As the construction neared completion, we started moving picnic tables into the new mess deck. The roof was being finished, and the Seabees were constructing additional tables. We would end up with a new seating capacity of 140 enlisted men with 20 officers and staff.
Leggs was inspecting the work and admiring the construction methods. He said, “I have a surprise for you.” In back of the mess hall was the refurbished 2-foot grill with new sturdy, welded legs. It would hold a single burner on slide-in rails. We spent much of the day rearranging the galley and bringing in the new oven. We now had four ovens, five burner units, two grills and the outside BBQ pit.
Cobby had an unusual suggestion: He thought we should move all the canned food from the 16’X16′ storage shed to the perimeter of the galley. It would require sawing wooden pallets in half and using them as dunnage racks. The storage shed would be re-purposed as a GI house (garbage room). This would contain and minimize flies, and the floor could be scrubbed.
There was too much work involved with this endeavor so I went to Top Culverhouse and asked his advice. He suggested I ask the Battery Gunny (the one who named me Ptomaine) for a work party. I swallowed my pride and asked the Gunny for help and he said, “Hell No, this is your problem.” I would never break the chain of command and go over his head, but I knew Captain Cavagnol would be aggravated with the Gunny over this issue.
Somehow the word got out about us needing help, and by dinner there were Marines and Seabees sawing pallets and moving food to the expanded galley. It was hard work carrying the cases of food uphill from the lower level of the storage shed, but it was finished before dark.
Chaplain Starling was spending the night and requested we move our brunch hours back to accommodate an earlier church service. I told him it was not my call to make, “It would be up to Captain Cavagnol or Lieutenant Martin, the XO.” Later Martin came to see me and said, “Do you have a problem changing the brunch hours?” I answered, “No Sir.” He angrily said, “Why did you send Starling to the Exec Pit?” I smiled and answered, “Sir, I didn’t send the Chaplain anywhere; I told him changing the hours of brunch wasn’t my call.” Brunch was changed to 0800 – 1100.
Lieutenant Martin was a “Mustang” (an enlisted NCO promoted to officer). He had probably been a Gunny or Master Sergeant in his other life, and the transition to officer left rough edges. I think he was insecure in the new role. Regardless, I showed respect for his position and tried my best to follow the required protocols of communication between officers and enlisted men. It was almost as if he resented being called “Sir.”
The construction crew worked fast. The foundations of the mess deck and cook’s quarters we’re poured and now dry. Reb had planned to lay out lines in our quarters, dividing it four ways so each of us would have an 8’X8′ space for personal use. This would leave extra room for a card table and chairs as a community shared area. As it turned out, the Seabees laid the lines out with “expansion joints” in the concrete floor.
By the end of the day, everything was framed. Another flatbed truck arrived with the pre-fab truss and rafters which would be assembled tomorrow. We salvaged every piece of available 2″X4,” but the Seabees we’re very efficient, and there wasn’t much waste.
The base of our shower was in place, and the Seabees foreman was admiring our work. He asked a lot of questions and was concerned about filling the 50-gallon drum with water. Our plan was to build a ladder and haul it up with water cans (Hua would be the water bearer).
Everything was happening so fast . . . I took a break and wrote to Jenny about the developments on hill 65. Also Top Culverhose had given me a heads up regarding the R&R roster coming out next week. I was one slot above him on priority, and he wanted to know if I would select Hawaii for May or wait until June. I told him yes for May but would need to confirm with my wife because of her classes at Fresno State. I included this information in my letter and would keep her updated.
Sumo was annoyed with me for not salvaging any materials for our new shower. Also, he thought the roast lamb wouldn’t go over with the troops. I suggested he take the convoy to Da Nang and I would cook the lamb dinner. As it turned out, Sumo got permission to drive a Jeep with a trailer, which gave him greater flexibility than the Admin truck.
Just before lunch the Seabees arrived with a flatbed truck full of construction material (mostly cement and wooden forms). They were an older more seasoned group and were a bit contentious toward Marines. We served them chili dogs, macaroni and cheese, with applesauce on the side for lunch.
After lunch their foreman (a chief petty officer), commented, “We don’t usually get fed.” I laughed and said, “We’ll feed anyone, my name is Ptomaine.” We shook hands and laughed. As we walked through the area of construction, I explained how and why the space had been leveled. * He hammered a survey stake in the spot where the Engineers’ blood had been buried and tied a red ribbon to it.
The aroma of the roast lamb wafted through Kilo battery . . . it was a different smell, and several Marines came to the mess hall out of curiosity. “What is it you’re cooking?” The word got out, Ptomaine is serving LAMB for dinner. Reb was in charge of the parsley boiled potatoes, and Cobby heated the canned green peas. I deglazed the roasting pans while the lamb roasts rested. The seasoned strained broth was slightly thickened with corn starch as a light sauce.
Sumo arrived with his own surprise. He managed to acquire two 4X6X8′ pieces of lumber and a rusty 5-inch shower head. He had removed it from a shower at China Beach R&R center.
The roast lamb dinner was a change of pace (novelty), and a few Marines had never experienced it. The Seabees enjoyed it as a hot meal, instead of their normal C-rats; Sumo liked the au jus as a special touch.
We were still serving fewer meals because two platoons of India Company were assigned to An Hoa and Hill 41. Sumo and Reb were working well together, and Cobby was good with doing prep work in the galley. I decided to take the convoy to Da Nang to check out the logistics of us making the daily food run.
Major Catoe sat shotgun in the cab with PFC Wilson, and we made the 20-mile trip in record time (just over an hour). After dropping off Catoe at Battalion Headquarters, Wilson and I headed to FLC and checked out the dock containing items up for grabs. There was a stack of cases with markings from New Zealand. It was labeled “Lamb Roast – Rolled and Tied.” There were no takers so we loaded three cases into the truck. At the bakery we were surprised to find some trays of day-old hot dog buns and added them to our load.
As we started back, I noticed a salvage yard of broken down vehicles. We stopped, and I found a guard shack/office and inquired about the status of the vehicles in the yard. Everything was destined for Seattle, Washington, but parts could be salvaged if you had the tools. I asked about the refrigeration unit on a trailer filled with shrapnel holes, “If you have the tools, you can take it.”
Back at Headquarters we ate lunch, and I spied Gunny Sampson snooping around in our truck. When we finished, Wilson walked to Admin to get the mail bag, and Sampson came out to the truck where I was waiting. He handed me a square tin of dried rosemary and suggested we make a paste of vegetable oil, salt and garlic powder with the dried rosemary . . . then rub the paste on the lamb before roasting. I thanked him, and he said, “The 1500 gallon water truck was approved.” It came as a shock – I never really expected it to happen!
On the way back to Hill 65, I was lost in thought about the refrigeration unit . . . would it be possible to construct a walk-in? (Leggs would know.) Wilson broke the silence, “You be thinking real hard, Sarge.” I answered, “Yeah, maybe too hard.” Then he confided, “You got a lot of respect for doing that BBQ pit, and Major Catoe thinks Ptomaine is an unfair name.” I wondered if the name was actually helping me.
The corned beef hash was met with scattered reviews. Sumo was starting to take the mediocre response personally until Reverend Starling (Navy Lieutenant/Chaplain) showed up. Starling was a big man whose stature was matched with a charismatic personality and a shock of bright red hair. He asked Sumo to put two scrambled eggs on the hash, and his face lit up as he went to the officers mess.
Brunch was served over a three hour period, and the pressure to serve everyone quickly wasn’t an issue. Father Starling finished his first helping and came back for seconds . . . “This is better than the ladies make at the church kitchen.” Sumo blushed and said, “Thank you Sir.” We all got a big laugh, but I could tell it made Sumo’s day.
After brunch Major Catoe, from Headquarters, came in with Top Culverhouse. His investigation of our food allotments proved we were not being supplied properly, and he wanted to resolve the issue. His plan involved presenting evidence to the Adjutant at 3/7 Marines and force the issue on their Mess Sergeant. My body language gave away the negative attitude I had for this plan, and he could tell I wasn’t on board with his idea. He demanded, “How would you resolve this?” I replied, “Sir, we should break away from this arrangement.” I explained we could go to FLC every day and pick up “OUR” allotment, plus India Company’s.
Top Culverhouse argued it would require an extra truck, and I countered that we were already sending a truck to pick up mail. My final argument was, “We need to be self-sufficient and not depend on others.”
Major Catoe was furiously writing in his spiral pad and said, “We will consider your input Sergeant.” One way or the other, we would be at the mercy of Catoe’s decision.
The BBQ was rowdy as ever, but some of the troops opted for the St. Patty’s corned beef and cabbage. Chaplain Starling was eating a big portion of corned beef when one of the Grunts started choking. He jumped out of the officers mess to assist the Marine and slapped him hard on the back. It didn’t have any effect. There was an obstruction, and the situation turned more serious as the Marine became unconscious . . . he was turning blue. I went out the back door and yelled, “CORPSMAN TO THE MESS HALL!”
Both Docs Furman and Driscoll showed up, and Furman took over. After inspecting the Marine’s wind passage, he ordered, “Get me some tongs.” Driscoll headed off to Sick Bay to retrieve some forceps. Leggs showed up with a set of cooking tongs, and Doc Furman reached into the Marine’s throat with them. WHOOSH! The plug shot out of the Marine’s mouth like a mortar coming out of the tube. The mess hall was silent, and we could hear the air sucking back into his lungs and see the color return to the Marine’s face.
The obstruction was a piece of steak the size of a pack of cigarettes. Furman sat the Marine up; his first words were, “It must have been something I ate.” Within a minute he was fully recovered.
Chaplain Starling raised his hands – I thought he was going to pray. He started singing to the tune of Row, Row, Row Your Boat:
Chew, chew, chew your food
Gently through the meal
The more you chew, the more you eat,
The better you will feel.
More than half of the corned beef went into the garbage barrels. It would be burned off at the dump on Monday morning.
On Friday we received three 30-pound cases of uncooked corned beef brisket. The Marine Corps had a way (by design) of acknowledging holidays and traditions. Additional fresh potatoes, carrots and cabbage were issued, and we had all the ingredients for a St. Patrick’s Day feast.
Sumo immediately started cutting the briskets down to size and boiled large stock pots of the pungent concoction. Eventually all the meat was cooked and cooled before we stripped off the remaining fat. There was way too much meat, and we started grinding (hand grinder) smaller chunks into shredded corned beef.
It was a lot of work, but by the end of the day we added diced potatoes, and onions to make a decent homemade corned beef hash. We planned to serve it as a meat option during Sunday brunch. We did have cases of canned corned beef hash available, but the troops referred to it as “dog food.” The corned beef stock was saved to cook the potatoes, carrots and cabbage served on the side.
The food run to Hill 37 returned with the normal amount of NY strip loins, creating an option of charcoal broiling your own steak on the outside BBQ or the traditional St. Patty’s meal (this would be interesting). I decided to have Top Culverhouse announce the choices at the Sunday morning briefing.
Sergeant Paige came to breakfast and shared some news from the Comm Center. New recon inserts (two man teams) had been put in place to track NVA/VC unit movements. One team, “Rice Krispies,” was placed in the adjacent mountains to our west, known as Charlie Ridge.
Cobby had become increasingly self-sufficient and had learned our routine. He wanted to cook the pinto beans, and we let him do it under supervision. Meanwhile Reb was experimenting with “hush puppies” as Sumo coached him. My role was to make coleslaw and cornbread to complete the Southern meal.
Many Marines chose to eat meals away from our cramped dining room. They would load their mess kits with food and consume it in their quarters. There was a lot of chatter about the addition of hush puppies, and Reb had made his mark on the menu. Captain Cavagnol remarked, “These are like appetizers before the main course.”
Our officers mess was a joke. It consisted of two picnic tables partitioned with a 4-foot high plywood wall and screened to the ceiling. It was a semi-private compressed version of our tiny 48-seat dining room. I thought of the arrangement as a form of segregation . . . it was this way throughout the Marine Corps, but our mini version of it was pathetic.
Rice Krispies called in fire missions during the daylight hours and hunkered down at night. Their mission was surveillance, and they avoided contact with the enemy. Usually recon was extracted from the field by helicopter. A dangling net would drop on their prearranged position, and they would hang suspended for the 10-minute flight back to Da Nang.