Sunday, April 14, 1968
Easter Sunday was expected to be traditional, even in Vietnam. The baskets of colored eggs were on the tables and were refreshed throughout brunch. Captain Robb came in early and said, “Nice job on the decorations (meaning the baskets).” As he went through the mess deck entrance, the “HE IS RISEN” sketch loomed overhead, and he turned and nodded yes to the message.
Lieutenant Martin and Chaplain Starling came in together, and Sumo said, “How do you like the decorations?” Starling turned to see the sketch and said, “The Lord is risen indeed!” Lieutenant Martin stared at his plate and never made eye contact with us.
Later during the meal, Captain Cavagnol entered the galley through the back door and could see the Easter baskets and the sketch, “Excellent” was his only comment. Just as he made this remark, I saw an egg fly across the dining room, then another . . . then a full-fledged egg fight. I started for the mess deck, and Cavagnol grabbed my shoulder (holding me back) saying, “They need to do this.” All the eggs were thrown as Cavagnol entered the scene, and there was complete silence. He gave a short pep talk.
“We’ve had a difficult time these past few months, and you deserve to let off steam. I am proud of the job all of you have done and the sacrifices you have made. Let’s have a moment of silence for the fallen.” A few Marines broke down . . . there were plenty of tears. He ended his talk with an order, “No one leaves until the mess is cleaned up.”
For me the acknowledgment of doing a good job made the incident worthwhile. We continued serving brunch until 1100 and rearranged the dining room for Easter services. As Reverend Starling presented the Easter message to his subdued congregation, the sun came out from behind a cloud and rays of bright sunlight streamed in behind him. At this point, “He is Risen” was a miracle everyone could believe.
After the services a small group of Grunts came to the mess hall, and a young Sergeant said, “Work party reporting for duty.” Captain Robb had asked for those who participated in the egg fight to come forward. They were ordered to report for cleanup of the mess hall as a punishment. I told the Sergeant the mess had already been cleaned up, “You’re Dismissed.” He asked me, “What should I tell Captain Robb?” I thought for a minute and said, “Tell Captain Robb work parties should be coordinated through Captain Cavagnol.”
During the evening meal, Captain Robb was not interested in cooking his own steak on the BBQ (it would require him to interact with the troops). He picked a pre-cooked steak and asked, “Why don’t we have the traditional baked ham?” I explained about Hill 37 shorting us the smoked Virginia hams, and even though we specifically asked for them, they refused to give us our allotment.
After Robb finished his dinner, he came back to the galley and wanted to talk about some issues. “Why didn’t you tell me about the hams?” I answered, “Sir, we stay in our chain of command. I did report it to our First Sergeant, and it was recorded in the food journal.” Then he asked, “Why did you dismiss my work party?” And again I answered, “Sir, we stay in our chain of command. Work parties come to us through our battery Gunny.” Robb then said he would work this out with Captain Cavagnol, and I stood at attention and said, “Aye Aye Sir!”
Next Edition: Finishing Touches
Saturday, April 13, 1968
The afternoon Admin run brought a letter from Jenny, a package from my grandmother and an itinerary for R&R to Hawaii. The one-page itinerary was meant for Jenny (my copy was an official set of orders). I was to report to the R&R Processing Center for my flight on May 8th, and I was scheduled to return on May 15th. The package from Grammy was a resupply of her homemade herbal tea and some small envelopes of pepper seeds to barter with, in the local marketplace. I waited to open Jenny’s letter until after dinner.
Sumo had started boiling eggs in small (5 dozen) batches. Our plan was to dye 30 dozen eggs and fill the Easter baskets that Mama-San had acquired for us. The baskets were handcrafted and tightly woven in different designs. They were more than I bargained for, and I suspected Mama-San had used her influence to upgrade my order.
We finished boiling the eggs and stored them in four separate containers to cool in the walk-in. Reb would immerse the eggs in dyed vinegar water (yellow, pink, blue and green) later in the night.
After dinner I showered and read Jenny’s letter while sitting in my folding chair overlooking Arizona territory. She was anticipating our reunion in Hawaii and added some intimate remarks about her plans for me. I answered her letter with a short note and included the itinerary for her to start making travel arrangements.
After a few hours of sleep there was a pounding on the door of our hooch. It was Lieutenant Martin, and he was ranting about Easter decorations. I sat up as he was lecturing me about how important Easter was, and I said, “Sir, we have decorations.” He answered, “I don’t see them” and kept up his rant. Finally I stood up face to face and said, “SIR, WE HAVE DECORATIONS.” As he was leaving he muttered, “You damn well better have some.”
Reb came into the hooch and asked what all the yelling was about, and Sumo explained the situation. Reb remarked about the Lieutenant having gone through the mess hall looking for something, “He seemed really agitated.”
I asked Reb if he had enough time to make a similar sign like the “HOSANNA” sketch he had done for Palm Sunday. He said, “What do you need?” I reached for my prayer book and showed him . . . “HE IS RISEN.” Reb assured me it would be done and mounted above the mess deck entrance.
Next Edition: Easter Sunday
Friday April 12, 1968
Reb woke us up at 0500, and everything was set up and ready to start breakfast. I checked the temperature log, and it registered 50 degrees at midnight and 45 degrees at 0300. We were hoping it would drop below 40 degrees.
We opened the mess hall at 0600, and Leggs was first in line. He grabbed a Bigfoot and a cup of coffee, and we headed for the walk-in for another temperature check. Before we opened the door, he wanted to check the makeshift door seals. When the compressor turned on, he felt and listened around the edges of the door . . . it was leaking. We checked the temp, and it was just below 40 degrees.
Leggs didn’t want to mess with the thermostat and decided to try and fix the weather stripping. He and Reb made a plan to use strips of rubber from tire tubes to secure the leaks.
Later in the morning Sumo and I were preparing lunch when Captain Robb came in and ordered breakfast, “I’ll have two strips of bacon, a scrambled egg and a glass of tomato juice.” The fact that breakfast had been over two hours ago didn’t faze him. We pulled a burner out of an oven and put it in the small flat grill and cooked his order while he waited (the tomato juice was warm). He took his food and asked me to join him while he ate.
Robb had a proposal: He would supply us with an extra mess man if I would have someone serve in the officers mess. I took no time to think or answer, “No Sir, the Steward MOS has been disbanded.” He was curious as to how I knew this so I explained that I had been a steward for a short time. Robb wasn’t satisfied and said, “I will talk with Captain Cavagnol about this issue.” I kept things official and said, “Yes Sir, Aye-Aye Sir,” and left the dining room.
I went directly to the Exec Pit and asked Cavagnol if we could talk privately. I told him everything that had happened between Robb and me and made it clear that I had been respectful. He said, “You served him bacon and eggs at 0900?” “Yes Sir,” I answered. Cavagnol was Pissed! He thought for a minute and said, “I will handle this . . . if anything else happens, keep me informed.”
The seal on the walk-in door was fixed, and the temperature fluctuated between 35 and 40 degrees. The compressor ran about 10 minutes every half hour, and Leggs thought this was normal. We were now ready to draw our own allotment from FLC and would wait for Major Catoe to make it official with the brass at Hill 37.
Next Edition: R&R Itinerary
Thursday, April 11, 1968
Captain Robb arrived from Hill 37 in time for lunch and came through the chow line with Captain Cavagnol. Sumo had concocted a spaghetti with marinara sauce entree which was accompanied by grilled garlic toast. We also had a tossed salad on the condiment table. Warm fruit punch (Kool-Aid with canned pineapple juice) was the beverage . . . no ice available.
After lunch Cavagnol took Robb on a tour of the galley and introduced us, explaining all the improvements we had accomplished since TET. Robb asked, “Are you getting proper supplies from Hill 37?” It was a loaded question, and I knew he had been given a heads-up on our situation. I answered, “Sir, we’re working on that.” He said, “Well if I can help, just let me know.” I lied, “Yes Sir, I will.”
Our plan to work around being supplied by Hill 37 was almost complete, but we needed to have refrigeration first. Our efforts on building a walk-in refrigerator were finished, and Leggs spent much of his spare time connecting the reefer unit to our handiwork. It was now running, and we initiated a temperature log. Every three hours we recorded the temperature. It started with 84 degrees at 1800. At 2100 the temperature dropped to 60.
After showering and writing to Jenny, I went to bed wondering if this project would work. I had asked Reb to record the temperature at midnight and wake me if there were any issues. The soft putter of the compressor would recycle every so often; it was a new sound and another adjustment for our brains.
Next Edition: Weather Stripping
Tuesday, April 9, 1968
Today would be Reb’s first trip back to Da Nang since his arrival a month ago. He was reluctant to go, but I wanted him to redeem the “bakery supplies” requisition we received during our inspection. He wanted to know what to get, and I told him, “It’s your bakery – you choose what is best for your needs.”
After Reb was on his way, Sumo and I laughed at giving a 19-year-old the autonomy to choose what was right for our situation. I told Sumo, “I’m not going to second guess him.” Sumo agreed; Reb had made our jobs easier, and the overall attitude of the troops toward the mess hall had become more positive. However, there were still some (like Sergeant Paige) who didn’t appreciate our efforts and others who thought the coffee was the worst ever. And there were also those who believed we were using spurious ingredients, like dried eggs.
To this point, we had developed a local reputation: the “Southern Meal” was a buzz word on Friday, and our Sunday “Cook-Your-Own” New York Steak BBQ was one of a kind. Reb added a new dimension to our culinary distinction with his Bigfoot pastries . . . we would be high in the star rankings for 1st Marine Division food, if they had existed.
Reb returned with a large wooden pastry board and three dozen 9″X13″ sheet cake pans. He also acquired a stainless steel doughnut cutter. I asked him how he planned to use the small pans, and he answered, “I have an idea, but it’s not what you think.” I said, “You mean not cakes?” He smiled and teased, “They’re to use in the walk-in refrigerator.” Sumo and I shook our heads and smiled.
During dinner one of the Grunts announced, “We have a new Commanding Officer of India Company.” Captain Charles Robb, President Johnson’s son-in-law, was on his way to Hill 65.
Sumo and I laughed about our silly prediction when we had originally read about Robb’s orders to Vietnam. * We had been joking about it at the time but had no idea it would come true.
* See previous “Trip to Da Nang” blog (February 6, 1968)
Next Edition: Temperature Log
Monday, April 8, 1968
The Division food service warehouse was on Hill 327 (Freedom Hill) and part of the 1st Marine Division Headquarters complex. It overlooked Da Nang and was also close to where my initial interview with Captain Flowers took place (the day I arrived In Country). *
I took my requisition to the warehouse to redeem for fiberglass tables and chairs, and they were expecting me. A Master Sergeant directed us to the loading dock where the boxed tables were ready and waiting. Next to the tables were several cases of Melamine compartment plates and coffee cups for the officers mess. As I was looking at the dinnerware, the Master Sergeant saw the expression on my face and said, “What’s wrong? You don’t look happy.” I answered, “This is nice for the officers, but our troops are eating out of mess kits.” After loading everything, I thanked him, and we started to pull out from the dock. I heard a loud yell, and our driver hit the brakes . . . The Master Sergeant asked, “How many troops do you serve?” I answered, “400 per meal.” He held his hand up for us to wait. A cart rolled out of the warehouse with two stacks of stainless steel trays (the same as Stateside mess halls), and he said, “200 is all we can spare.”
It was a gift. We could easily clean and sanitize trays during a meal and recycle them so everyone would have a clean tray. Also the issues with troops in transit without mess gear was solved. I pointed to the Master Sergeant as we were leaving and gave him a thumbs up.
* See previous “In Country” blog (January 7, 1968)
Next Edition: Captain Charles Robb