So you're wondering, "Just who is this guy, anyway?" You can be assured that I'm not a cook who flies a vintage amphibian airplane. (If that sentence puzzles you, go to AltaVista and search for "Republic Seabee.")
Well, here's your answer:
As the moniker implies, I spent the largest part of my naval career as a cook in the Seabees. That's 20 years feeding sailors in one of the Navy's most challenging outfits. Before the Seabees, I served eight and one-half years on active duty as a commissaryman and mess management specialist with the fleet and airdales.
In Seabee field messing circles, I was known an the "Field mess guru." (I actually saw that in writing a time or two!) Something sparkled in my eye along the way. I'm not really sure what happened. I couldn't have been those dreary Army films we saw in Commissaryman Class "A" School in San Diego in the winter of 1971. (Yes, even Navy cooks had some field mess training in the 1960s and 1970s.) After nearly a decade of cooking in coppers, I found my calling when I joined Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 17 in February 1979.
All I remember is that ever since I was a kid I wanted to join the Navy. And that I asked about the Seabees while in boot camp in 1970. The detailer at the Recruit Training Command said, "No, we've got too many Seabees." So I got transferred to VA 127 at NAS Lemoore. For someone who'd "joined the Navy to see the world," I'd landed in the middle of California's San Joaquin Valley--sandwiched between my boyhood homes of Fresno and Bakersfield.
It took a special request chit to get me to sea. I figured why be in the Navy if you don't go to sea. After all, that's what makes the Navy stand out from the Army and the Air Force. Well, the Navy obliged and sent me to the USS Cocopa (ATF 101), and I spent the next three years cruising between places like Da Nang, Subic Bay and San Diego on the Cocopa and the USS Stein (DE 1065). A brief visit to the Indian Ocean in the winter of 1975 convinced me that world politics was shifting fleet operations to less exotic ports of call. So, I shipped over for foreign duty.
Well, my reward for shipping over was a tour in the Philippines at the sprawling Seabee-built air base at Cubi Point. Then sixteen short-months later, I again landed at a state-side naval air station, this time in Kingsville, Texas. Two years and a few college classes later, I was back in San Diego on the USS Robison (DDG 12). By this time, my experience at Georgia Military College (they had a contract with the Navy in Texas) and the quiet influence of my parents convinced me to get out and return to school.
To get back to field messing: Like I said, something sparkled in my eye. I fell in love with field messing. It could be that it's akin to camping -- that's one of those Karoly traits that started with my grandparents, Bennett and Bertha Karoly, around Marin County's Mt. Tamalpais in the 1920s. From my first field exercise -- NMCB 17's Operation Esprit at the Marine desert training camp in Twenty-Nine Palms, Calif. in November 1979 -- I lived for field messing, Seabee-style (that means A-rations for breakfast, lunch and dinner).
We had some great ATs (annual reserve duty) along the way. In 1985, NMCB 2's Air Detachment built roads and repair airfields for Marine Combat Service-Support Detachment 43 at Twenty-Nine Palms. Less than a year later, I was a boot chief leading the cooks in the 5th Naval Construction Regiment's (NMCBs 2 and 18) general mess under the watchful eye of MSCS John O'Keefe. John closed his career by showing this boot chief petty officer the ropes.
Then, after transferring back to NMCB 17 in August 1986, my new partner, MSC Bob Voigt, and I took the 1st NCR's (NMCBs 16 and 17) general mess to Camp Shelby, Miss. for the regiment's triennial military year. We fed over 500 Seabees from two serving lines in a company-sized mess hall. That was the year we forged our partnership. Bob ran the galley while I trained our cooks and kept the administrative part shipshape for the auditors. Even when I put my star on in May 1989, Bob and I kept the same relationship. Bob ran the cooks like an old platoon sergeant. He was the detail man while I was the thinker and planner of the team.
Then came one last field exercise: In May 1993, NMCB 17 was told that the battalion would go to the field for a "realistic" two-battalion field exercise in June 1994. This was a first for the Seabee reserves. Up to this point, battalions had trained on a three-year cycle: A schools year, a construction year and a military training year. In 1993, after the integration of the active and reserve battalions on the West Coast into the 3rd Naval Construction Brigade, we started a six-year training cycle. Three military training years would be followed by three construction training years.
This time I had a point man. My old galley captain (from NMCB 17's Camp Shelby and Desert Storm training days), MSC (today he's MSCS) Alfred Trejo, took NMCB 16's general mess to Fort Hunter-Liggett in July 1993. His lessons became our lessons when Bob and I took NMCB 17 to Fort Hunter-Liggett eleven months later. Again, we put our time-tested partnership to work. Bob ran galley while I planned the menu, made stores runs to Camp Roberts and endlessly bugged the operations chief for the battalion training schedule.
My love for field messing progressed to the point where in October 1994 I was selected to serve as the food service chief for the 3rd Naval Construction Brigade Detachment in Port Hueneme, Calif. So, in the four years leading up to my retirement from the Naval Reserve, I did what I do best -- I wrote training courses. From my first meeting with the brigade's reserve logistics officer, Cmdr. (now Capt.) Mike Langohr, my mission was clear: Get the Seabee field mess training school back on track (it had languished after operating out of Davisville, R.I. for many years) and start training Seabee mess management specialists to cook in the field without blowing themselves up on the gasoline field ranges. My irrational love for field messing paid off -- for both me and the Navy.
Well, we pulled it off in May 1995. With instructors from the Navy Food Management Team in San Diego and MSC Annett Epnett-Murphy from NMCB 22, we taught 24 Seabee cooks our love for field messing (Annett had learned the "trade" as the galley chief for an East Coast naval cargo handling battalion). More than once we heard comments from the classroom about these two old reserve chiefs, like one from a cook who thought we told too many sea stories.
In April 1996, Al joined Annett and I to teach field messing a second class. Then, as I was rapping things up and getting ready to go home, Cmdr. Langohr told me he wanted me to write a field mess training manual for the Seabees. That took a year of weekends and evenings. But in the summer of 1997, the brigade published a draft version of the manual. (I'm still waiting for the final version -- that's what happens when you go ahead with a project even though it's not funded.)
By now my naval career was fast heading for homeport after 29 years (8-1/2 years active duty and 20-1/2 years reserve duty). A couple trips to Seabee deployment camps in Korea, Okinawa and Guam and a few more visits to the field messing school in Port Hueneme and my ship set the sea and anchor detail. So in Port Hueneme on December 5, 1998, the captain called ordered all mooring lines doubled up, the quartermaster transferred the ensign from the mainmast to the flagstaff and the boatswain's mate piped Senior Chief Mess Management Specialist Steven and Mrs. Debbie Karoly ashore one last time.