At times the veterans I interview mention chow, grub, mess and the cooks who prepared their food. There is no definitive answer on who first expressed some variation of “The military marches on its stomach”: it’s something we’ve always heard.
Marine veteran Paul Swigart, 77, of Troy was a baker during the Vietnam Era. He began as an infantryman and was sent to Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. He was on a list to go to Vietnam, but there was a paper snafu and he became a baker because, according to him, “My name was on some list.” How was he trained? In his mother’s kitchen? No. On-the-job? No. He just did it and found it easier than being an infantryman.
I first saw a sampling of military chow when Korean War Army veteran Fred Shively (Dec. 1929-Sept. 2017) brought a display to Edison State Community College for a special program. That array of questionable consumables is now on display at the Miami Valley Veterans Museum in Troy.
Marine veteran Jim Gover, 75, of Piqua was in combat in Vietnam when the bullet that was meant for him found a home in two cans of Beanee Weenees he was packing, a prized commodity in the military often swapped for cigarettes. This Nov. 1966 incident happened as his unit left Camp Carroll in the DMZ, walked north, and after two days were ambushed by the NVA and Viet Cong. Life-saving use of rations! Today Gover keeps a can of that product in his desk drawer.
“I generally liked the food,” says Korean War Army veteran Weldon Oakley, 87, of Sidney, “even had my wife Peggy make SOS about once a week after I left the military.” The day his stomach was turned inside out was when he was eating a C- ration meal of chicken and veggies and discovered “a big ole black and white chicken feather.” At the time, he said, “Don’t want no more of that.”
Oakley was a little concerned about the dates on the cans, 1941, until he was told by a more-seasoned soldier, “Don’t worry about ‘em. They got a shelf life of 30 years.” Oakley says that you might find a P-38, the little key to open the cans, in a junk drawer at a veteran’s home as many brought them home.
Ever prepared lamb for cooking? World War II Marine veteran Harry Christy, 97, of Piqua had a run-in with military cooks who were not too careful about removing the wool from the beasts, and the smell was so awful coming from the mess tents that the men just went to the PX and bought hot dogs. The following day, leftovers. The men just filled up their mess kits with the stinking stuff , went out the back door and deposited the “delicacy” in garbage cans. Problem solved.
On Thanksgiving of 1944, Christy was on the move with his battalion in France when a meal of turkey was served. There was no seating, so they stood in the rain to eat, hurriedly. This was all different on Thanksgiving of the following year because Christy was aboard the Navy ship U.S.S Augusta and was headed home. Sleeping on a bed with sheets for the first time since leaving the states for the European Theater and that little skirmish known as the Battle of the Bulge, the men were treated to a luxurious Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. And they actually were seated at a table.
Carl DeSantis, 73, an officer in the Vietnam War, says of the food, “I had it better than most. Initially, I was stationed at a firebase, with a base commander who was reasonable, more like MASH commanders. Contrary to regulations, we built our own McDonald’s out of ammo boxes. And I traded my cigarettes for fruit cocktail.”
DeSantis’ second assignment was as a protocol officer, and one of his 12 assignments was to “keep the mess for the generals in top condition. We had Vietnamese cooks and bakers. We all ate very well.”
Another of his 12 tasks , however, was to visit the indigenous Vietnamese, the Montagnards, who had blow guns, cross bows, and knives. After securing these primitive weapons, he took them to Pleiku to be decorated and used as presents to top-ranking officials such as General Westmoreland.
To seal the deal with the Montagnards, however, DeSantis was required to partake of their rice wine, which “tasted like kerosene.” DeSantis says, “After every trip, I was in sick bay for two days.”
As Veterans Day approaches, we thank these men and thousands of other American men and women for their service to our country. Flawed as we are, we have so many reasons for great pride
Vivian B. Blevins. Ph.D., is a professor at Edison State Community College and also works with veterans. Reach her at 937-778-3815 or [email protected]