West Palm Beach taught the nation how to show gratitude and respect to returning GIs. And it began with one woman and a small plate of cookies.
By Eliot Kleinberg
Palm Beach Post staff writer
The ink on the German surrender was barely dry, World War II was over in Europe, and GIs were eager to get home.
They were crammed onto cargo planes and flown to South Florida on 27-hour flights. After landing in Miami, with barely time to kiss the ground, they were loaded by the hundreds onto trains, like so many steers, for another long trip north.
They’d already endured years of mud and blood and hardship and death, years of seeing the worst of humanity while being kept from the people they loved.
But then something happened that reminded them of the best of humanity.
Each night, these troop transport trains, carrying 400 to 800 soldiers, would stop for 20 minutes in West Palm Beach. GIs would stick their heads out the windows in amazement.
Lining the rails were dozens, sometimes hundreds of people, cheering and waving American flags and saying the sweetest words in the world: “Welcome Home.”
“Hey,” one grunt said out the window. “What place is this? Heaven?”
The cookie stop was the brainchild of Peggy Bailey, wife of the local ticket agent, who in her quiet way created a national phenomenon. Other cities soon picked up on the idea.
Bailey (below, in family photos from the 1940s and today) recalled the first time she greeted a troop train.
“I went down with a friend and took a half dozen cookies,” said Bailey, now 97 and living in a North Carolina retirement home. “You know what they wanted most of all? Milk. And also fruit, particularly watermelon.”
Cookie brigade expands
Soon Bailey had enlisted the help of neighbors and the Junior Woman’s Club. Women and their children brought fresh fruit, doughnuts, sandwiches and cold drinks, which they passed to soldiers through train windows.
By the time the last train passed through West Palm Beach on Nov. 11, 1945, some 60,000 soldiers had been served about 78,000 cookies, 66,000 doughnuts, 46,500 bottles of milk, 15 tons of fresh fruit, some 31,000 cold drinks, 20,000 cups of ice cream, and more.
She’s never forgotten those days, or the men, some of whom were really boys.
“They were just plain old GIs,” Bailey said. “They weren’t anything fancy. They were just delighted to be home again.”
While many enjoyed conversing with pretty girls, many were drawn to children, poignant reminders of their own kids who had grown without them.
Bailey recalled how the men, who weren’t allowed off during the brief stopover, would gather on platforms between cars.
One woman had brought a child no more than 3 or 4 years old.
“This soldier looked up, and he said, ‘Ma’am, could you tell me how old your little girl is?’ He said, ‘I got one at home just that age. But I’ve never seen her.’”
Bailey said the man asked of the girl’s mother, “Can I hold her?”
Then, she said, “He held the little girl real tight. Then the next boy said, ‘I want to hold her, too.’ It went right down the train, man-to-man.”
Peggy’s husband, Bill Bailey, was agent at the Seaboard Air Line Railway station in West Palm Beach, the same building where Seaboard’s successor, CSX, stops, along with Amtrak and Tri-Rail.
Every night the “troop train” passed through en route to Camp Blanding, in North Florida, where soldiers would be mustered out and put on trains headed across America.
As the cookie brigade took hold, local men joined and the Jaycees, the American Legion, firemen, teachers and airmen from Morrison Field — now Palm Beach International Airport — began showing up to salute, and celebrate with, the GIs, who often returned the favor by handing kids war mementos as gifts.
“They were hanging out the windows, yelling and screaming,” recalled 77-year-old Sue Green of West Virginia, whose family lived next door to the Baileys when she was 9. “Of course, we didn’t have near enough cookies for the whole train.”
In articles, Bill Bailey urged people to bring items or money to his office or home, or just come to the station any night “and talk to the boys. Most of them are hungry for a friendly word or two.”
And, indicative of how small West Palm Beach was then, a WJNO radio spot sponsored by Leak Tire says, “if you wish to donate please phone Mrs. Bailey, 6-2-5-7.”
Another spot, sponsored by a Realtor and perhaps a bit mercenary, says, “You’ll be thrilled with the music and excitement every evening when you meet the 8:15 train carrying servicemen just returned to the United States from foreign services. And you’ll have a lifelong thrill — when you own your own home in the Palm Beaches.”
The troop train event drew almost daily press coverage. Thousands of dollars in donations poured in. And people kept coming, even in sweltering summer heat and sometimes in an evening downpour.
Some 2,000 came Aug. 14, the night Japan surrendered and the war ended.
“Oh, my, yes,” Peggy Bailey recalled.
She said the GIs on the train hadn’t yet heard.
“Oh, they went berserk. We had a band. We had a great big banner. We had … it was a just a marvelous night.”
‘You were swell’
Even a peach-fuzzed 18-year-old present that night would be at least 85 now, so while clippings are rife with names, most of those either have died or couldn’t be found — or can’t recall their visits.
From an Aug. 30, 1945 Palm Beach Post-Times article: “Lt. R.J. Hunyard, Chicago, expecting a discharge after 34 months in Europe, shook hands with another Chicagoan living here. ‘How are things back home?’ he demanded eagerly.”
Robert J. Hunyard now of DeKalb, Ill., west of Chicago, remembers the stops, but not West Palm Beach.
“They very well could have. I was in Florida. I was flown over from Casablanca,” Hunyard, now 92, said this month .
“Favorable publicity for the Seaboard and its employees that is resulting from this activity is making itself felt in many quarters,” a Seaboard executive wrote Bill Bailey from Norfolk, Va.
And one wrote Mayor Stanley Peeler: “I will never forget West Palm Beach for their kindness and may the blessings of God be upon this City,”
The Baileys eventually moved to North Carolina. Bill died of a stroke about 14 years ago.
All these years, Peggy kept the scrapbook she made of clips and photos, and is donating it to the Historical Society of Palm Beach County — which, coincidentally, is running the exhibit, “Paradise in Peril: World War II in Palm Beach County,” through Aug. 18.
In the scrapbook: a letter-to-the-editor Bill and Peggy wrote as the program wound down:
“Thanks a million, every one of you, who participated even just once. We’re grateful for the privilege of working with you — you were swell.”
Staff researchers Michelle Quigley and Niels Heimeriks contributed to this story.