Thanksgiving memories afloat


While I make no claim to being a prophet, a seer,  a soothsayer, or even flat-out smart, I can predict with utmost confidence what will be on the minds of the approximately 70,000 men and women of the Navy and Marine Corps who will be at sea or in port overseas on Thanksgiving Day: food and home.

I imagine, too, if one were to visit the Mississippi Veteran’s Retirement Home in Collins, or the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Biloxi, these two subjects would also be front and center with just about everyone.

There’s not much that can be done to shorten a tour of duty and return a person home for the holidays, or to enable an older person to step back into their lives of long ago; however, we can examine the other phenomenon that unites so many of us on Thanksgiving Day: food.

No one knows, for sure, what the Pilgrims ate for the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621. Unfortunately, they did not leave us a menu. The only first-hand, written record of the three-day harvest festival, recorded by William Bradford in his book, Of Plymouth Plantation, says that the meal included deer and wildfowl. Everything else is educated guess work: cranberries and onions grew wild, chestnuts hung from the trees, fish and shellfish were in the bay, pumpkins were in the patch, etc.

Bradford’s book, by the way, is known in literary circles as the “world’s longest overdue library book.” An early copy was removed from the Old South Church in Boston in 1776 and did not surface again until 1855 when it was found in a private library in London.

Years ago, when I was on a ship out of Newport, Rhode Island, I had the opportunity to take my family over to Plymouth, Massachusetts, for the annual traditional Thanksgiving dinner at the historical site of “Plimoth” Plantation. The menu included several non-pilgrim items, such as potatoes, which hadn’t been brought to the New World in their day, and roast beef, but just being in the historical setting was exciting. Plymouth “Rock,” where the Pilgrims supposedly stepped ashore from the Mayflower in 1620, was smaller than I had envisioned; however, it did break in half when they tried to move it to the town square in 1774.

There’s no way of knowing how the turkey became the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal, or even how it got its name. Europeans were already familiar with the smaller Guinea fowl, which were imported by Turkish merchants. They had nicknamed such birds “turkeys.” Consequently, when similar-looking birds were spotted in the New World, they, too, were called turkeys by the pilgrims. Another theory says that Luis de Torres, a Jewish interpreter who accompanied Christopher Columbus in 1492, gave the holiday bird its name, “tukki,” which is the Jewish word for “big bird.”

There’s a myth that Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be our national bird. Actually, he wrote in a letter to his daughter that the country should not adopt the bald eagle as its national bird because the eagle was “a rank coward that stole its prey from other birds and had a bad moral character.” He further said that a drawing of the proposed eagle symbol being circulated for consideration looked like a turkey, anyway.

The military goes to great lengths to provide Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday meals for its members. Afloat or ashore, down range or in garrison, every possible effort is made to provide a “taste” of home on these special days. A cursory examination of shipboard Thanksgiving dinner menus, collected by the Navy History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC, reveals how the meals have evolved, yet maintained their distinctive holiday “flavor.” For example, in 1907, onboard the Battleship Kentucky, the  sailors were served oyster soup, crackers, roast turkey, giblet gravy, oyster dressing, cranberry sauce, sliced celery, Smithfield ham, mashed potatoes, sweet corn, green peas, mince pies, ice cream, fruit cake, apples, bananas, grapes, coffee, mixed nuts, raisins, cigars, cigarettes, and cider.

In 1950, onboard USS Sperry, a submarine repair ship, the cuisine included fresh shrimp cocktail, Waldorf salad, mayonnaise, turkey soup, crackers, roast young tom turkey, oyster dressing, giblet gravy, candied yams, mashed Irish potatoes, buttered peas, creamed cauliflower, parker house rolls, butter, ice cream, fruit cake, pumpkin pie, coffee, fresh milk, hard candy, mixed nuts, cigars, and cigarettes. This latter menu would have been very similar to that of my last ship, the Battleship New Jersey, where I ate three Thanksgiving meals, except that mayonnaise, fruit cake, cigars, and cigarettes would have disappeared from the bill of fare. By the time I retired, the favorite holiday desert, particularly in the Pacific Fleet, was Baked Alaska.

I’ve been on some ships where the holiday meal would be held simultaneously with a “Dining-in,” or what is referred to in the Marine Corps as a “Mess Night.” These events represent the height of military social life. The first article I ever had published in a national military magazine (“Leatherneck” - I still have the $25.00 check) described a Marine Corps mess night I attended on Okinawa. Such events tend to glorify the past, and I recorded how a sergeant-major had recited from memory Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “Tommy,” a soubriquet for the enlisted British soldier. A sample verse:

I went into a public-‘ouse to get a pint of beer,

The publican ‘e up an’ sez, “We serve no red-coats here.”

The girls b’hind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,

I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:

For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute.”

But its “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot.

An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please,

An’ Tommy ain’t a blooming fool – you bet that Tommy sees!

At one time the most popular writer in the English language, but now known most for his children’s stories (The Jungle Book, Kim, Captains Courageous) Rudyard Kipling was an ardent apologist for British imperialism who turned down both the British Poet Laureateship and knighthood. Outspoken in favor of war with Germany, he was never the same after his only son, John, age 18, was killed in 1915 at the Battle of Loos in France. You sometimes read that he was killed at the Battle of Ypres (pronounced Eee-pra) later in World War I, but it was Loos. His body was never found.

One of the reasons it’s so hard to learn English as a second language is that the same word can have so many different meanings. Take the word, “mess,” for example. One can catch a mess (many) of fish; one can make a mess of one’s life (make the wrong choices, etc.); your dog can make a mess in your living room (need a pooper-scooper); Army personnel eat in the mess hall; and when I was a kid on a heavy cruiser on the Mediterranean, I served as a mess cook, preparing meals and working in the ship’s scullery washing dishes for almost a year.

Later, as a junior officer, I got stuck with the thankless collateral duty of being Mess Treasurer, in charge of the wardroom mess, where I had to plan the officer meal menus, collect the mess dues, supervise the cooks, etc. Here, I had to listen to the constant complaints: why don’t we have steak more often? Why can’t I eat after meal hours? Why can’t my girlfriend eat free? And I had to try and collect monthly mess dues from the deadbeats, usually senior to me, who were chronic slow payers.

When you sit around and talk with others about their favorite foods, the question often comes up, “What would you want for your last meal.” For me, it’s always been a place and two menu items: Jimmy’s Restaurant, on the Kowloon side of the bay in Hong Kong, and the items are onion soup and baked Alaska. World famous.

If you are far away from home, regardless of the good meal provided, holidays are the loneliest days of the year. Although it’s been disproved, it was once thought that a chemical released by eating turkey, the amino acid, tryptophan, made people tired, meditative, and melancholy. I guess it’s true that there’s no cause and effect relationship; but, for some reason I have almost total recall of holidays spent away from home, while the regular days are just a blur.

A random example: I remember in 1963, just back from three years overseas, walking through Times Square in New York City, on Thanksgiving Day, enroute to the USO kiosk that used to be there, to see if I could score some free remainder tickets to a Broadway play; I stopped for several minutes and looked wistfully at a new Triumph Spitfire convertible in a showroom window - thinking, if I had that car, I could go home for Thanksgiving. 

Regardless of a few down moments, I’m thankful that I’ve seen and done things that many people only dream of: I’ve sailed every ocean and most of the seas; I’m one of the few who made it to Vladivostok, Sao Paulo, Cape Town, and Bremerhaven; I’ve watched the sun rise on the Amazon River and set on the Sea of Japan; I’ve stood in Buda and looked across the Blue Danube to its sister city of Pest; I’ve watched the Northern Lights play across the night sky in the Aleutian Islands, and I’ve floated through Paris on a Seine River barge. Bob Hope shook my hand in Da Nang; Brook Shields kissed my cheek in Pattaya Beach, Thailand; and a girl proposed to me in a Thessalonica, Greece, pastry shop. I met the Pope while my ship was tied up in Civitavecchia, the port of Rome, and I’ve slept on the Spanish Steps; Ronald Reagan gave me his autograph on a pier in Long Beach, California; I sailed beneath the Colossus of Rhodes two thousand years after his legs went missing; and I was thrown out of a bull fight in Barcelona, Spain, for cheering the bull. Through it all, I’ve been thankful, afloat and ashore.

Light a candle for me.

Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note at: Read previous columns: