Life as an Army cook in the Vietnam era
During the Vietnam conflict my military occupational specialty was 94B, “food service specialist,” or simply put, Army cook. Ask veterans what they think about military chow, and you get an answer between love and hate. But this article isn’t about the quality of Army food. It’s about the craziness and chaos that occurs when cooks, soldiers in basic training and kitchen help mix and mingle in the small and dangerous quarters of an Army mess hall kitchen.
Like many Vietnam-era vets I was drafted in 1969. I found the envelope with orders to report for an armed forces physical examination in our mailbox at Kings Park on New York’s Long Island the same day I received an acceptance letter from a community college, a bit too late for a military deferment. That summer I attended Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. We trained to fight in Vietnam, and by the end of basic training we were ready for action.
Somewhere along the way I filled out a paper that asked what kind of military job I wanted. I picked cook as my first choice because my mother suggested that occupation. She believed cooks ate well and rarely got shot at. Her words of wisdom made sense to me.
At the end of basic training, I received orders to report to Fort Lewis, Washington, after a two-week leave. I was to receive on-the-job training as an Army cook.
On the Job in Washington
After a few weeks with family I flew to Washington state and landed at Sea-Tac Airport in Seattle. I took a bus to Fort Lewis about 35 miles away and reported to my permanent duty station: E Company, 4th Battalion, 1st Brigade. E Company was a basic training company for new inductees. My job was to work in the mess hall and serve two to three meals a day to 250 basic trainees and company staff. The first order of the day, every day, was to fire up huge coffee pots. I can still recall the wonderful smell of freshly percolated coffee wafting throughout the mess hall at 4:30 in the morning.
The mess hall was extremely quiet before dawn, and with no one around it was our little fiefdom. We turned the radio up loud and listened to a youthful Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 belting out their hits. We ate well, as did the trainees. For breakfast we served eggs, bacon, sausage, grits, toast, coffee, rolls, fresh fruit and occasionally creamed ground beef on toast, the classic American military dish humorously referred to as SOS, or “s–t on a shingle.” Milk, chocolate milk, fresh coffee and orange juice were always offered. If trainees asked for a little extra food, we gave it to them. We always cooked a bit more than we needed, and on most days there were leftovers.
For lunch and supper we served steaks, roasted chicken, pork chops, all types of vegetables, freshly baked breads and rolls, and pies we made ourselves, including apple, peach and blueberry.Supplies came in once or twice a week on 2½-ton cargo trucks and were unloaded at the back door.
I never accepted the concept that Army food was bad. The food products were high quality. If the food didn’t taste good, it was because the cooks screwed up. Lazy or negligent cooks gave Army chow a bad reputation. However, we took pride in our cooking and never received complaints. Trainees loved our meals as did the permanent duty staff. We even won a monthly “Best Mess” award for all of Fort Lewis, and our photos were published in the base newspaper.
I prospered at E Company and was promoted to the rank of specialist 4 and “first cook.” That meant I was in charge of the mess hall when the mess sergeant was away. Things went smoothly, but every once in a while we had mishaps. They usually involved a KP.
Chaos in the Kitchen
KP stands for kitchen police or kitchen patrol. This term has been used in the U.S. military since at least the early 1900s. Every day four or five trainees at Fort Lewis were assigned to work with us in the mess hall as KPs, a job also referred to a mess duty. Sometimes KP was assigned as a form of punishment, but in most cases KPs were assigned by a rotating roster because we needed help throughout the day. These trainees monitored the eating area as dining room orderlies, scrubbed pots and pans, peeled potatoes on the back patio, and did whatever else was needed to get us through a meal. I showed them kindness. They were already having a tough time during basic training, and I didn’t want to add to their woes. I was determined to make the mess hall a friendly place. KPs had to work hard, but they were treated with respect. I wanted them to know that Army life wasn’t that bad once they got away from their demanding drill instructors.
There was much to do and little time to do it when preparing a meal for hundreds of people rushing through a chow line. Cooks and KPs worked in tight quarters, and we had to be careful not to get in each other’s way. Mistakes and false moves led to disasters. Army kitchens are filled with tools and equipment like sharp knives, hot ovens and griddles, boiling water, and deep fat fryers filled with sizzling grease. As cooks we learned to maneuver carefully and respect each other’s space and the dangerous equipment. We moved cautiously over frequently mopped wet and slippery concrete floors. KPs were not entirely aware of the dangers lurking in the kitchen. Most had never been in a hectic commercial kitchen before. We did our best to brief them, but words only go so far.
One day we were preparing lunch at about 11a.m. I was cutting sandwich meats and cheeses, and another cook was working over the deep fat fryer preparing french fries. KPs were milling around doing other tasks. They normally were not allowed to touch knives or hot pots, but they could get food cans from the storage room and items from refrigerators and freezers. That morning I needed two cans of mixed vegetables and asked a KP to get them from the storage room. He came back carrying two large, commercial-size vegetable cans.
On his way to the worktable he slipped and bumped into the cook working over the deep fat fryer. The cook didn’t see him coming and his arm went into the hot grease up to his elbow. I looked up when I heard him yelp and was shocked when I realized what had happened. The cook was yelling and cursing loudly as the KP stood motionless with a “deer in the headlights” look. The cook was obviously furious, and I could see by the look in his eyes he was about to do something nasty to the KP.
I shouted to the KP, “Get out!” He looked at me, realized what I said and bolted for the back door of the mess hall. I rushed to help the cook and wiped the hot grease off his arm with a rag. Luckily, the grease was not yet boiling. The cook came away with little more than a superficial skin burn, and the KP got out of kitchen duty. We didn’t see that KP for the rest of the day. I think he was too scared to come back to the mess hall, and we had a few laughs about the incident at the end of the day.
One morning I was manning a griddle making fried eggs, bacon and pancakes. Trainees were on line in front of me, and when they reached my post I asked them how they wanted their eggs: sunny side up, scrambled or over easy. To keep the griddle lubricated I had a bowl of thick coagulated grease on the counter to my left. I dipped my spatula into the grease bowl and spread the grease across the griddle before cracking eggs onto it. I did this quickly to keep the line moving. This day I went to dip my spatula in the bowl of grease, and it was gone. What the heck?
I looked around, and it was nowhere to be found. I decided to do a quick investigation. I walked into the dining room and spotted my bowl of grease next to the tray of a trainee eating eggs. “What are you going to do with that?” I asked. The trainee looked up, surprised to see me standing there and responded, “Eat it.” “Do you know what that is?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, “hot cereal.” His eyes bulged when I told him it was a bowl of grease. Fortunately, he had not yet put a spoonful into his mouth, although that would have been funny. Another time a bowl containing four raw eggs was missing. A trainee took it, thinking he had a bowl of canned peaches. Events like that broke up the monotony of the day.
Occasionally, as a practical joke, we would send a KP off on a fake journey. We told him to go to the next company’s mess hall and borrow a meat stretcher. There is, of course, no such thing as a meat stretcher. This joke has been going on since World War II. Cooks at the other mess halls always went along with the joke, saying, “No, we don’t have one, but if you go to Company A you can borrow one from them.” The KP would be sent to the next mess hall down the road.
The search for a meat stretcher might go on for the entire day, and the victim of the prank could walk for miles. Sometimes, we didn’t see him again during our shift. We would even forget that we sent him out. If a trainee caught on to the joke, he would come back early, and we would have a good laugh. We tried to have a little fun in the kitchen. However, occasionally things got ugly, as you will see.
An American Cook in Germany
After about nine months at Fort Lewis, I received orders for Germany. I didn’t know it then, but President Richard Nixon was cutting back on troop deployments to Vietnam. The war was beginning to wind down as America prepared to pull out of the conflict altogether. The flight to Germany was filled with other soldiers. We arrived at the Frankfurt am Main International Airport, and I was ordered to report to Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 4th Armored Division, just outside the quaint city of Göppingen in the Stuttgart region of Baden-Württemberg in southwestern Germany.
Our base camp was Cooke Barracks. During World War II, the base was a German Luftwaffe training facility, and from 1945 to 1949 it was a camp for refugees and other displaced people. In 1949, the U.S. Army’s European Command changed the name to honor Charles H. Cooke Jr., a captain in the 32nd Field Artillery Battalion who was posthumously awarded the Silver Star Medal for his actions when the unit landed at Gela, Sicily, on July 11, 1943.
I traveled to Göppingen by train and took a taxi to the 4th Armored Division headquarters, where I reported to the company commander. He ushered me off to an almost empty barracks to await orders. Two days after arriving I met with Lt. George Chapdelaine, who asked many questions about my temperament and cooking skills. I soon found out why.
A day after the interview I was ordered to pack my duffel bag. Outside waiting for me in a Jeep was Chapdelaine. He was in charge of the officers’ club and chose me to work there. The club, just off base, was a German officers’ club during World War II. At the entrance, above the door, there had been a sculpture of an eagle with a swastika in its talons. After the war most of the swastika was chiseled off. That was quite poetic, leaving the eagle in place with a broken Nazi symbol.
I worked in the club’s kitchen along with a German chef. I had my own room on the second floor. I thought we had it good at Fort Lewis, but that was nothing compared with officers’ club amenities. The facility had a nightclub with bartenders, waitresses and even slot machines. We had a commercial-size kitchen, restaurant-style dining room with a huge fireplace and a massive ballroom for banquets and parties. The food we served ran the gambit from chateaubriand steak with béarnaise sauce to Maine lobsters. Beverages included beer, wine and liquor. The officers ate well, and we did too.
Chef Urban was amazing. (I am not sure if Urban was his first or last name. We never bothered to ask.) He could cook anything. His Mexican meals were my favorites. German veal dishes like Wiener schnitzel were also delicious, as were the German pastries and strudels he made from scratch. We were in culinary heaven.
Staff of Many Nations
The work crew in our kitchen seemed like it was designed by the United Nations. It consisted of four American cooks (including myself); a German chef; a kitchen helper from Greece named Nick; and a kitchen helper from Spain. The Spaniard had one glass eye that always seemed to be looking in the other direction when he was speaking. The Army cooks spoke English, of course. The chef communicated in broken English and German. Nick spoke Greek and broken English. The Spaniard spoke only Spanish. We often used sign language more than anything else. Sometimes it got really hot in the kitchen, in more ways than one.
We were all young GIs full of gusto. We were cocky and thought we knew it all. The chef was older and wiser, so he stayed out of the shenanigans younger people naturally get into. The kitchen help was another story altogether. Nick appeared to have an attitude of superiority because he was Greek, and he liked to boss the Spaniard around even though he wasn’t officially in charge of him. The Spaniard was quiet and moody, and because he didn’t speak English, Greek or German, he kept to himself. He and Nick didn’t get along at all. I also suspect he thought the cooks and Nick were talking behind his back because Nick was friendly and we were often laughing while we worked. In truth, we never talked behind the Spaniard’s back. We considered him to be just like us, simply trying to do his job and get on with life.
One day all hell broke loose in the kitchen. It was late in the day, and we were all stressed from a busy supper meal. We were sweaty, dirty and tired. Most people don’t realize how dirty you become working in a commercial kitchen. Food sticks to you and mixes in with your sweat. Overall, you are a mess. You smell bad and don’t resemble at all the nice meals you send out to patrons. Basically, at the end of the day you are disgusting.
By the end of this particular day tempers got short. No one was in the mood for anyone else’s crap. I was behind a large stainless steel table cleaning it with a soapy sponge. The chef was wrapping up and putting his tools away. The other cooks were milling around, doing various chores. Nick and the Spaniard were in the dishwashing area cleaning silverware, plates and glasses.
From where I was standing I could see and hear Nick and the Spaniard talking. Voices were rising, and it became obvious they were having a disagreement. This was nothing new. Then, as usual, the Spaniard became quiet. He ran out of words to say, and again, as usual, Nick seemed to win the argument. However, the Spaniard was much madder than we knew. All of a sudden Nick started screaming at the top of his lungs and began running through the kitchen with the Spaniard in close pursuit. Nick ran past me faster than any human ever did before, and the Spaniard was hot on his trail. I realized that the Spaniard was swinging a meat cleaver over his head.
He was chasing Nick around the kitchen with the meat cleaver, just waiting to get close enough to sink it into the Greek’s head. Nick had the fear of God in his eyes. He knew he was about to meet his maker and this was one argument he was going to lose. The Spaniard held that cleaver high and his one good eye was fixed on Nick’s skull.
The rest of us were momentarily shocked. What should we do? No one wanted to take Nick’s place at the other end of the meat cleaver. Still, logic prevailed. The next time they circled our worktable we jumped on the Spaniard. With a little effort we wrestled the meat cleaver from his hand, pushed him to the ground and sat on him. After a while he calmed down, and we let him up. After all, he wasn’t mad at us. It was Nick he was after. Nick headed out the back door of the club and didn’t come back until the next morning. By then everything was back to normal. Nick and the Spaniard didn’t get into another argument for at least three weeks.
Mark Mathosian, who was a specialist 4 in the Army, is a retired financial frauds investigator, a writer and a public speaker. He lives in Advance, North Carolina.
Published in the August 2017 issue of Vietnam magazine.