Gunny Sampson

burner man
“Burner Man” tightening gas cap on Fire Unit

January 8, 1968

The corner table in the mess hall was Gunny Sampson’s office; no one ever sat with him unless invited.  He was the Battalion Mess Sergeant and in addition to managing the facility, he made the decisions as to which battery (Kilo, Lima or Mike) cooks would be assigned.  The best you could hope for was to stay put with him in Headquarters battery.

After reviewing my background he said, “You’re going to stay here with me and learn the logistics of how to run a mess hall.”  I agreed with his assessment as I knew the basics of meat cutting, baking, fundamentals of cooking and how to follow a recipe.

The first order of business was to go to supply and draw my gear.  A Flak Jacket, Helmet, M-16 with magazines, cartridge belt, canteen, poncho with liner were standard combat issue, and it was all brand new gear.

Three of us went to the mini firing range to zero the sights on our weapons at 25-yard targets held by clothes pins on a strand of barbed wire.  After firing a three-round group, we adjusted our sights and were given two rounds to confirm our adjustments.  I decided to show off and shot the two clothes pins off the wire on my target as confirmation.

Sampson first wanted me to learn every detail about the cooking equipment.  Most important were the field ovens and burner units.  There were also immersion water heaters that could boil 30 gallons of water quickly if adjusted correctly.  All the field mess training from steward school came back to me, and I proved my know-how by cleaning and repairing a broken burner unit.  Rather than give any orders or instructions to the cooks, I decided to keep my eyes and ears open.  There were always “invisible” leaders in every outfit, and I would find out soon enough who they were.  Also I wanted to know if the Gunny had any favorites.

The cooks always ate their meals before the mess hall opened.  The Gunny invited me to join him for dinner, and I asked him about his background.  He was a Cajun from Louisiana and loved Gumbo, Creole, Pepper Steak and Jambalaya.  Every Monday was Cajun night at 4th Battalion Headquarters mess hall.  He asked me, “How do you like the cornbread?”  I answered, “I like it sweeter.”  He laughed and called me a Yankee.  Our relationship started well and I felt semi-secure under his wing, but I was concerned that outside influences or circumstances could change my fate.

I wrote the first letter to Jenny that night with my new address.  I didn’t need postage stamps, the government covered the service.

Next Edition:  Vietnamese Kitchen Workers

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