Food Service in WW II
By Steve Karoly
"Seabee chow," writes William Bradford Huie in Can Do! The Story of the Seabees, "is famous on every front." As a Seabee officer and war correspondent, Seabee cooks impressed Huie. Speaking of Chief Commissary Steward Allen from the 43rd Naval Construction Battalion, Huie states Chief Allen "performed some magic with hamburger and onions" when he met him for a late night snack.
While the Seabees were adding up construction feat upon feat, their cooks and bakers performed similarly. Huie states, "The Seabee commissary stewards were as ingenious as the rest [of the Seabees]." Ingenuity is a Seabee trademark. Seabee cooks dished out hot, wholesome meals to their men even under the most formidable conditions.
Huie said it was "Navy policy" to feed all from adjacent units, Navy or Army, as long as the food lasted. Many battalions took pride in delivering hot food soon after landing on the beaches. Often, they supplied hot meals to Marines and soldiers in combat. Chief Commissary Steward Henri Dupre of the 133rd Seabees operated twenty-four hour coffee stations on Yellow and Blue beaches during the fight for Iwo Jima.
"Our Seabee cooks continued to distinguish themselves", writes Lt. (jg) Robert E. Johnson, CEC, USNR, speaking of the ship's cooks assigned to a detachment of the 75th Naval Construction Battalion. They landed at Torokina Point, Bougainville in the Solomon Islands on November 1, 1943. He concludes, "Within a few hours after we hit the beach, hot food was served, even to the Marines in the most advanced positions." This appears to have been a everyday task for the cooks of the 75th.
In August 1943, the 38th Seabees landed unopposed at Kiska in the Aleutian Islands. Their first hot meal was served that afternoon right on the beach. Chief Commissary Steward J. H. Mitchell had chow delivered to him from the ship's galley. The next day, Chief Mitchell catered Yankee pot roast, browned potatoes, brown gravy, green snap beans, Bartlett pears, bread, butter and coffee from his own field mess. In addition to the 38th Seabees, he served troops from six nearby Army units, the Navy Amphibious Force, and the Canadian forces.
Many battalions in the early days of the Pacific war had to content with shortages of galley equipment. The 6th Seabees' galley equipment "disappeared" while unloading from ships anchored in Iron Bottom Sound off Guadalcanal in September, 1942. Fortunately, they were able to salvage some of the equipment. However, until repairs were made, the Sixth messed with a nearby Marine tank battalion. One Navy photograph shows a Seabee baker from the Sixth baking in a oven made from a converted Japanese safe.
The 24th Seabees landed on the island of Rendova, Solomon Islands on July 1, 1943 under a thick sheet of tropical rain. Once ashore, thoroughly drenched from the rocky ride ashore in landing craft, they encountered "unbelievably marshy" soil. Bulldozers were rendered useless by the deep mud. On the afternoon of the second, the men saw twenty-three mates die in an all out air strike. All of their personal seabags, galley equipment, and most of the supplies were destroyed during the air raid. Yet, despite continual air raids and battles with the environment, the 24th located three field ranges by the seventh day ashore and served the first hot meals to the men.
If it were not for the efforts of one Seabee chef, Chief Commissary Steward Ben C. Rudder, the Sixth may have had a much more arduous first three months ashore in August of 1942. Chief Rudder was faced with a problem that troubled many galley chiefs during the early days of the war: How to feed acceptable, nutritious meals to his troops using short rations that were less than pleasing. Here's how he did it:
"Two meals a day consisting of captured [Japanese] rice and oats or spaghetti, along with an occasional side dish of canned franks or 'corned willie,' made up the menu for nearly a month. There was boiled rice, rice pudding, chili and rice, and rice with raisins."
The history of the unit, Saga of the Sixth, continues with a detailed description of how they subsisted on native cattle. The men were ordered not to harm the cattle. Then one day Chief Rudder "strangely" suffered a vicious cow attack. That night, hamburgers graced the mess trays of the Sixth. Afterwards, the powers that be ruled that cattle "hit by enemy shell fragments would be officially available for chow." The morality rate of cattle surged dramatically.
Can you visualize Chief Rudder as a culinary master, taking scarce, redundant provisions and sustaining the Sixth with wonderful culinary delights for his men? True to the Seabee "Can Do" spirit, the battalion soon built refrigeration units and were able to serve turkey dinners for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Seabee galley chiefs had quite a challenge even when equipment and food were plentiful. Lcdr. Joseph L. Howard, a Seabee supply officer, describes what two battalions did to overcome problems: The first battalion, assigned to the Manus Islands, solved the problem of provisioning four-100 man detachments scattered throughout neighboring islands by refurbishing a captured Japanese barge with storerooms and a propulsion unit. When the supply officer finished, he had a "supply ship" that traveled to each detachment several times per week providing them with food stores, clothing and a ship's store.
A "chuck wagon," constructed using a cargo trailer, solved a serious problem for another battalion. The chuck wagon traveled to distant construction projects at meal time. Seabees crews were fed at the construction site, saving valuable work hours spent transporting then to and from the main galley. The chuck wagon boosted morale. The men were able to relax at meal time. They did not have to take the long, bumpy trip back and forth between the main camp and project site at meal time.
A visit to Joe's Hamburger Stand, nestled against the air field in the Russell Islands, convinced even the most critical skeptics of the inspiring abilities of Seabee cooks. Chief Commissary Steward Joe Hayden of the 33rd Seabees took two battered pontoons and converted them into an oven and griddle. The oven had a door cut into the side with shelves installed. A gasoline fire unit provided heat. The griddle, hamburgers and hot cakes sizzling on the surface, had a roaring fire inside.
To further complicate matters, Chief Hayden, civilian caterer turned Seabee chef, must not have had a good supply of hamburger meat and side orders. To resolve the problem, he persuaded his supply officer to purchase cattle from a local herd, set up a slaughtered house, and ground 400 pounds of beef each day by hand. Bartering with local residents, Chief Hayden obtained fresh potatoes, fruit for juice and an occasional crate of eggs for his establishment. The 33rd's Mess Hall, build to serve Seabees, was soon invaded by the pilots from the airfield.
Do not underestimate the adaptability of Seabee cooks. Lt. Harold F. Liberty's now famous "Forgotten Fifty-five" had a multi-talented cook. "The cook could drop his skillet and run a winch or string a pipeline", reports the OIC of the Motor Torpedo Boat Advanced Base Construction Detachment from the 113th Seabees. This builder-fighter-cook, part of the "best damn team in the Pacific," also had to be a gunner when called.
The cooks of the Sixth Battalion were assigned to bomb crater repair crews at Henderson Field, Guadalcanal. During air attacks, crews with dump trucks full of fill dirt were strategically placed around the air field. After a bomb or shell exploded, they rushed out and repaired the hole, often while the Marine fighters circled overhead waiting to land. On the October 13 and 14, 1942, fifty-three bombs and shells fell on Henderson Field. The cooks were so busy that they were not able to prepare any food at all that night.
Headquarters Company (also known as the "telephone girls") of the 133rd Seabees landed on Iwo Jima at four P. M. on February 19, 1945. The cooks were pressed into service as ammunition passers for a machine-gun unit. The next day Ship's Cook First Norman V. Dupuis was killed by enemy fire. Two, Ship's Cook Second Henry J. Gross and Ship's Cook Third John H. Mills, were wounded in the same action. A third, Ship's Cook First Thomas E. O'Malley, also received the Purple Heart for wounds in the battle for Iwo Jima.
That's the story of Seabee cooks. They have developed quite a reputation for today's Seabee cooks to follow.
Blundon, J. Paul, ed. Saga of the
Sixth: A History of the Sixth U. S. Naval Construction
Battalion, 1942-1945. n. p., c. 1945. 97p. Mawdsley:
Howard, Joseph L. "Seabee Supply
was Big Business." United States Naval Institute
Proceedings, No. 527 (January 1947), 40-5. Smith:
Huie, William Bradford. Can Do!: The
Story of the Seabees. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1944.
250p. Smith: 9891.
________. From Omaha to Okinawa: The
Story of the Seabees. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1945.
257p. Enser: p. 314. Smith: 9892. Ziegler: 2613.