She had a 14-month-old baby, and her husband was away in the service. She got a baby sitter and came to the canteen around 8:30, where a group of women made egg-salad and tuna-fish sandwiches in assembly line fashion. Of course they made coffee, too. A troop train came by sometime between 11:30 and noon each day. When it came into the station the men did not get off, but soldiers took trays of sandwiches and huge containers of coffee to them.
Another volunteer, Barbara Young Fernier, was about 18 years old when she helped out as a hostess. She was in a club of office girls called “Commercial Girls”. They made sandwiches, helped celebrate birthdays and special holidays, and talked with and danced with the servicemen, who would usually be here for just a short time – one to three hours. The girls made sure they got enough to eat and drink and had some pleasant feminine companionship while they were here. The older women probably reminded them of the moms of aunts, and the younger ones of girlfriends or wives or pals.
There was romance at the canteen, too. Ellis Branchcomb met his future wife, Elaine Costa, who was one of the Commercial Girls. Ellis was a submariner on the USS Puffer. After he left the service he moved to Martinez and has lived here ever since. Verlene Black Westbrook, whose husband was stationed at or near Anchorage, Alaska, remembers big bowls of Potato or carrot salad, or Jell-O, as well as the sandwiches. Also lemonade, coffee, and tea. The men were often surprised that they could have anything they wanted to eat, and as much of it as they could eat, at no charge. Verlene remembers that the men often wanted to just sit and talk; they had so much on their minds.
There was an autograph book for them to sign. She recalls the table with stationery, pens, and envelopes (the government paid for the postage). When they were on their way to war, they had no idea of just where they were going, and most of the young men, whose average age was 19, had never been so far away from home and family before.
I wish also to pay tribute to Martinez’s namesake plane, the “Spirit of Martinez” “our very own Flying Fortress Bomber” piloted by Martinez native Lt. Frank Calizura of the 8th Air Force in Europe. The citizens of Martinez raised $800,000 in war bonds so Frank was granted permission to name a plane after his home town. The crew flew 30 bombing missions over Germany and Holland.
Thelma Milliff reminds us that “The support and respect [the servicemen and women] received from the generous, giving citizens of this great small town should never be forgotten. The thousands of hours and dollars donated by the willing volunteers and donors should be remembered forever.
The Canteen closed on February 15, 1946. Sgt. Leon N. Mayfiend of Akron, Ohio, who raised the flag the first day in 1943, came back to lower it the last time. The canteen was sold to Ray Taylor, who moved it to Arreba Street and converted it to a four-bedroom home.
The USO helped support the canteen. It took between $1250 and $1300 a month to run the canteen. The USO contributed $915, and the rest was raised locally. The USO is a private, nonprofit organization, supported entirely by individuals and corporations. During the war USO canteens were maintained across the country. They were meant to be homes away from home.